Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Scrublands

This article was originally written for sequart.com in 2006.
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It's hard to pin down Joe Daly's influences and hence what sort of comic Scrublands is. The book notes his strong influence by American underground artists like R.Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, S.Clay Wilson and others. While that's certainly the case, there's something entirely else going on in this book as well.

First of all, no matter how weird his stories get, there's a relaxed quality to them very much unlike the hyperactive and/or neurotic American underground artists. Second, while sex and drugs are pretty constant themes in his work, one gets the sense that he's not writing about them in order to shock. Instead, it's all very matter-of-fact--the sex, the drugs, the weirdness all seem to be a part of daily life. Breaking taboos for their own sake isn't really part of his agenda. Third, his background in animation has a big impact on the visual side of his presentation. He has a powerful command over his use of colors, making it a crucial part of the art. There's a simplicity in his style that makes it a lot easier for the eye to take in than a lot of hyperdetailed underground artists (Wilson's work in particular hurts my eyes). At the same time, his compositional choices and character design give the reader a lot of interesting things to look at.

The centerpiece of the book is "Prebaby", a lushly-illustrated and richly-colored trip detailing a blob-like fetal creature floating along a wild environment, eventually winding up impregnating a woman. It's a wordless tale that speaks to Daly's imagination, as this creature has to rely on the attentions of its environment in order to move, and encounters monsters, spirits and crews of tiny men (sperm?) who wind up rescuing it and setting it along its ultimate path of birth. The storytelling is assured as we amble from image to image, with many clearly seeming entirely extemporaneous. While this story is very much unlike anything else in the book on the surface, the underlying matter-of-factness surrounding its oddness puts it in very much in the same category as the more standard narratives and observations in the book.

Sex and drugs are more than just facts of life--they're things to be embraced in all their goopy weirdness. The visceral nature of sex in particular is a theme that's repeated throughout the book. One of my favorite bits in the book is "Aqua Boy". It starts off as yet another exploration of a warped landscape, this time underwater. Aqua Boy is a dead ringer for Tintin, going on a magical adventure. He's rescued from a predicament by his father, only to have the mundane but tragic intrude: he's told by his father that he's divorcing his mother, and "you're going to go away and live with your mother in a smaller 'less cool' aqua craft". Of course, later on, a ghost fish tells Aqua Boy that he's gotten his pubes, and would now be able to breathe underwater. When Aqua Boy thanks him for the information, the fish thanks him for hallucinating him into existence! Once again, the dryness of the humor set against the unexpectedly weird elements creates an atmosphere where the reader has no idea what's coming next.

The element that sets Scrublands apart is the way that Daly's Cape Town becomes a background character of sorts. From a sardonic "appreciation" of a beach community to Daly and his alter egos walking around a sun-beaten city to a freak-ridden series of encounters in a supermarket, Cape Town is a visceral, vibrant, sweaty and gritty presence. Of course, these stories are slightly eccentric slices of life compared to "Art Lover" or "Wallchild". The latter stories feature his frequently-used comedy duo of Kobosh & Steve. Kobosh wears an elaborate headdress and almost looks like a superhero, while Steve is the de facto straight man. "Art Lover" features Steve creating a work of art that looks like a cross between a breast and an ass that's being judged by his teacher; when the teacher comes across Kobosh having sex with it in public, he gives Steve an A+! "Wallchild" is very matter of fact: Kobosh is sitting on his couch and watches the wall give birth. He and Steve develop milk-engorged breasts so as to nurse the Wallchild. The end. That one-page strip personifies the straight-faced and unapologetic weirdness that Daly does so well.

What I like most about Daly is his sense of playfulness. While the whole book is funny, there aren't a lot of gags per se. Stories like "Prebaby" instead have a sense of absurdity that make them a lot of fun to read, while not losing any of their readability. Stories about micro-fauna living on Bruce Springsteen's head make complete sense in the context of the rest of the book. Alienation is a constant running sub-theme of the book, but it's muted by the fact that its characters embrace the constant weirdness of the world. The end result is a collection of strips that feels familiar to an alt-comics reader, yet doesn't quite fit into an established niche.

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