Friday, September 4, 2009

Three From Buenaventura: I Want You #1, Injury #3, The Aviatrix #1

Rob reviews the upcoming three-pack of single issues from Buenaventura Press. Included are I WANT YOU #1 by Lisa Hanawalt; INJURY #3 by Ted May, Mike Reddy, & Jeff Wilson; and THE AVIATRIX #1, by Eric Haven.

As I've noted in other columns, Buenaventura Press has found a clever way around Diamond's more demanding minimum order mandate that has led to several cancellations of well-regarded alt-comics series. By bundling the publication of three single-issue comics into one package, Buenaventura was able to raise both price point and ordering interest, given that a fan of one of these comics was likely to be a fan of the other two as well. It's great news for the comics community, given that all three of the comics in the bundle are best-of-the-year candidates.

Let's start with Eric Haven's THE AVIATRIX #1. Haven's TALES TO DEMOLISH series with Sparkplug highlighted his impeccable sense of absurdity and merged it with a fondness for Kirby/Ditko era monster comics. In the tradition of Lewis Trondheim, Haven tells a straightforward adventure story filled with ridiculous concepts, trappings and asides. His nameless protagonist (a stand-in for the artist) is a wonderfully blank canvas, attempting to negotiate situations that soon spin out of his control. After insulting an anteater at a zoo, he is horrified to find the beast attack him and suck out his brains. On a date with a 6-inch high woman dressed in some sort of jungle queen outfit, he suffers extreme gastrointestinal distress (which nearly kills her due to the odor) and leaves. He isn't worried because he's wearing a tie, which was supposed to bestow some sort of immunity that he kept repeating up to and including the time he is eaten by a shark.

Haven eschews any sort of explanatory exposition, knowing better than to overwrite his gags. He lets the images speak for themselves, and his steady refinement as an artist has only served to add even more of a deadpan quality to his pages. That was certainly highlighted in "Confluence", the long story that featured the comic's title character. This is Haven's best story, highlighted by the many wordless panels at the beginning that make it feel like an ambling, quotidian autobio story of some kind. Our protagonist looks at porn on his computer (his drawing board noticeably unused), drinks a beer, gets high and then takes a walk around his neighborhood in four slowly-paced pages. Only a bizarre panel of him popping up on some sort of sci-fi device on the second page of the story gives any indication that something odd is going on here.

The protagonist then sees a mountainous monster and a World War I style biplane engage in battle, as he is saved by the Aviatrix. In a hilariously impassive series of pages, she rescues him from being stomped, leaps onto the beast and finds a convoluted way to kill it--complete with heroically expository dialogue. When he asks her who she is, she flashes back in her mind's eye to her "Secret Origins", a ridiculous story of invisible avian beasts taking away her parents and secrets revealed by a weird mountain mentor on how to fight them. A scene where she told an over-eager government agent keen to gain access to the secrets of her craft to "suck my dick" speaks to the way Haven builds up one set of expectations in the reader and then gleefully bludgeons them. Haven wrapped up the issue in roughly the same way he began it: with a bathroom emergency and a longing for love. When we realize the Aviatrix has been spying on him all along, it adds an amusing level of creepiness to the whole story.

Haven's art is genuinely thrilling and his character design enormously clever--especially the monsters, of course. The Aviatrix's goggles give her a marvelously inscrutable expression; Haven is careful to never show the reader her eyes without them, even in the account of her origin. All that we know about her came from the out-of-nowhere narrative captions that told us of her motivations, and which promptly disappeared as that story ended. There's a rock-solid structure to this very silly comic, one that allows the artist to insert awkward pauses, weird images and explosions from the id without it becoming incomprehensible or self-indulgent. Haven's comics have always seemed to me to be about repression and the way that repressed desires inevitably surface. There's a flatness of affect to be found in his characters, even in the weirdest of situations, that speaks to a total disconnect between consciousness and repressed needs. That played out with the weird voyeurism of the Aviatrix countering her bad-ass persona, and the protagonist's ongoing battles with his own digestive system whenever potential romance reared its head. It's exciting to see Haven's chops catch up with his ambition as an absurdist; like Michael Kupperman, being able to draw something blandly but precisely only helps to heighten the humor of a deadpan story.

All three of these comics are funny in their own way, with Lisa Hanawalt's I WANT YOU #1 spotlighting a similar sense of absurdity, this time fused with autobio anecdotes and a touch of the grotesque. Hanawalt follows Laura Park as an artist who came from seemingly out of the blue to become an artist everyone was talking about. This comic felt like a mix between Lauren Weinstein, Renee French and Phoebe Gloeckner, yet that only scratches the surface of the compelling weirdness found between its covers. This comic is a loosely-related collection of personal hygiene anecdotes, bodily fluids, anthropomorphic animals (drawn in disturbingly exact detail), raunchy sex talk and off-the-wall concepts. The absurdity reminds me a bit of early Weinstein, especially the first page where Hanawalt rattles off lists of things like "Things I Should Probably Hide Before A Date Comes Over For The First Time" and "What Did We See Today". That page encapsulated the issue as a whole: dada observations, gross anatomical drawings (in the tradition of French and Gloeckner), and frank but decidedly unerotic sex talk.

