Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Hotwire

This article was originally published in 2006 for sequart.com
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With Mome, Fantagraphics tried to put together an anthology that would appeal to sophisticated readers who were open to reading comics but didn't necessarily know what to buy. A book for those who read Ghost World or American Splendor and wanted to know where to go next. Understandably, the focus of that anthology had to be on somewhat straightforward narratives. One doesn't find a lot of funny comics in there, even if some strips have a somewhat humorous bent (Tim Hensley is a notable exception). There also weren't a lot of comics in the id-fueled underground tradition, and what comics there were in that style were somewhat restrained. This is not a criticism, but rather a simple observation: Mome has its own aims and certainly can't be all things to all people. Hotwire steps in and picks up the threads missing from Mome, all in a delightfully lurid package.

Editor Glenn Head is quite clear about his goals for the anthology in his introduction. While acknowledging that it was all well and good that comics were now respectable, he missed comics that "felt unsafe, undomesticated, unhinged, even!" Hotwire is his expression of the feeling that "comics with great style and cool stories are already art, and no critic, museum or journal can change that..." Of course, Head breaks his own rules throughout the book. There are plenty of pages that aren't comics, like David Paleo's revolting pin-ups, Sam Henderson's sketches, Craig Yoe's centerfold or Judith McNicol's scribbles. While not stories per se, they contribute to the carny freakshow nature of the book. A book filled with nothing but this sort of thing would have been unreadable, but interspersed throughout they're a nice sideshow of sorts. Hotwire isn't a book likely to win new converts. Most of the artists within are take-it-or-leave-it in terms of their stories, and they don't apologize for it. It's a book meant for people who already love comics without reservation, in all of their cheap and occasionally debased glory.

As a result, there are a number of stories in Hotwire that aren't personally appealing. As a reader, I've never been drawn to a lot of the traditional underground artists. I can admire their nerve and the trails they blazed, but my eyes fall off the page of stories in the S.Clay Wilson tradition. The unleashed id and broken taboos are simply no longer as shocking or interesting in their own right. Thus, the stories by Head and Doug Allen didn't do much for me. My eye tends to fall off the page when reading these sorts of stories, and that was true here. The true highlights of this anthology are stories by the formidable array of humorists. Not all of them are personal favorites, but that just fits in with the rest of the book: there's something for every true fan of comics to either love or despise.

There are four comics in particular that stood out. Michael Kupperman's "The Scaredy Kids", Lauren Weinstein's "The Call", R.Sikoryak's "Mephistofield" and Mack White's "My Gun Is Long". The first is a tour-de-force of absurdity, as the title characters encounter The Bittern, Jungle Princess and other characters who introduce themselves by crashing through windows. Lines like "Nearby, an ant makes love to a paperclip" are thrown into the narrative as part of Kupperman's all-out assault on conventional storytelling. Every panel is packed with visual humor, wordplay, dada asides and/or over-the-top colors. Kupperman's sheer relentlessness is what makes his work stand out, and is perfect in this venue.
Weinstein's story would have fit nicely in her Inside Vineyland collection. It's a nightmarish tale of a young girl listening to a record of her favorite story, but the needle skips on an evil queen screaming. The scream takes on its own reality and draws the girl in, as she meets a sort of angelic figure who shows her the universe. She eventually returns back to her own world, but a later encounter with that same note leaves a permanent impression. Weinstein's loose, almost vibratory line adds to the story's hallucinatory quality.
Sikoryak is known as an astonishingly skilled style mimic, and his particular shtick is retelling works of classic literature by merging them with well-known comics characters. This time around, he combines Dr Faustus with Garfield to get "Mephistofield". He tells the story just like Jim Davis does a daily strip: three panels, with the third containing a punchline. The colors are appropriately flat and Sikoryak's perfect use of every Davis tic and style choice is a hilarious pairing with the grim cautionary tale of Dr Faustus. And of course, Garfield as the personification of evil is more than appropriate...

Mack White's "My Gun Is Long" is the amusing marriage of hard-boiled noir and conspiracy theory. It stars the real Lee Harvey Oswald, his double Alex Hidell, strippers, Jack Ruby, and a desperate attempt to dodge killers. The stark black & white imagery and unadorned figure work match the paranoia and claustrophobia in this story, but it's White's skill in channeling Phillip Marlowe that propels the story along.
There are plenty of other delights in here: a David Lasky-drawn biography of the Clash; a creepy Carol Swain story about a circus; a stripped-down Ivan Brunetti story; and Onsmith's demented tales of rural Oklahoma. This anthology didn't get a lot of notice when it was released, which is unfortunate because there's so much strong work in here. In particular, having a regular anthology that features humorists so prominently is something that the comics world has needed for quite some time. It'll be interesting to see if Head can produce future volumes that are as fresh and compelling as this.

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