Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Recidivist #3

Recidivist, by Zak Sally (La Mano, $15).

I've been peripherally aware of Sally's work for quite some time through an assortment of anthologies, but his collected work seen here floored me. There were a number of great comics published in 2005, but I would have to give Recidivist my highest honors, for its originality, complexity and compellingly dark tone. Sally is better known to some as the former bass player of the band Low. Their 2005 record, The Great Destroyer, was on many critics' lists for best album of the year. (It really is a fantastic record, and Sally does the art for it.) Recently, Sally decided it was time to quit the band for various reasons. With the life of recording and touring put aside, it's opened up more room for comics, his other passion. He started his own publishing company, collecting the work of his friend John Porcellino in the memorable Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man. Then he put out a handsome hardcover collection of his own work over the years, all before he officially decided to quit Low.

It is difficult to discuss this collection of short stories without giving away story points. While Sally isn't a cheap "twist" artist who relies on shock instead of craft, there are indeed profound surprises to be found in each story that a new reader should be allowed to savor. What I can note is that his stories require a careful reader willing to examine details, because Sally doesn't spell a lot of things out. Happily, the stories have a lyrical power and depth that invites and rewards multiple readings.

There are six short stories in the collection. None directly relate to each other, but there are strange interconnections here and there, not to mention certain thematic similarities. The first three stories ("Feed The Wife", "The Secret Girls" and "Animal Vomit") all have to do with secrets. The first story involves a man who keeps his wife locked up in their basement; what is the true nature of their relationship? Here, there is no narrator, no one to give the reader any clues as to what's going on other than the panels chosen by the artist. In the second story, we switch to an omniscient but not necessarily helpful narrator who tells us all about the Secret Girls, who come along to "save" you when you're about to utter that last secret.

"Animal Vomit" is the most dazzling bit in the book. It too is heavily narrated, but this time the narrator is a nameless character in the story. It's about three men who have an unusual disease: they each have the head of a different animal (pig, monkey, wolf) and come to a facility for treatment. The story builds up unbelievable suspense to a climax that is utterly bizarre and over-the-top. It's really about what is done in the name of secrecy, the relationship between lies and information. It's a spoof on conspiracies and hidden knowledge, still told with an aura of dread.

Sally's art adds to the somewhat downbeat nature of his work. He combines a fine, thin line with the heavy use of blacks. The pages in "Animal Vomit" are all black, including gutter lines. This adds to the air of mystery and oppressiveness, the sense that everything is hidden and undecipherable/unrecoverable. The thin line helps ease the mood in some respects, reducing its dynamism. There is nothing overwrought or overstated on Sally's page. Subtlety is his hallmark, as the details of each panel never have a spotlight thrust upon them, telling the reader what to observe. Instead, his pages have a muted quality, making it all the more shocking when something mad happens on them. Sally's stories are not without humorous and absurd moments. "Animal Vomit" in many ways is hilarious, and there are moments of black humor throughout the book.

The second half of Recidivist deals with mortality, retribution and desperate pleas for help. "The Great Healing" may be the best story in the book. The narrative comes from one character, talking out loud to his friend who is missing. The images are of that friend, driving along, oblivious to the wondrous news his friend wants to tell him. The ending is inevitable and shattering. The narrative is amazing: "Miracles fell from the sky, like bullets...Lovers returned to their beds. Poetry was annihilated. Tears crawled back into wet eyes."

As nuanced and wrenching as that story was, Sally turns around and hits the reader over the head with his next story, about a disgusted surgeon laboring over a hopeless patient. Sally reverses ground in every way: white becomes the dominant color, there's a visceral quality on every page and an increasing sense of the author's cynicism and disgust. That carries over into the final story, "Your Black Fucking Heart". It's about a man who deserves to die and gets what's coming to him from above. What makes it fascinating is the narrator is talking to the "you" who dies, but who can't hear them. Like "The Secret Girls", the narrator lays everything bare for the reader, but this knowledge only creates more questions.

The title of the collection gives the reader a hint as to what's going on. There are patterns found in each story, patterns that reveal that the behavior found in each has been going on for quite some time, despite any attempt at reform or improvement. It's too late to change, even if there was any intention of changing. A heart was broken one too many times, another person committed one wrong too many, another person saw one horror too many and cracked. The result is a work like no other in 2005: full of real horror and terror, the struggle that is daily existence and how we find ways to cope (or not). These stories stay with you, both inviting and rewarding detailed readings. Any fan of art comics must get their hands on this book.

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