Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thirty Days of CCS #19: Ben Horak & Pat Barrett

Ben Horak and Pat Barrett, two masters of nasty satire, teamed up for Thanks For The Sour Persimmons, Cousin (an all-time great reference to the classic cartoon, Duck Amuck). They lay on the visceral gristle in a story about a blobby angel (a go-to special for Barrett) who isn't very good at his job: instilling a sense of unity in a humanity that absolutely hates itself. The opening scene, on a crowded bus where everyone is yelling and acting hatefully, stops on a dime when the angel appears to work his magic. When the results go horribly awry, he goes back to his wife in a sitcom-derived scene (complete with laugh track and background "awwws") that demonstrates how sometimes following your dream perhaps isn't the best idea. The lurid pinks and purples are almost nauseating on the page, and that's the whole idea.

Horak's work has gone to another level of hilarious and brutal in its examination of human nature in his Grump Toast #5. The running story "Them Are Bad" features a situation where a person overreacts to an insult by killing the offending party, only for the story to reveal that this was an alien simulator designed to train potential secret agents on how best to fit in and infiltrate society for future conquest. Horak doesn't spare the detail in making the aliens grotesque while doubling down on the humor of what turned from an over-the-top response to a slight to essentially a bit of office humor. There's a second strip that involves the bad employee simply laughing at someone offensive dying and getting reprimanded, and the final strip puts a final, pathetic spin on the whole enterprise that reveals what's really going on.

"Never Mention Rope To A Hangman" sees Horak going silent, with images filling up thought balloons instead of words. It's about a pizza delivery man who thinks he's getting shorted on a tip, only to find he got a hundred dollar bill. When he starts to feel guilty about getting it and fantasizes that it might make the grumpy, ugly old man who gave it to him wind up in poverty, he turns around, goes back to the house, walks in and puts the money on a table. Then he makes a jaw-droppingly horrifying and hilarious discovery about the man he just delivered the pizza to, which then leads to a series of events far worse than anything he could have imagined. This is Horak doing what he does best--using the tools of his narratives to set up the reader in how things are flowing, then throwing in an over-the-top twist, and then returning to those tools with a new spin on how to interpret them.

"If It Wasn't For The Nights" almost defies description, as it's about a would-be hipster using highly dated "jazz" lingo in order to try to get women to pay attention to him at a night club. When every attempt fizzles, he winds up in a nightclub for cats (daddio!), a cute gag that Horak then takes to yet another visceral extreme when he winds up at the doctor later on. When the jaw-dropping revelation is made, Horak once again uses a gesture from earlier in the story as a callback meant to signal that everything was cool, only at the end of this story it was a pathetic attempt at justifying behavior beyond the pale.

At heart, Horak is a simple gag man. What sets him apart is the loving amount of labor he puts into each drawing in order to set up the gag, along with his razor-sharp understanding of using long form improv instincts to build up to the eventual punchline. He favors visceral, violent and revolting humor built on rock-solid comedic constructs, where no matter how absurd or disgusting the gag, the joke is so beautifully told that one must appreciate it. Take "Back In The Day...", which is essentially an extended beer ad for something called "Rat Brew", which contained "cheap but strong alcohol as well as a live, vicious rat fighting to free itself from its cold aluminum prison". That premise is so nonsensical as to defy description, not to mention good taste, yet Horak's genius in generating an ad copy buzz phrase in "The bite's the best part" gets at the core of what advertising does: sell people on the idea that being bitten by a vicious rat is the stuff memories are made of.

Another pure (if dark) gag strip is "Caroline". Here, Horak distracts the reader with the end of a sex scene with a chatty guy and a silent woman. Little by little, the details of how the encounter came to be are revealed, and the end of the story is a masterful execution (in all senses of the word) of distracting the reader through visceral visual details (not just assorted fluids, but the way in which the bed stand is cross-hatched draws in the eye) and babbling dialogue until the last crucial bit of data is revealed before the final punchline.

The book's epic story is "This Will Be Our Year", and it follows the structure of similar Horak stories from earlier issues. An abusive, unpleasant loser is physically beaten by his wife and infant son and forced to clean the house and throw out the garbage before he runs away. (The single page of pro wrestling moves the baby executes on his dad are hilarious and meticulously drawn.) From there, the man is beaten up, laughed up and begins starving before he goes to a fast food restaurant. Unable to pay for the food, he gets a job and is subjected to an array of disgusting humiliations before he's fired and thrown into the street. At this point in the story, Horak is just getting warmed up, as he stumbles upon a Scientology-type center and goes through a battery of tests before he's "approved". What he's approved for is sacrifice by a demonic cult that takes him to the woods and rips out his heart. What follows appears to be that character's redemption run, as he becomes an all-powerful being that wreaks havoc and revenge upon the city and his old job before he returns to his wife and son. Horak ends the strip with a gag that is predictable only in the shaggy dog sense, but it's perfectly executed. Along the way, there's mass destruction, lots of oozing, skeletons, people being burned, etc. What I like most about Horak, whose sense of humor is certainly distinct and certainly not for all tastes, is his absolute commitment to his craft, both in terms of fastidious attention to detail in his linework as well as the structure and set-up of each gag.

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