Friday, July 20, 2012

Retro Satire: The Comics of Benjamin Marra

At first blush, Benjamin Marra's comics are bewildering. The violence, sex and general levels of misogyny on display give one pause as to when these comics were actually made.  There's a certain stiffness in these black & white comics that is highly reminiscent of the weird, crude and frequently trashy comics of the 80s black and white glut, when the boutique publishers of that day were looking to make a quick buck and hoping to catch fire like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Marra's comics capture that feeling, but with a satiric edge that almost never "breaks character" as he tweaks 80s exploitative entertainment (especially film), takes white power fantasies in the person of gangsta rap to their ultimate extreme and even spins a tale of liberal espionage. There's no question that his comics are ugly and brutal, but the relentlessly over-the-top nature of his satire is hilarious, even as it makes you wince.

Take his series Night Business, for instance. Everything about this comic screams "eighties!", from the neon-glow of the cover logo to the Cinemax-esque nature of the story. Marra takes the silliness of a typical Cinemax erotic thriller and adds an extra layer of grindhouse crazy on top of that with the character of Chastity. A ballerina who is told she will never be a success because her tits and ass are too big, she pays for her expensive dance school by stripping (of course). After she's attacked by a masked slasher who targets strippers, she survives and becomes a lingerie-clad vigilante on a motorcycle who rides around looking for rapists to gun down. It's straight out of the 80s schlock film Avenging Angel, done without a hint of irony even as Marra goes further over the top with each issue's worth of pimps, strippers, rapists, drug dealers, killers and virtuous exotic entertainment agency owners who double as bad-ass vigilantes. There's an almost posed stiffness in many of his drawings, reminding me a bit of mainstream artist Mike Zeck. That's also true of his 8-page comic The Naked Heroes, which is to fantasy what Night Business is to sleaze. The titular duo are a preternaturally cheerful dimension-hopping rock duo who wind up in a tussle with a monstrous demon who ejects smaller demons from its uterus in order to "collect" them. What results is several pages of decapitations, disembowelments and other assorted mayhem.

The key to Marra's success is his relentless attention to detail. The way he choreographs his fight scenes is brutal and beautiful. He takes pains to create an internally consistent plot and set of characterizations. Everything makes sense in his comics, even if it's completely absurd. This is especially true of my favorite of his comics, The Incredibly Fantastic Adventures of Maureen Dowd. Marra dutifully informs the reader on the cover that this is "a work of satire and fiction", as if the first-page shot of New York Times political columnist Dowd lounging around her kitchen wearing lingerie and carrying a handgun in her stocking isn't enough of a clue. Lots of the details in this comic are true, like the way the Bush administration punished writer Joe Wilson by outing his wife Valerie Plame as a CIA agent, and how Scooter Libby wound up as a fall guy. Marra invents the crazy details like Karl Rove and Dick Cheney sending assassins after Dowd in order to silence her potential earth-shaking column, and the issue is a cat-and-mouse game as Dowd tries to gather evidence, dodges killers, goes on a date with George Clooney, teams up with a rogue CIA agent and is thwarted when her laptop is shot before she can submit her story. This comic is also a funny send-up of the mediocre-to-awful biography comics that Bluewater publishes--the "Female Force" series in particular.

If these comics have somewhat of a mainstream sense of professionalism to them (bold lines, crisp inking and lettering), then Gangsta Rap Posse represents a comic that feels like it was drawn by a 15-year-old white kid from the suburbs in 1992. The titular rap group is essentially NWA on steroids, as they kill KKK members, neo-nazis and the police, and prove to be completely irresistible to all white women. They have zero regard for human life and are happy to murder the funk artists whose music they ripped off. (Marra's demented vision of Bootsy Collins as a knife-wielding former assassin is hilarious.) The quality of Marra's line is much more ragged here, and the lettering as well as word balloon placement feel more spontaneous and freer, as though they were scrawled in a single, manic drawing session. Marra spares no one here, with the henpecking Jewish manager Saul, their record label called "Prison Rape Records" (a funny and knowing nod to Death Row Records), and the wish-fulfillment of the brazenly misogynistic, nihilistic rappers who do what they want, when they want, and shoot anyone in their way. It's satire by way of a hammer that is effective because it never lets up for a second, even as it reveals the power fantasies at the core of the teenage idolization of this music.

The only time Marra really winks to the reader in an obvious manner that none of this is to be taken very seriously is when we see his author's photos. In Maureen Dowd, we see him bare-chested, wearing a leather jacket and brandishing a samurai-sword. In Naked Heroes, he has his hair slicked forward as a sort of cross between Ricky Jay and Criss Angel: the bad-ass magician. In the three issues of Night Business, he goes from Bukowski-esque rumpled tough-guy poet to wearing a fur-trimmed coat and shorts to appearing as a centaur with the words "Total Victory" airbrushed above him. His author bio is equally silly if entirely deadpan. Indeed, Marra is both over-the-top and totally deadpan at the same time, never breaking character or worrying about the reader keeping up. That said, there's no question that there's a seriousness in how he goes about telling his stories and depicting action; without that level of care, detail and genuine affection for the source material, these comics would come off as disingenuous, especially since it's not hard to satirize something that's cheesy. Marra's gleeful willingness to plunge wholeheartedly into genre fiction while at the same time mocking it with affection makes these comics both entertaining and genuinely unsettling.

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