Friday, July 15, 2016

2dcloud: Mark Connery and Luke & John Holden

Following up on my recent Minnesota post, let's take a look at one of Minneapolis's finest: 2dcloud. The publisher, Raighne Hogan, is a cartoonist in his own right, but he's made a splash thanks to his willingness to take risks with avant garde, eccentric and boundary-pushing comics. Hogan's put interesting work back in print, printed the work of locals, given homes to more-widely read cartoonists who needed a new publisher, published the work of emerging cartoonists and he's even gone the international route. At the moment, 2dcloud is running a kickstarter in an effort to support publishing some pretty remarkable books. Here are some reviews of releases from the past couple of years.

Rudy, by Mark Connery. This collection of minicomics by Canadian cartoonist Connery is like being handed a Rosetta stone of comics influences over the past twenty-five years. Mixing punk culture, zine culture, Dada, old-school comic-strips, philosophy, and correspondence art, Connery created a remarkably coherent emotional and narrative continuity of sorts over twenty-five years' worth of minis, many of which had miniscule distribution. Marc Bell (who edited the book) and Matthew Thurber are examples of artists that Connery obviously influenced, not to mention Ben Jones/Paper Rad. Throughout this at times overwhelming collection, Connery's storytelling is remarkably clear. Despite experimenting with a wide variety of visual approaches over the years, from an almost geometric simplicity a la Chris Ware to densely drawn environments in a Mat Brinkman vein, Connery's page design was quite conventional, preferring to draw on the traditions of newspaper gag strips above all else. I think that simplicity may also have been tied to his unusual distribution methods; some of these comics were copied and placed under the windshields of cars, for example. Like a Jack Chick comic with an entirely different mission, he wanted anyone to be able to pick these comics up and instantly understand its formal qualities, even if its content was baffling and mind-blowing.

The characters in the strip were simply defined, allowing for a variety of approaches in how they interacted. There was Rudy the cat, Ken the fish with legs, Phil the triangle/heart creature, and the awesomely dumb villain Cybernaut. The characters shift and warp shapes, genders and identities. Connery puts pop culture in a blender with strange references and distortions (he was probably the first to do disturbing Family Circus parodies, for example). Connery used classic cut-and-paste collage that reminded me as much as Greg Hill's Principia Discordia as it did a comic book. However, the irresistible readability of his comics reminded me a bit of Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy, which was once described as harder to not read than to read once you saw it. On the same page with a dumb gag, you might see a literary reference or a chopped-up image. What one must understand about the comics in this book is that they are relentlessly interactive. In addition to giving away a lot of his comics, Connery also published in local newspapers and printed his address in everything he did, inviting correspondence and trades. Connery sought not just an audience, but a like-minded community, and he did it entirely on his own terms.

It helps that Connery is one of the funniest cartoonists ever. On one level, he's a perfectly fine traditional gag cartoonist. He could easily have been a syndicated cartoonist who crafted odd but conventional jokes seven days a week. From that foundation, Connery wrote strips that took an initial premise and diverted it into an existential series of musings and into an absurd, frequently violent and/or sexual punchline. Cartoonish plans of violence and revenge are turned into elaborately-staged campaigns that go on for several pages. Connery creates mythology out of whole cloth but is kind enough to occasionally throw in a silly gag that subverts the seriousness of the story. That's a line he rides the entire time, as his characters do mean and petty things to each other by defying logic and physics in order to do so. Psychedelia is certainly another influence to be found in this book, and Connery is careful to closely hew to rules that characters must follow while at the same time finding ways to subvert those rules in the funniest ways possible. There's a self-awareness among the characters that something is just plain wrong with reality and that they have no control whatsoever over it. The best they can do is go with it and meet each example of dream logic with a dream response.

