Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Id On The Page: Where Demented Wented

Rob reviews the career-spanning collection of lesser-known underground comics artist Rory Hayes, WHERE DEMENTED WENTED (Fantagraphics).

The influence of the underground artists of the 1960s on comics today is still considerable, especially since the vast majority of them are still alive and active. Robert Crumb is better than ever and still an inspiration to many artists. Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith, Frank Stack, Jay Lynch, Justin Green, Spain and others continue to publish fairly prolifically. I've found that for most of these artists, their work from the 1980s on is actually much better than their 1960s work. Some of the most famous and influential artists of that era, like Gilbert Shelton and S. Clay Wilson, produced comics that seem fairly juvenile and tedious today. Shelton led an array of artists making jokes centering around drugs, which was in itself a creative dead end.

Wilson was a different case. He was the first underground artist to encourage and exemplify the idea of not holding back anything on the page. He unleashed everything from his id in his dense, sex-and-violence soaked pages. However, I've always found the results to be juvenile at best and unreadable at worst. The theory behind what he was doing always seemed more interesting than the actual comics, though his influence on artists like Crumb would prove to be crucial. He also had a significant on another artist who was by nature incapable of holding anything back: Rory Hayes.

Hayes didn't publish a lot of comics and died fairly young of a drug overdose. In the first collection of his work, WHERE DEMENTED WENTED, we not only get to see the bulk of his published comics (and some unpublished material), we also get a couple of key essays about his life, influences and career. It's frankly a stunning retrospective that seems remarkably fresh today. Hayes' work was not well-understood or embraced outside of his artist friends at that time. It was considered too raw and even too transgressive (like his infamous Cunt Comics); in today's comics world, it looks like cutting-edge work. Ever since I first saw his comics in an old collection of Bijou Funnies, it popped off the page for me, and I'm grateful to see such an extensive collection.

The story of Hayes is that of his influences and the way he processed them and then transcended them. The key essay in the book is by his brother Geoffrey, a successful children's author and illustrator. It offers a tremendous amount of insight into Rory's early years, especially Hayes' relentless anger as a child. Despite their growing differences as children, the two constantly collaborated on any number of creative endeavors: films, fanzines and especially comics. Geoffrey was always the more polished artist of the pair, but he noted in his essay that Rory always pushed him and inspired to go further. Rory was always more obsessive and focused, though Geoffrey notes that Rory never consciously analyzed what he was doing: he just did it. Creating art together was a part of their sibling language, part of the way they dealt with the world. The fact that Geoffrey's art, and life, went in such a different direction despite all that they shared in common continues to mystify Geoffrey, though he notes that despite their differences "Rory is still present, as he always will be, in every story I write, every line I draw. Ultimately they are all for him."

An unfortunate aspect of this book is the way Hayes' fellow underground artists refer to him as a primitive artist or "original outsider artist". I think this description is probably based more on how people interacted with him than on the work itself. His brother Geoffrey touches on it briefly, but it seems obvious in retrospect that Rory was probably somewhere on the spectrum of autism. It's not so much a matter of being an "outsider", but looking at and interacting with the world in a very different way. If there's anything unusual about Hayes' methods, it's that he never seemed to care about what Lynda Barry refers to as the two questions: "Is this good?" and "Does this suck?" Drawing was as natural to him as eating or sleeping, not something that was a matter for introspection. While he obviously responded to the tutelage of Crumb and Wilson and wanted to respond to their challenges and encouragement, he was always ever drawing for himself.

Hayes' earlier work was informed by EC horror comics, various horror films, humor comics and other assorted pop ephemera. Hayes took the bear character that he developed with his brother and inserted him into grim, gore-splattered scenarios. Though he was clearly inspired by EC comics in terms of the text narrative, purple dialogue and ironic twist endings, what he does is very different. Hayes manages to zero in on the creepy and atmospheric parts of those sorts of stories without worrying much about plot or characterization. The cuteness of his bear character makes a clever juxtaposition with the horrible things that happen to him--and unlike many EC stories, he reaches a bad end regardless of whether or not he deserves it.

One reason why I wouldn't refer to what Hayes does as outsider art is that while his line can be crude, his understanding of composition and design is excellent. It's clear that he studied other artists extensively, though it didn't seem to bother him too much that he couldn't precisely reproduce their techniques. It also didn't take him long to rapidly develop and improve his technical prowess, though his work never lost the immediacy of his vision. One can see the frantic detail of Wilson and rubbery character design of Crumb informing his comics, but those influences didn't alter his voice any more than horror films did. He simply absorbed the influence and it became another layer of images that informed his artistic vision.

The reprint of the hyper-violent "stories" from "Cunt Comics" is certainly the most startling work in this volume. While there are certainly misogynistic images, it's not the juvenile revenge fantasies of Wilson or domination fantasies of Crumb. It's far weirder and more primal, a documentation of a fear of sexuality on the page. As warped as some of the images are, it's also incredibly funny at times. There's an absurd character to Hayes' work that separates it from similar sorts of comics. In a sense, Hayes goes a step further than Crumb or Wilson in that there's no agenda to how he expresses his id, no self-serving set of fantasy ideals or images. There's almost a child-like quality to these comics, in the way that children imagine sex and obsess on body parts as much or more than the act of sex itself.

Hayes' later work is almost startlingly polished-looking, with extensive use of zip-a-tone. By this time, he felt the need to consistently exist in an altered state, especially on speed. That started to show in his stories, especially in the stunning "Keeper of the Mind". Returning to an EC motif, we're drawn into the world of Popoff Hayes, "the drug fiend". Using one of his trademark teddy bears (drawn with a sort of permagrin that resembles the way jaws lock up when one takes speed), Hayes tells a story where Popoff gets speed & coke, takes them, and later travels with a friend and does more speed and coke. The physical trip in this story is inconsequential; it's the weird places he finds his mind going to that's the show here. Being that wired, Hayes implies, takes the brain to some very dark areas, tapping into some kind of primordial nightmares. Hayes' brother implies that Rory's stories tap into a sort of "H.P. Lovecraft territory". That is, he suspects that Rory was entering into a place mentally and emotionally where it became difficult to hang on to reality, making him become dependent on drugs. As a result, he began to work less and less. Though he died in 1983, the last story in this book is from 1976.

Hayes has slowly become an important influence in the world of alternative cartoonists. Edwin "Savage Pencil" Pouncey (who wrote the introduction) is one such artist, while it's obvious that Mark Beyer drew a considerable amount of inspiration from Hayes--both in terms of theme and style. This collection is simply essential for anyone the least bit interested in underground comics. Not only is the book well-edited in terms of the comics themselves (thanks to the always-savvy Dan Nadel and co-editor Glenn Bray), but the bonus materials are among the best I've ever read in such a collection. Contrasting the memories of Hayes' fellow underground artists with the heartfelt and frequently heart-breaking memories of his brother made for a rather dramatic shift, and the brief archival interview with Hayes made for a fitting final piece. His last response says it all: "I'm not so much into words. When people ask me to talk about my work, it's hard for me. I just feel I don't need to talk about it. It's such a complete thing for me, when I do it, and I hope people will get
that from it."

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