Rob reviews the collection of 75 cartoons by Ron Rege' Jr, AGAINST PAIN (Drawn & Quarterly).
Ron Rege's collection of short stories, AGAINST PAIN, was revelatory for me in much the same way the recent Gabrielle Bell collection was. AGAINST PAIN, like CECIL AND JORDAN IN NEW YORK, changes the context of the stories, most of which originally appeared in anthologies. For Bell, it allowed the reader to more easily see the subtle ways in which she modulated emotion and found different ways to render tension with restraint. The key to Rege's book is the strip that opens it, "Bad News for Language". In Rege's "cute-brut", primitivist but highly stylized approach, his characters are meta-characters, not only justifying their existence as a way of expanding the alphabet, but asserting that comics expand language by constantly creating a new one.
One must approach Rege's work as though one is learning a new language. It's initially disorienting, given the frequently vibratory nature of his line and dominant use of decorative patterns as part of his narrative. Coming across his work in an anthology would stop me dead in my tracks, as I had to switch from a conventional reading of comics to his totally immersive world. Indeed, the way he integrates text & image as well as subjects & decorative touches would seem to be a big influence on a number of artists. Dave Kiersh and Souther Salazar are two peers his work seems to have informed a bit, as well as the younger, current wave that includes the likes of Juliacks and Olga Volozova. His use of color (and frequently, garish or clashing colors) is designed to elicit emotion, dominating the line and text in some strips. For most artists, the use of color is more subtle and/or utilitarian, but Rege makes it one of his primary storytelling tools.
Relating and expressing emotion is Rege's biggest obvious goal as a storyteller. Indeed, his style and technique, while unusual and demanding intense reader participation, mask a fairly simple and straightforward approach to feelings. Rege' understands that telling us about a feeling, even in pictorial form, is not the same thing as having a feeling. That's why he takes the approach he does: evoking direct feelings in an indirect fashion. His use of color reminds me a bit of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko in its vibrancy and the way he uses color to create an emotional atmosphere. By abstracting his work in crucial ways and forcing the reader to either engage the work directly or move on, Rege' is able to get at some very concrete experiences.
This style lends itself well to adaptations of outside source matieral. The best examples of that are his stories "High School Analogy", "She Sometimes Switched To Fluent English..." and the "Boys" strips. The first story was originally published in the infamous "Marvel Benefit Issue" of the Highwater Books anthology Coober Skeeber. Briefly, it's the best Spider-Man story I've ever read. By reformulating it as a first-person, Holden Caulfied-esque account of his miserable life as a loner, Rege' manages to capture the heart of Peter Parker's appeal while adapting a variation of an early Spidey story where he meets the Fantastic Four. The "cute-brut" style is hilariously employed here as Parker goes through the same sort of hormonal surges that fuel all teenagers, only turned up to an extreme.
"She Switched To Fluent English..." is an adaptation of an interview between an Israeli interrogator and a 20-year-old Palestinian woman who was going to become a suicide bomber but then changed her mind at the last moment. The panel composition is fascinating, with a rectangle that caves in as we see the faces of the two characters in opposition (creating a concave effect) and then little interjections horizontally stacked between panels by Rege' himself as he's reacting to the story that he's adapting. It's actually one of Rege's more immediately accessible stories but still has the sort of wildly expressive decorative touches and unusual design that can be seen in all of his comics.
"Boys" is a reprint of a collaboration with the writer Joan Reidy, a hilarious series of 3x3 panels about awkward sexual encounters told from the perspective of young women. With the stories in black & white, Rege' gives the stories a kinetic quality though the use of expression lines. They're employed so liberally that they dominate some panels in an almost abstract fashion. The stories themselves vary in tone from shocked to turned-on to despondent to hilarious. Some of the stories don't actually depict people, like one story where the narration in its entirety is "Sex is never a big deal in my life until I don't have it", spread out over nine panels over a lonely, deserted small town. As always, there's a tension between funny drawings of people and exaggerated visual effects and the depth of feeling of the narrator. It's like Alfred Hitchcock zooming a camera lens in while moving the camera itself back out: simultaneously creating distance and intimacy. Rege's adaptation of a chapter from Lynda Barry's novel Cruddy is another highlight, expertly depicting the feelings of longing and mystery using a similar sort of line as in his "Boys" stories.
Every cartoon in this book is worthy of study; his first strip as a 16-year old is a nice display of his playfulness, years before he refined his style. His shorter collaborations with Denny Eichorn and David Greenberger are also interesting as he had to find a way to stay true to his own vision as an artist while working with a writer that had a very distinctive way of doing things. That said, the three crowning masterworks in this collection are "We Must Know, We Will Know", the five strips about pain, and "FUC 1997". The first strip treats the human longing for understanding in much the same way Rege' treats the human longing for love and connection: as a series of episodes filled with moments of raw pain and exhillaration. Rege' brings out his entire arsenal of visual tricks for this series of vignettes: the use of bright colors to elicit emotion; cute/funny character design in conflict with the intensity of emotion; unusual page and panel composition, with one strip using interlocking triangles; and complex and interlaced character arcs. The strip is all about curiousity and the urge to figure out unsolved problems and the way that passion and curiosity are rewarded and punished. Each vignette builds on the next both thematically and emotionally, building a connection with the first and last strips between the urge to create and the urge to connect with others.
"FUC 1997" is a strip about a long-distance relationship and a particular liasion a couple had. It starts off with a 4x4 grid modulated only by the use of color: bright yellow and then sky blue. In the strip's climax, the grid breaks apart and a smaller 2x8 grid pops up in light purple that condenses the story of the relationship and even adds a bit of self-deprecating humor. It's commenting on and deflating the incident that occurs during the story's climax, giving a sort of simultaneity on the page. The pain stories contrast the main characters moaning about the pain they're feeling ("my...life!...my lunch!") with very funny-looking drawings, and then cleverly switch perspective between a man in pain, his girlfriend in pain in the same scene, and then Pain itself. Rege' is mocking woe-is-me solipsism here and digs into the origins of pain and the way it ultimately inspires creativity. Rege's art verges on the baroque in this story (especially his lettering), but his drawings are so funny and occasionally abstract that he never descends into excess.
There's a level of craft and innovation in the best of Ron Rege's work that only Chris Ware has managed to match in the last fifteen or so years, yet it also has that immediate, primitivist quality to it so crucial to its impact. Like Ware, Rege' embraced an almost geometric simplicity in his figurework as a counterpoint to the increasing complexity of his storytelling. The formal qualities of the work don't simply serve as a means to an end; instead, there is no differentiation between form and function as part of storytelling and narrative. Panel construction and composition, the use of color and lettering all become integral in communicating emotional information, perhaps even moreso than the actual figures or text. Ultimately, what Rege's comics explore is hope--the hope of someone who has earned it through trials and experience. It's the optimism of someone who's suffered but maintains their willingness to connect and seek experience. It's told by an artist who came up with these innovations not for their own sake, but because it was the only way to express his ideas. This is a book that needs to be closely studied by young cartoonists everywhere.