Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sharp Stick: Black Eye, Volume 1

The Black Eye anthology gained some initial notoriety thanks to being stopped at the Canadian border prior to TCAF in 2011 and rejected by customs, due to material that they found objectionable. While editor Ryan Standfest had to deal with the headache of censorship and having his work seized, that reaction in some sense was a triumph for the kind of reaction he attempts to provoke in this volume. Black Eye is part-comic, part zine in its approach to Black Humor, the darkly satirical off-branch of comedy that began in roughly the 1960s. It's clear that Standfest draws a straight line between the influence of EC Comics and Black Humor, because everything from the subtitle ("Graphic Transmissions Designed To Cause Ocular Hypertension") to the feature on Panic editor Al Feldstein reads very much as a tribute to EC, both in style and appearance.

Black Eye is obviously an intensely personal, idiosyncratic publication that feels wildly uneven to anyone who doesn't share the editor's precise sense of aesthetics. Sean Collins' review in The Comics Journal criticized it for being a humor publication that lacked many laughs. While that's true to an extent, there's nothing on the cover that says "humor"; indeed, the images suggest something more akin to underground comics. The humor to be found in the comics of S. Clay Wilson (profiled at length by Jeet Heer) is far from conventional, for example, and that's true of the many underground-influenced artists featured here, many of whom are staples in Glenn Head's Hotwire anthology. Producing laffs isn't so much the point here as it is to unsettle, disquiet and provoke readers.

One thing greatly in its favor is the book's design. With a font originally designed in the 1930s, the book has an antiquarian feel to it, looking like some obscure, strange academic journal. As such, the text-heavy pieces in the book are pleasant to read and simply look at, which is helpful because Standfest was unable to include much in the way of actual original art in the book's articles about Wilson, Feldstein, Steve Ditko and The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist. That was to the detriment of each of the three articles, especially given that the author of each piece went into great detail about specific pieces of art that the reader wasn't allowed to see. Apart from that, the essays are astoundingly good and certainly led me to reconsider some of my ideas about the artists in question. For example, I find Wilson's work to be juvenile and repulsive, but Heer makes a convincing case for Wilson not only being a beacon for id-exploration that peers like Robert Crumb were drawn to, but also as a satirist and moralist in the tradition of Rabelais. Bob Levin's story about Michael O'Donoghue and Phoebe Zeit-Geist also gets at the central conceit of the anthology; that book, like Wilson's work, is not so much funny as it is mean and ridiculous. It's designed to provoke and fascinate. Standfest's history of Panic (a MAD spinoff) is interesting because it ties the humor of that title directly into the horror comics of EC, which in themselves were examples of proto-Black Humor. Ken Parille's assertion that Ditko's more Objectivist comics held a similar dark, satirical (but ultimately moral) character also makes sense in this light.

So how do the comics chosen for the book stack up in that regard? Leading off with an Al Columbia comic is a great way to disturb an audience, and his image of a rotting tooth being extracted is both beautiful and creepy. The Mark Newgarden "Insurance" calendar is one of the more graphically clever and funnier pieces in the book, using a different graphic on each day of the month to reflect the need for insurance. The fact that each image follows sequentially from day to day makes the joke especially effective. Onsmith's two page spread of single-panel gags (the ones that got Standfest in trouble with Canadian customs) embody the sort of bone-dry humor that Ivan Brunetti popularized in the late 90s. Onsmith is one of the few artists who can do it as well as him (which isn't surprising, since Brunetti was his mentor). The banality of the humor combined with the horrific nature of the events he depicts (rape, dismemberment, murder, etc) is what gives these images their charge. Brunetti's own stripped-down strips felt a little half-hearted compared to his more recent, richer work, but there were still some laughs to be found in the simple brutality of his punchlines.

French artist Roland Topor's list "100 Good Reasons To Kill Myself Right Now" is similarly hilarious, with #91 ("So others will follow my example") being my favorite. In general, Standfest keeps a pretty good rhythm going in the anthology, with one major exception: the preponderance of fake ad pages, which kill the momentum of the book nearly every time. If Standfest did that as a sort of tribute to Panic's fake ads, it fails on several levels: most of the ads aren't funny; most importantly, most of the ads don't have the graphic realism that made Panic's fake ads so effective; and the tribute itself is too on-the-nose in imitating Panic. The big exception to that rule was Danny Hellman's contribution: his Wally Wood "We're Looking For People Who Are Dying To Draw" ad is both brutally effective and flawlessly-executed, while his smaller page of ads gets it right because of the clarity of his drawing & design and the familiarity this page will have for fans of old comics. I did like Michael Kupperman's fake ad page, but that sort of absurdity ("All-Purpose Animal Groinologues!") doesn't seem to have much to do with Black Humor.

The most successful stories seems to have an explicitly narrative bent to them rather than a directly political one. Olivier Schrauwen's "The Postdamer Wolfman" is a good example of this, as a needlessly frightened man, woman and mad scientist are all suddenly given good reason to be afraid in three tightly-packed, geometrically-apportioned (lots of circles and triangles framing the action) pages. "In Memory of Brecht Evans' Wife" is even better, as it's a brutal send-up of memoir as a form of self-aggrandizement. Other highlights include the vicious mash-up of "Medea" and the Mell Lazarus comic strip "Momma" as well as Lilli Carre's "Hands", which also seems to share a thread from EC Comics in the way she she provides an ironic ending and then makes a wisecrack about it.

There are also plenty of pin-ups and illustrations with provocative or gross-out imagery. Much like in Hotwire, I found these to be the weakest link of the book. Less effective than that is editorial cartoonist Martin Rowson's "Black Humour", which uses the conceit of clowns as members of Goldman-Sachs in order to perpetuate a joke. The thud of that punchline is all the more egregious given the overly-labored nature of his art. A good third of the book's content could have been trimmed with absolutely no detriment to the final product; indeed, it probably would have made it a stronger book. Of course, that's the book I would have edited it down to, and it's clear that Standfest has other ideas and a conception of Black Humor that's perhaps a bit broader than stated in the book's manifesto essays. The uncompromising expression of his own aesthetic is what makes this book such a powerful experience, even if it is frustrating at times. I look forward to a second volume.

1 comment:

  1. i really loved this anthology and am sad that I'm not in it.