Friday, June 17, 2016

Heavy Hitters, Part 2: Thurber, May

Men's Feelings #2, by Ted May (Revival House). May's sardonic strips about men and men's culture are always hilariously dead-on, whether they stray into absurdity or border on the poignant. His loose, cartoony line is a big part of his appeal, as what appears to be a plain, no-frills style works because of subtle flourishes, steady expressiveness, and a flat approach that creates a deadpan effect for much of the book's humor. "Reflections", for example (the book's opener), features a man shaving--one of the manliest of activities. When he looks into a mirror and sees three faces staring at him (somehow, companies can install one-way glass in people's homes that sometimes gets revealed as there being a secret room there), the man goes into the fetal position on the floor. It's a fantastic gag to start off the issue, as May dials up and down absurdity, poignancy and pettiness in equal measure.

As to the latter, "Connecting Flight" is a good example. A man who hates flying looks on his neighbor, wearing too much perfume, with contempt. It's not until he dismisses her musical taste out of hand, thinking "Nothing we could possibly have in common", and he sees an Abba best of collection, that he thinks, "I stand corrected." Once again, May takes the piss out of this guy's aggro attitude and diffuses with a less-than-macho musical selection. "Lifetime Subscription" is an example of how May's deadpan style and careful pacing crafts a punchline. When a guy asks a drug store clerk for cigarettes and a copy of Alone magazine, there's a bit of awkwardness when she says they don't. Nine panels of walking home, going upstairs and lighting a cigarette later, he says, "I need to develop a better pickup line." May retroactively adds an extra layer of awkwardness as the reader is made to realize that the bizarre nature of the man's request was his attempt at flirting, especially since the tact was so remarkably pathetic in nature.

The silliest strip was "Finally", which starts off with a man on his deathbed being visited by his departed wife to take him to the great beyond, only to get fussy about the appearance of his body and blow his big chance. May has a way of drawing bug-eyed characters (not unlike Steve Ditko) that later have their irises reduced to dots while the rest of their eye still bulges out. It's his shorthand for an extreme reaction, be it anger, disgust or some other negative emotion. "Call Of Duty" is about a younger sibling managing to carry out the instructions of his mother in a highly indirect way, "putting away" some eggs by feeding them directly to his video-game playing brother. It's a funny, almost sweet little episode that reveals a surprising amount of empathy between siblings. Equally funny and more poignant is "You Can Skip This One", which is a sort of shaggy-dog anecdote about a man trying to make friends with his girlfriend's preteen son. The kid is entirely quiet while the guy hopelessly and painfully babbles on, desperate to make some kind of connection. That's the focus of the story as the man then turns to skipping rocks on the nearby lake, trying to teach the technique to the kid (who fails hilariously), only to wind up accidentally committing an act of destruction that ironically elicits precisely the kind of connection he craved. There's are two glorious splash pages in a row that depict the act of destruction, as May finishes the shaggy-dog joke before adding the final punchline. May is so remarkably assured in his pacing and use of expression, creating a naturalistic environment to act as the underpinning of the gag.

The last big piece, "Wait, What?" is a hilarious send-up of sports fandom and sports announcing. A fan sitting in the stands watching the last play of a football game is also listening to the radio commentary at the same time. May perfectly captures the pompous, over-the-top, life and death nature of sports commentary while creating a ridiculously bizarre end to the game, then deflating it at the very end. Finishing up the issue with a kid being made to say his prayers and expressing his hatred for everyone and everything more-or-less sums up the issue.

Art Comic 1-2, by Matthew Thurber. Thurber's sense of humor and approach land with me like few other cartoonists. His combination of intelligence and absurd sense of humor make every comic he does an incisive commentary as well as something I laugh at on nearly every page. With his new series, Thurber turns his attention to his own sphere: the art world. Having worked in New York art galleries for a number of years and attended art school at Cooper Union, it's safe to say that this is a subject that's well in his wheelhouse. What's interesting is that for all his absurdity, Thurber has shown that he uses the same narrative technique in each of his major works. He starts the story in media res, writes short vignettes about a set of characters and then moves on to another vignette involving completely different characters, and then eventually connects all of them up. The main difference this time around is that a number of his characters are actually real people.

It's perhaps a bit cliche' for a cartoonist to do yet another version of "Art School Confidential", poking fun at the more pretentious and pompous aspects of art school. While Thurber gets off plenty of jokes at the art world's expense, this isn't really his project here. Indeed, Thurber has said that he enjoyed art school because he was encouraged to do a number of different things and he managed to avoid the fate that many cartoonists who were scorned by their professors, especially in the 80s and 90s. This comic is much more about the professional art world, which Thurber has noted is entirely run by money, using a number of different takes on satirizing it.

The first issue is set in 1999 and features Cupcake, a student at Cooper Union, being told by a friend that he spotted the artist Matthew Barney on the street. There's a perfect Thurber panel where they run to find him where Thurber contorts Cupcake's body such that his leg appears above his head; it's a delightfully rubbery image. They get a lecture from a clerk at Kim's Video, go to a Turkish bath filled with Vaseline (something Barney actually used), and realize only too late that the attendant at the baths was Barney himself. It sets the tone for the comic: frantic and absurd, but closer to real life than you would expect.

That's certainly true in the second chapter, where there's an art critique. Cupcake gets lectured for yet another Barney-inspired piece (a gingerbread house of the baths filled with Vaseline), but Thurber quickly segues to an art opening, two gate-crashers from "Drunk TV", and the intervention of three little pigs in a brick house smashing into the gallery. From there, Thurber goes rapid-fire with new characters: Ivanhoe, a knight in armor who is aiming to crash the "Miami Basel Art Faire" with his squire/intern Walter, Ivanhoe's object of affection Tiffany Clydesdale, and Jesus Christ emerging from the cube near Union Square and turning the manager of the local Chase bank into a pack of rats before turning the building into a giant ice cream cone that rains down money. There are also two robot handlers whose charges are directed to have sex.

After Thurber threw a lot at the wall to see what would stick in the first issue, he remarkably tightened up the narrative without losing an ounce of energy in the second issue. For example, he went deep into the story of Password, Cupcake's art professor. Initially a disciple of Robert Rauschenberg (depicted as a tyrant who'd smash you in the head with a bottle), he's revealed to be working for a cabal of veteran artists who want him to undermine any potential future competition from art schools. Naturally, when visited by his master, the master turns into a vampire bat and flies out the window, just as a student whose spirits he had crushed was committing suicide. Ivanhoe is revealed to be a classmate of Cupcake's who was hit on the head and learned that his parents had been accidentally killed by a piece of art, launching a crusade of revenge with one goal in mind: destroying art.

In a story about art, Thurber manages to introduce a quest narrative fueled by a desire for revenge and a shadowy cabal with supernatural connections into a story about the hypocritical nature of an art teacher telling his students not to worry about how to make a living. By heightening the absurdity around the edges of the story and using over-the-top elements, Thurber's able to make his points about greed and the art world without lecturing the reader. Indeed, this is a story about multiple characters with different obsessions and the ways in which those obsessions are being constantly thwarted. His character design is hilarious, from the chainmail that Ivanhoe wears, to Tiffany's beret, to the cartoonishly vile face of the vampire bat artist that has the only dense use of spotting blocks and hatching, to the various artists that he caricatures; Thurber's characters always have a rubbery quality that makes them capable of anything. I enjoy the fact that Thurber continues to release work as periodicals, complete with full color covers and letters pages. 

No comments:

Post a Comment