Saturday, March 8, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #8: Victor Kerlow

Victor Kerlow's Everything Takes Forever (Koyama Press) is a fascinatingly scratchy and casual series of short stories by the well-known illustrator for the New York Times and New Yorker that serve as a way to explore variations on body size, dreams and mutations in a fantastical setting. "Little Guy" is the lead story and examines a common fantasy concept: waking up to find oneself tiny and naked. The main character, Frank, finds himself next to a full-sized version of his naked girlfriend Laura, and the obvious thoughts about how sex might work are squelched when the sleeping woman absent-mindedly flicks him away from her nipple. Kerlow explores the ramifications and possible cause of this as the comic proceeds, and while there's nothing mind-blowing about the comic, there's an exciting rawness that pulses from each page, thanks to his chunky figure drawing. "Big Mouth" seems inspired by the grotesque surrealism of the great Bill Plympton that segues into a stream-of-consciousness narrative by the Frank character waking up out of a dream.

Sleeping, dreaming and the sometimes unreal connection between the two is a constant through-line in these short stories, as "Weird Things, Downstairs" is about Frank's almost visceral inability to fall asleep and the accompanying sense of frustration. "Big Crocodile Tears" and "Understanding" both involve monsters in mundane situations, as Frank tells off a clingy monster ex-boyfriend of his girlfriend's to get out in the former story and negotiates wisdom in the latter. Kerlow loves drawing monsters almost as much as he loves drawing the nude human form and especially enjoys low-key, low-stakes interactions between the two. In his other strips, Kerlow explores characters who express themselves in aggressive but absurd terms. His Taco Head character (featured on the cover) is silly but totally aware of his own weird appearance. The strip where he goes to a restaurant and orders a taco is both bizarre and a fascinating example of squirm humor, as the profane character is relentlessly in the face of anyone who questions him for a second, as well as more passive characters like his friend Toast Head. "The Aggravator" features a guy perched on top of his car taunting a cop who is eager to arrest him, before another car crashes into them and turns a verbal confrontation into a grisly, visceral scene of carnage.

 In all of these bizarre stories that emphasize shadows, grit and unexpected turns on reality, there's an essential mundane quality that grounds the work and is the real source of Kerlow's inspiration. In these sloppy, sketchy and spontaneous works.collected here, the reader gets a look into ideas that seem like obsessions for Kerlow. Bodies are both sexualized forms and sacks of meat in Kerlow's cartoons; dreams range from the fantastic to the deadly dull; things that are horrific and transformations that are monstrous all carry a quotidian essence that makes them part of business as usual. That sense of understatement, above all else, is what makes these comics funny.

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