Monday, September 14, 2009

Dudes Abide: The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book

Rob reviews THE RED MONKEY DOUBLE HAPPINESS BOOK, Joe Daly's collection of two stories from Fantagraphics.

I greatly enjoyed the psychedelic storytelling of Joe Daly in SCRUBLANDS, his first collection of comics from Fantagraphics. His work reminded me a bit of early Steve Lafler in the easy way he combined gags, action and long stream-of-consciousness ramblings, as well as Herge's Tintin in terms of the line and flow of action. There was a sense of improvisation on the page combined with strong structural underpinnings, which made the stories amiable instead of incoherent. The greatest virtue of his stories was the way he so strongly established a sense of place: the beach community of Cape Town, South Africa. With THE RED MONKEY DOUBLE HAPPINESS BOOK, Daly maintains some of the psychedelic trappings of his earlier stories but puts them within a framework of stoner noir (ala the film PINEAPPLE EXPRESS) buddy story, only with BIG LEBOWSKI-style absurdity.

However, the book can't really be reduced to familiar genre markers all that easily, and that firm, eccentric sense of place is the biggest reason why it works. Daly begins the first story, "The Leaking Cello Case", as a leisurely slice-of-life story and slowly turns it into a mystery. He's in no hurry to get from point A to point B, giving the reader all sorts of details about the titular character and his life in Cape Town. Those details come both in terms of anecdotes and visuals, with some great drawings of buildings built into the hills, mountains in the background and the beach beckoning. One gets a simultaneous sense of the buzz of activity around the beach and a certain languidness of pace. It's instantly accessible and recognizable to most any reader, providing an atypical backdrop for a mystery tale. One might critique Daly for choosing a more conservative brand of storytelling by dipping into some familiar genre wells (especially when one compares it to his earlier work), but I suspect that slightly loopy but conventional narratives fit his talent and interests best.

The secret weapon here is Daly's rich use of color. Given his very clear line, and a disinterest in spotting blacks or crosshatching, it's that color that adds depth and weight to the characters and their environments. That clear line also lets Daly draw slightly-ridiculous looking characters without the strip losing some of its verisimilitude. It's that mix of familiar stoner life with increasingly-weird peril that makes both aspects of the story more compelling than they otherwise might be on their own. That sort of deadpan stoner humor also nicely sets up the escalatingly crazy action sequences of the book. When the Red Monkey winds up tangling with a vicious Mexican drug dealer who is pushing hallucinogenic toad secretions, it all makes perfect sense. When a search in dried-up marshlands leads to a showdown with a corrupt developer with a pet gibbon and a microwave death ray, the relaxed reactions of the comic's principals lead the reader along in the same manner.

I preferred the shorter "Leaking Cello Case" to "John Wesley Harding", mostly because the former had a looser, even improvised quality to it. JWH more-or-less began with the main characters saying "let's have an adventure", which was a less relaxed and organic way to construct the story. The story certainly went in unexpected directions and had a truly deranged ending, but going over the top is less important to the success of Daly's comics than is maintaining that sense of not being in a hurry to get anywhere. Still, he fills the story with enough random digressions and observations so as not to feel like a total departure from what he does best.

Along the way, Daly offers commentary on ecology, philosophy and global capitalism. For him, these are topics that very much fall into the "act locally" category, as he worries about the ways in which his beach community and its ecosystem will be warped and destroyed by these larger outside forces. Of course, Daly puts such musings on an even par with more mundane and silly observations as well, so as to make things a bit more palatable for the reader. This is a comic in the tradition of a Gilbert Shelton, only less self-conscious about gags and more willing to let the reader work through an absurd situation without feeling the need to spoon-feed every joke. Its delights are simple and modest and its ambitions limited, yet THE RED MONKEY DOUBLE HAPPINESS BOOK lingers after reading. Daly has created a home of sorts not only for his characters, but his readers as well--a construct that is at once comfortable, familiar and evokes years worth of stories both familiar and anticipated.

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