Thursday, October 13, 2011

Flipping the Channels: Ben Horak's Grump Toast

Of all the graduates of the Center for Cartoon Studies, Ben Horak seems to have improved the most. He always had crazed, violent and hilariously disturbing ideas, but didn't quite have the chops to carry them off. However, in his solo anthology series Grump Toast, he's proven that he is willing to do the work in order to get better. The odd twist in this series is that there are serials with recurring characters, each one quite different in tone. "Monkanonee" is Horak's quasi-autobio series, going to some rather odd places. For example, the first issue features Hoark's plans for his own funeral, which involve him being catapulted across canyon with dynamite strapped to his body as "Benny and the Jets" is being played, timed to explode at the chorus. This is pretty much Horak's sense of humor in a nutshell: off-kilter and spectacularly violent.

The apotheosis of this concept is his "Asphalt" character, a ridiculously over-the-top, deluded and quarrellous frump of a man. The design of the character is key to its success, as he resembles a 1970s detective with a trenchcoat, bushy moustache, sideburns, flapping tie and cigarette hanging out of his mouth. The first issue finds him trying to return a dog for a reward only to lose it and try to kidnap someone else's dog. The second issue starts with Asphalt waking up to discover that he has a switchblade sticking out of his side (after he initially thought it was just hunger pangs). The leads him to try to discover the source of his stabbing, sparking an amazingly visceral sequence where he tries to remember the bar he got drunk at the previous night, gets it wrong (unbeknownst to him) and proceeds to cudgel, gouge, punch and stomp every innocent person there. The payoff gag for the story is a particularly memorable one.

Horak veers between the violently exaggerated in "Asphalt" and the violently surreal in "Pinky Palms". The latter is about an anthropomorphic hand who is a Vegas-style lounge singer. In the first issue, he helps out the ghost of a fellow singer try to get back his girl, only to discover that she's become monstrous. The grotesqueness of that story paled in comparison to the story in the second issue, which finds Pinky trying to prevent the suicide of a friend on his birthday by throwing him a party, only to be menaced by pudding-spawned zombies. This story approaches Matthew Thurber levels of weirdness, and the simplicity of Horak's design and the control he has over his line makes it work.

There are other highlights, like the shenanigans of "Unfortunate Face", a serial wherein the disguise of certain characters inevitably reveals something horrible. His drawings of his toast mascot (shades of Alfred E Newman!) imitating characters from Horak's favorite movies are perfect filler. If there's a weak link in the series, it's "Giggleton Holocaust", an ultraviolent send-up of Warner Brothers characters. The strip doesn't work for two reasons: Horak's character design isn't quite rubbery enough to mimic the classic designs, and those cartoons were so incredibly violent in the first place that the parody falls flat. Fortunately, Horak doesn't linger on this strip for long, as he's only produced a few pages of it so far. There's a gleefulness to Horak's use of violence in these comics, a commitment to the sheer absurdity of these acts that eschews mean-spiritedness. At this point, Horak needs to continue to work on refining his line and perhaps adding more decorative touches to his backgrounds. I'd also be curious too see him modulate his tone a bit; he can only go over the top so often before he starts to run out of ideas. In particular, I'd love to see more of his "Monkanonee" and his autobiographical daydreams.

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