Thursday, November 17, 2016
Short Reviews: Gilbert Hernandez, Ed Piskor, Steven Cerio
Garden Of The Flesh, by Gilbert Hernandez. This notebook-sized comic with an etched cover made of something like suede, is simply Hernandez turning highlights from the Book of Genesis into straight-up, hardcore porn. There's something about this book that touches a nerve far beyond it simply being porn. In a way, it's a distillation of Robert Crumb's adaptation of the whole Book of Genesis, which played up the truly seedy nature of so many Biblical stories, using that distinctive cross-hatching as a way of creating that filthy atmosphere. Hernandez' approach is different: it's drawn in his typical style, but it's also in full color. Hernandez picks up on the erotic qualities of the Bible (especially the story of the Garden of Eden and the fall), qualities that always seemed heightened to me as a child when I read picture book versions of the Bible. The concept of forbidden fruit and Adam & Eve's first encounter with shame are highly charged, and Hernandez both takes these ideas to their logical conclusion and utterly spoofs the ways in which religion shames sex and nudity. Hernandez also seamlessly overlays the structure of pornographic films onto the episodic structure of the Bible. That is, new characters in new situations were constantly being introduced in the Bible in the same way that new actors appear in porn to offer variety to the viewer. Hernandez brings the lust implicit (and often explicit) in the Bible out into the light while putting it in a format that still has an air of mystery, of something forbidden. In that way, he has his cake and eats it too, playing on how things that are forbidden offer a charge but then doling out as much explicit sex as he possibly can in a tidy hundred pages.
Sunbeams On The Astronaut, by Steven Cerio. This is a collection of short, dense and psychedelic pieces by Cerio, whose style veers from rubbery & cartoony to a deeply immersive series of patterns. The sheer density of the pieces and the use of greyscale instead of color made a number of stories difficult to parse, and the insertion of text instead of hand lettering was distracting and took me out of the reading experience. This book seemed to beg for color to help delineate the forms and add some clarity, but what I could parse was fascinating. In depicting what appear to be otherdimensional experiences, Cerio does so with a relentless sense of optimism and adventure. He's created his own mythological pantheon of characters, some darker than others, but each of their stories carries new possibilities. Tonally, the stories veer from whimsical & silly to darker & portentous as he draws from sources like old folk tales and songs by the Residents.
Hip-Hop Family Tree, Volume 4, by Ed Piskor. The latest volume of Piskor's epic, hugely successful historical series of brief, interconnected vignettes about hip hop's origins reaches a logical resting place for the series by the end. After working on the project mostly non-stop for nearly four years, Piskor declared he was going to focus on other projects for a while after the publication of this volume. It's a move that makes sense, considering that the amount of material that he has to cover has grown exponentially from volume to volume. He had the luxury of taking his time in the earlier volumes and making connections between hip-hop and other forms of African-American culture, as well as the fine arts scene, and for spending most of his time concentrating on the New York scene. In volume 4, Piskor focuses on the next generation of rappers in New York, the expanding LA scene, the small but energetic Philadelphia scene, and even what Luke Skywalker was up to in Miami. This volume also goes into some deal with regard to the way Hollywood tried to exploit what many perceived to be a fad, with films like Breakin', Beat Street and Krush Groove.
Russell "Rush" Simmons is still at the center of everything as the most respected and best-known managerial figure in rap. Now in a full partnership with ambitious college student Rick Rubin, their Def Jam records starts to make real money behind Run-DMC and their new star, LL Cool J (who was just sixteen when his first record was released). One thing that Piskor repeatedly emphasizes is how young so many of the key players were, as they went from rapping in front of their lockers in high school to performing live and getting on records. KRS-ONE was a kid living in a homeless shelter when he hooked up with DJ Scott LaRock, whom he knew as a social worker who would stop by the shelter. Salt 'N Pepa were working at the local Sears when a friend suggested they start their careers as battle MCs recording dis tracks. This is a fascinating period because of the intersection between the still wild west quality of rap and the introduction of real money into the equation. While that certainly led some young rappers to go as pop as possible in order to get on the radio, it's interesting that some refused to go soft on principle, even if hurt their chances at success. For the rapper Schooly D, that stance wound up creating gangsta rap, because he wouldn't soften his lyrics for recording.
Piskor sticks to the same visual formula that made the other volumes so fun to read. Every page is a complete statement, meant to be read and digested as a whole. At the same time, four volumes' worth of characters and their stories start to build as formerly background characters like the Beastie Boys suddenly take center stage. As always, Piskor is more interested in the facts as he's able to get them rather than the legends, as he's upfront about Ice-T's criminal activities and other less-than-savory facts about some of the rappers. There's no specific judgment--it's just people trying to get by--other than for perhaps "Freeway" Ricky Ross, the man who introduced crack cocaine into America and created an epidemic of addicts. Piskor leans heavily on Jack Kirby-inspired visuals, like Kirby Krackle in some panels, heroic and distorted poses and other trademarks like splayed hands. One can also see some of Piskor's other influences like Robert Crumb sneak into some panels, but moreso Drew Friedman's merciless drawings of celebrities. Piskor loves drawing old, out-of-touch white executives and uses some of Friedman's trademark liver spots for them. Piskor eliminated some of the more awkward character poses from earlier volumes but also doubled-down on others to create an exaggerated style that matched the idealism of early hip-hop with the gritty reality it emerged out of.