Tuesday, December 20, 2016
Thirty-One Days of CCS #20: Romey Petite
Romey Petite (formerly Romey Bensen) put out an epic release with My Biblical Daydreams #2. Basically, he threw everything he's been working on for the past couple of years into one package, divided into three folios. They are divided into non-fiction, essays and fiction. Petite is a fastidious chronicler of his own work, as he has introductions for each of the sections that give details as to their origins, where they first appeared, his intent, etc. This is a dense, intense look not just at the work of a cartoonist but also the cartoonist's process. It's clear that Petite thinks best when combining word and image, as he's able to cleverly play off the strengths of both to get across his ideas; it's true even when he was doing an introduction to this issue. The best way to describe his style is cartoony naturalism. There are a number of naturalistic details (especially with regard to things like clothes and close-up drawings), but there are subtle bigfoot details like exaggerated noses, eyes that form strange shapes, etc. There's a nervous energy in his line that adds to the jittery feeling of all of his comics, including his autobio work. Even though his figures tend to appear posed on the page, that nervous energy gives each page a kinetic quality.
Petite's autobio work is unsurprisingly thoughtful, restrained and questioning. "Flight" is a moment of sad clarity after his girlfriend left on a plane, where he understands just how much of his best self is wrapped up in her, and her absence leaves him unraveled. That stiff, nervous energy serves the strip well, as Petite uses imbalanced negative space in the bottom two panels to help get across that sense of feeling lost. Another fascinating strip was "The Phallus", which was about a memory Petite had as a child when he saw a snake in the garage as he was reaching for a toy train. His memory warped the shape of the snake, and the strip then turns to modern times as Petite, his mother and his younger brother all try to unwrap the memory. "Doppelganger" is similar in the way that Petite plays with memory on a trip to a Goodwill store where his mom was thinking of buying a vanity but he finds a ventriloquist's dummy sitting on a couch. The strangeness of finding that object in that location bent Petite's memory on other things that happened during that trip, as the dummy took on all sorts of ridiculous associations and significance, to the point where he felt a weird parental pride and worry toward the dummy. It's a hilarious but slightly unsettling story, which is pretty much Petite's sweet spot as a cartoonist. That plays out in "Welcome To My Dream", in which Petite draws and then redraws his girlfriend Laurel's horrific dream about being served a feast with food riddled with maggots, worms, scorpions and beetles. In the redraw of certain details, you can see Petite at his most naturalistic, lovingly detailing the beetles and maggots.
In the essay section, his "Ginnywoman" is as much autobio is it is an essay about feminism. It's about his relationship with his frequently angry father and a family that listened to hyperaggressive right-wing talk radio. He admits to having grown up hearing the word "feminazi" before the word "feminist". His depiction of his father as ranging from a beloved cartoon character to a hulking, terrifying presence indicates the complexity of considering one's parents, but it's clear that he was subjected to a childhood filled with examples of toxic masculinity. What's interesting is that Bensen addresses the issue of being a feminist as something that's not up to him to judge; he can only go about life regarding himself as being pro-feminist. It's a smart take on the topic because it's a way of deflating the self-congratulatory nature of men declaring themselves feminists. The other essay, "Baubles and Bibles", is Petite unfortunately trying to figure out what to call comics as a class assignment. This debate was aimed at a non-comics reading audience, and while I appreciate his enthusiasm in trying to generate a term better than "graphic novel" for what he and alternative cartoonists do, this line of inquiry tends to be a useless exercise. The one term he did invent that might one day have legs is the idea of the "auteur cartoonist" to distinguish them from other types of cartoonists. Of course, that term is as pretentious as "graphic novel", which he points out is a marketing term above all else. In the end, I remain unconvinced that greater specificity in defining alternative comics is of any real value so long as the work keeps coming.
In the fiction section, one could see why Petite listed this as his preferred form of self-expression, as the quality of his line meshes perfectly with the enigmatic stories he likes to tell. "Fugitive From The Monkey House" is jam-packed with clever conceits, like the hypothetical experiment of a thousand monkeys with typewriters banging out Shakespeare if given enough time. In this story, the experiment was real, the monkey was treated with a drug that made them intelligent and the monkey wound up writing a novella. Of course, the real reason the monkey was on the show was because he was captured drunk on video doing a dance, and he became a celebrity for that reason. The framing device of a talk-show host who wanted to focus on that instead of on the astounding phenomenon of a talking monkey who actually created his own literature makes the story all the more pointed. There are riffs on xenobiology and The New Yorker, a horrific transformation caught on celluloid, a clown who bombs on stage because he loses his voice (and then his mind), and the further adventures of Conner Wormwood, who had horrible dreams about his real father and faces an intrusive cat living in his house. Petite has something here with this character, whose strange adventures remind me a bit of early Chester Brown. Petite is the rare cartoonist whose work is highly stylized while retaining a great deal of clarity, both in terms of character design and storytelling decisions. This is a cartoonist who is clearly just starting to get warmed up and who has a long career ahead of him.