Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Image, Reimagined: Ticket Stub

Published by Rina Ayuyang's new imprint Yam Books, Tim Hensley's Ticket Stub is a dizzying reimagining of still scenes from film, drawn into his sketchbook during slow moments in his job as a closed captioning writer back in the 1990s. The films and TV shows he captioned range from Oscar nominees to the dregs of the B-movie file, but Hensley's poetic interpretations twist both into the hilarious, the ridiculous, and even the poignant, as the frenzied nature of his quickly-captured image burst with life on every page. Originally published serially as minicomics, Ayuyang is yet another publisher going out of her way to rescue classic minicomics series from obscurity, and this collection couldn't be more attractive. The bottom of each page has a small oval slice "punched" out of it as though it were a ticket, a clever detail that adds to the package's overall appeal.

As anyone who read Hensley's classic Wally Gropius knows,  there's a stream-of-consciousness quality to his use of language that's closely tied into surprisingly tight narratives as well as references to pop culture, literature and history. Above all else, Hensley lives to serve his gags, twisting conventional understandings of situations into something still recognizable but quite odd. In other words, it doesn't necessarily make this book any more or less easy to follow if you've seen the movies he references. He turns Love and Basketball from a romance into one of the characters becoming a foul-mouthed coach. He turns b-movie Killer Klowns From Outer Space into a deeply existential crisis of a film ("Need teen groping be such a horror?") He uses a horrible pun involving the name "Ephraim" as part of his account of the biblical film Jeremiah. Wrestlers in cheap fight films are given noble motives, while actors in art films are reduced to parody. Through it all, Hensley's patter weaves between detective novel staccato to cheap advertisement for "Colonel Corn" products to nasty zingers ("In the future, men will live in advanced technological domiciles called 'caves'" for Battlefield Earth and "A bear costume escapes from a zoo..." for Hercules in New York. I most enjoyed the absurd Hensley, like his running motif on the primacy of beards running around Gettysburg.

The last chapter is the greatest, and I can understand why Hensley left it that--there was no way to top it. It's a tour-de-force of repurposed scenes mashed together one after another. It goes from a police procedural to a beach blanket movie to Apollo 13 to even weirder pastures (the panel-to-panel switches between different people on the phone spewing nonsense was astonishing). The slightly relaxed nature of their earlier pages allowed the reader to take in the image from the film, drawn in a style that was realistic yet rendered slightly grotesque and cartoony in Hensley's hands (it's very different from his John Stanley/Dell Comics inspired work in Wally Gropius). In the last chapter, Hensley whips the reader from panel to panel with no time to breathe or think, drowning them in pure, glorious craziness. It climaxes in the Beatles singing a song using baseball play-by-play as lyrics, forcing their fans to weep as they confess their sins. Later, an unseen fans has one of the musicians sign a baseball, saying "Make it out to J.D. Sallinger". It's as fitting an end as any for a cartoonist who was clearly bored out of his mind by his job. I see these strips as a reaction both to that boredom and being forced to watch these films in a very specific way that's guaranteed to squelch any aesthetic enjoyment whatsoever from them. In Hensley's hands, it makes sense that all content was treated the same, because for a captioner, all content was the same. At the same time, it's not all ridiculousness; Hensley captures genuine insight into many of these films, boiling many of them down to their essence or bringing a new (if skewed eye) to the proceedings. The reason why the last chapter works so well as a sort of film mish-mash is because so many films are the same. That said, Ticket Stub shouldn't be read as an explicit form of film critique. Instead, it's a testament to Hensley's unique ability to process culture and images and turn them into something disorienting, hilarious and beautiful.

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