Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sequart #167: Hot Breath of War

This weekend, I'll be republishing some old reviews of various Sparkplug comics. Today, it's a pair from Trevor Alixopulos. This review originally ran on

Trevor Alixopulos struck a nerve with his paranoid capitalist spy thriller Mine Tonight, and he follows that up with war parables in The Hot Breath of War. His style is more eccentric and playful than usual, channeling Jules Feiffer and Elzie Segar into his work. He's always had a loose and expressive style, especially with regard to his character design, and he unleashes that here on pages that are mostly have just one or two panels each. Alixopulos' opening salvo is his invocation of a Thomas Paine quote noting that "He who is the author of war lets loose the whole contagion of hell and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death". This book is as much about the collective consciousness of a society as it is about war itself, and what happens to its citizens when times become warped beyond comprehension.

There are six separate stories in the book and they are loosely connected in terms of theme. Roughly speaking, the stories break down into stories about soldiers, stories about victims and stories about life during wartime. The two stories about a pair of soldiers, "We Are Defeated" and "Vallodolid 1936", couldn't be more different in terms of tone. The former is political satire as slapstick, as Alixopulos is at his most playful, culminating in a punchline and a plop-take. Body language is one of Alixopulos' greatest strengths: his characters are always slumping, leaning, slouching or falling forward. The exception is "Vallodolid 1936" where a communist soldier fighting during the Spanish Civil War is captured and sent to die before a firing squad. As the chapter nears its inevitable conclusion, the art becomes more realistic and the prisoner stands ramrod straight, defiant in the face of death and meaninglessness.

The two stories about victims, "There's A Monkey On My Back..." & "...and His Breath Is Hot" read more like fairy tales or parables, albeit without a moral. The former story takes a child who resembles Huck Finn (or perhaps Dennis the Menace) and forces him into a mythic journey. The narrator guides the reader through the story and simultaneously deconstructs it. The boy comes to what appears to be a happy end, at least in his own mind, but the doomed expression on the faces of those who save him tell a different story. "...and His Breath Is Hot" mimics the action of a stage drama, as a soldier returning from war meets a girl dragging her dead mother away in a wagon. The formal nature of their dialogue and the give-and-take between the two characters is deliberately stiff and awkward. The reality is that there's really nothing left to say for the girl and the soldier.

The life during wartime stories, "A Journey Into Time" and "Data Recovery" find Alixopulos on his most familiar and firmest ground. These are variations on the sort of urban romances he's been writing for quite some time, only far bleaker. "Data Recovery" finds our protagonist skipping out of his night shift job in a desperate attempt at seeking connection in a world that's become increasingly unreal and meaningless. In an echo of Hurricane Katrina, he finds that the party and subsequent hook-up he gets into are really the last revel before the apocalypse, as the ocean sweeps away his city. As much as the protagonist is looking for connection, he's also looking for something to do, trying to forestall boredom (and hence oblivion) in the face of the chaos he encounters.

"A Journey Into Time" interweaves the stories of three characters, including a carefree anthropomorphic cat. The cat lacks the desperation of the other characters, flowing freely along life's tide to create a balanced existence. The girl in the story is seeking human connection even as she must cut herself off from a relationship that was in danger of wrecking her own sense of narrative. The man in the story is an agent of crass materialism, seeking to possess what is not his and threatening to destroy what he can't have. He possesses an enormous sense of entitlement, wanting what he hasn't earned because he figures it's owed to him somehow. The specter of war looms in this story from two servicemen who run a bar (one horribly injured) to the sense that this feeling of entitlement is what keeps wars running.

The overall effect of this book was somewhat scattershot. It took a few readings to really grab on to it, to not only absorb each story but try to contextualize them in relation to the others. That effort is more than worth it, especially when one understands the way Alixopulous not only is paying tribute to classic cartoonists but also recontextualizing familiar war iconography. Sex is a key undercurrent of the book. In Freudian terms, this book is very much about the eros and thanatos drives, and the way the latter affects and pathologizes the former. Alixopulos' greatest feat was creating a work that is very much a political statement that avoids didacticism, one that examines issues from a variety of viewpoints but that allows the reader some flexibility in playing with these ideas. While it's not quite as crisp a read as Mine Tonight, I think Alixopulos was deliberately trying for a much different effect. His passion for dissecting issues related to global politics has become perfectly integrated with his understanding of how best to depict them in comics form.

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