Examples of the oddness that abounds include Rudy defeating a duck vampire, only to adopt her children that he dubs R.U.D.Y.S: Rude Ugly Duckling Youth. Phil goes to a mall and falls in love with Trudy, the female version of Rudy, only to find out it's Rudy in women's clothing. The gang solves mysteries, gets kidnapped by weirdos and pull pranks on each other. Connery includes scraps of poetry that he scrawlsed on various pages, and they often become part of the story. By confining particular jokes to the original 8-page minicomic, Connery created a tapestry of comic weirdness that allowed for creative connections to appear organically in the collection. What seemed to be a throwaway gag in one mini was later seized upon and run with a future story. Bell's decision to group them by his own aesthetic sensibility rather than chronologically steadies the book from the beginning. While some of the chronology is lost along the way, the characters are mutable enough that it doesn't matter, which allowed Bell to create an unerringly steady flow of silliness. The book is best read in twenty to thirty page bursts in order to cleanse one's palate, but the overall effect is a level of comedic sublimity I've seen in few places.

Detrimental Information, by John & Luke Holden. This is another collection of zines, this time by the Holden Brothers. They've been linked with 2dcloud since the earliest days when all they published was the Good Minnesotan anthology. The collection has a nebulous quality that's not quite prose and not quite comics. The prose is hand-lettered, with big squishy letters that are not filled in. The illustrations are all variations on the monstrous, lumpy, naked little creatures that sometimes actively address the prose and sometimes go off in an entirely different direction. Each chapter has multiple vignettes that generally fall into three categories: stories about growing up, stories about people the Holdens may have met, and stories about working with the mentally disabled. The Holdens have little in the way of a filter, and many of the stories don't exactly put the protagonists in a flattering light. To be sure, this is very much a "point of view" comic that basks in, the essentially grotesque and visceral qualities that life has to offer. It's gross but real, across the board.

There's a hilarious story about being at school and having a police officer come in and explain what he does, only to see it morph into a story where the cop guns down perpetrators. When the teacher takes him to task for the story and showing up drunk, he winds up arresting her in front of the class. Another school story features one of the Holdens (John, I believe) talking about messing with the plumbing in a school bathroom and peeing in the corner as his was of passive-aggressively "evening the score" against a teacher that he hated. The scene where the principal takes them to an assembly and tries to scare them into confessing is also funny, especially since he feels no guilt whatsoever and is unimpressed by the threat of God knowing.

The stories about working with people with different kinds of disabilities were interesting primarily because of how little sympathy Holden displayed. A paraplegic ex-football player who had been nicknamed "The Mutilator" was now helpless as Holden had to remove his stool, gasping for air as he had to be off his ventilator during that period. Holden's takeaway: "I believe a spinal cord injury would benefit many arrogant, aggressive football playing men." There's a story about doing a seventeen-hour shift at a home for the developmentally disabled and simply equating it with being in Hell--only he's an employee there and walking around with a pitchfork. Another story featured a schizophrenic that Holden took out for the day, and how he was alarmed that the man tried to buy a car. Yet another story featured a seemingly benign patient who started choking Holden, wrapping his legs around him in an effort to prevent him from escaping.

This book is about being an outsider, experiencing it personally and experiencing with people even further on the margins than oneself. It addresses abuse and mistreatment with a restrained, even emotionally distant voice--both in terms of things that happened to Holden as well as the abuse he heaped on others. (That includes several stories where John was extremely cruel to his younger brother Luke in some pretty funny ways). It's a book that aims to tell uncomfortable truths about the ways that children treat each other, especially for being different. It tells the same uncomfortable truths about the ways in which adults repeat the behaviors that they've learned and stay in the same kind of power roles. His stories about working with the disabled, rather than trying to make himself look good, are all about the ways in which it can be incredibly difficult and frustrating to interact with those on the far fringes of society. The impatience and lack of empathy displayed in these stories partly came about from what seemed to be years of working the job and having the illusions that he could make a difference in their lives smashed to bits. Like them, and like everyone on the margins in this book, every day is simply about survival and having a sense of humor regarding the chaos of our world. The drawings simply reflect the emotional truth of humanity, which is both ugly and funny (and to our horror, sometimes funny because it is ugly).

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