That strip acts as a table of contents and answer key of sorts for the rest of the issue, as Hanawalt veers from a laundry list of "Mistakes We Made At The Grocery Store" (including "We were too sexual when we checked our eggs for cracks") to a story about sex bugs inhabiting her keyboard at work. In highly naturalistic detail, we see a cute little sex bug ejaculate on her face, setting off a chain of events both disgusting and hilarious. What I liked about this piece is how low-key it was drawn, despite the subject matter. The flatness of affect of the characters made the various bodily fluids spewed all the more shocking. Hanawalt purposely avoided using funny drawings or grotesque figures, which heightened the eventual punchline.

In some of the strips, Hanawalt the artist drives the humor. In "Love Letter", "Lunch Break" and "I Love She-Moose", the heads of her anthropomorphic animals are drawn so much like animals that they are unsettling to look at. There's no cuteness to be found in those stories (despite the trappings of same), only a weird sort of neurotic energy. That's heightened by the intense detail of the backgrounds--finely rendered patterns in wallpaper and carpets, checkerboard patterns in clothing, and tons of cleanly rendered bric-a-brac. With the reader already disoriented, Hanawalt drops the hammer with She-Moose getting her "scent" across a computer screen, He-Horse's losing his nerve and his erection, and the moose and cat getting their minds blown by irrational numbers.

In other strips, Hanawalt the conceptual gag writer is dominant. Her laundry list comics start from great concepts (like "Common Dirty Talk And The Questions It Raises") and go in some truly deranged directions ("8. I want to be your little slut. Q: How little?"). "Top Causes Of Freeway Accidents" all somehow involve horses, including "Pretending to be a horse". "Menstrual Terminology" is ruthless in the detail it immediately goes into regarding tampon use, including "Bento Box: inserting tampon while traveling by car or train" and "The Death Valley Stuffer: Trying to insert applicator-less tampon into dry orifice"--complete with the skull of a buffalo. Hanawalt is quite aware of what she's doing here, ending this strip with a list of ways people use to avoid hearing about menstrual terminology. "The Faux Jack-Off" is "a thing you can do while driving" that warns the reader to be careful not to think sexy thoughts while doing it, lest they actually jack-off while driving. Why someone would want to do this in the first place is a question that is not considered.

This comic has a relentless quality reminiscent of the first time I read Ivan Brunetti's SCHIZO. On page after page, there's an assault straight from the artist's id. In that respect, it doesn't seem like Hanawalt is out to shock readers deliberately, but that these are simply the topics she finds funny. Despite the unflinching nature of I WANT YOU, there's also a sense of restraint as well. The blandness of some images play off of the outrageousness of the concepts, while the funny drawings all have an unnerving quality to them. Hanawalt instantly became one of my favorite humorists after reading this comic, and I can't wait to see what's next from her.

I've long been a fan of Ted May's anthology comic INJURY, especially the ways in which he works with collaborators. My favorite ongoing feature in the comic may be Jeff Wilson's 80s high school metal saga. It strikes a chord initially because I went to high school during this era and knew lots of kids like those featured in the story. The way May & Wilson depict overwrought teen emotions is both hilarious and true to life, giving these stories a self-inflated but epic sense of importance for the principal members. This issue featured young Jeff going through in-school suspension (an especially humiliating process) after tussling with a brutal bully. As always, May excels at fight scenes both visceral and comic, and he expertly captures the sense of excitement and malaise of their fellow students when the fight spills into a classroom. The scene where his eager counselor gets him to come up with a list of three things he felt thankful for, and that the exercise not only helped with his depression but proved to be a useful resource throughout his life, was funny for a different reason. It was almost heartbreaking to see a teen try to come up with the cognitive and emotional tools needed to recognize depression, and while his answers "metal, squid, Sagan" were those of a juvenile, they also proved to be keys to unlocking his imagination. The extended fantasy sequence he has with Carl Sagan telling him about the potential for glorious heavy metal played by squid creatures on other worlds was a sweet one, helping his hopes trump his fears.

The other major story of the issue was written and laid out by May, but drawn by illustrator Mike Reddy. He hasn't done a lot of comics (mostly doing art for CD releases), but he reminds me a bit of Kaz Strzepek in terms of his character design (especially the eyes). The "Beast Biplane" is a typically ridiculous May character--a furry Bigfoot character known for his skywriting prowess from his souped-up biplane. (What are the odds of two biplane-related comics from the same publisher at the same time?) May just keeps upping the deadpan weirdness factor of this story as it proceeds, mixing up the titular hero with aggressive drag queen drug pushers forming a human pyramid, hippies selling hemp-based soap products, and turning his biplane into a giant bat. It's a hilarious bit of nonsense, and the greyscaling that Reddy uses adds to the overall density of the strip.

What these three comics share in common is a total commitment to concept. That deadpan nature, where the author never winks at the reader so to tell them that it's all a joke, is a crucial element to the success of all three comics. The reader is never told when to laugh in any sort of obvious way, in part because each comic is meant to work on multiple levels. All three of these comics are also very much from the id. Sex, an obsession with bodily functions, food and simple desire drive the characters in every story--and in a more direct way than most stories. These are all incredibly dense comics, inviting multiple readings and perusals of art. Hopefully all three books will find audiences, but there's no doubt that Alvin Buenaventura's strategy in this regard was enormously clever.

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