Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Percy Gloom, Bardin The Superrealist, Things Just Get Away From You

This column was originally published at sequart.com in 2007.

I'm reviewing Bardin the Superrealist, Percy Gloom and Things Just Get Away From You together, and not just because of their superficial similarities. Rather, all three books elicit the same feelings from me as a reader, although in significantly different ways. All three create quirky, skewed realities that force the reader to adapt to what they see on the page or get left behind. While initially disorienting, each artist skillfully draws the reader into the story's own internal logic with warmth and humor. All three artists then jolt the reader with disturbing images, ideas and emotions, each choosing to resolve their stories differently.

Let's begin with the most self-contained of the three books, Cathy Malkasian's Percy Gloom. Malkasian is a newcomer to comics, but is a veteran of animation, having directed The Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys. Our hero is an odd little man whose most fervent dream is to work for Safely-Now, a business devoted to "cautionary writing"--the art of finding out all of the ways things can be dangerous. Percy meets all sorts of odd characters along the way to a job interview in an unusual city. He encounters singing goats, odd shops, and kids looking for a cobblestone that would destroy the city so as to prevent them from going back to school. What gives this book weight is its underlying theme: a frank and honest examination of death. This is death at an ontological level: not just dying, but the idea of non-being. Some of the characters in the book are repulsed by the idea of living and the ennui they see as surrounding it, while others are so frightened of it that they try to find ways to conquer the inevitable. That latter route leads to some dark behavior for some of the characters, threatening everyone around them.

Percy himself starts off as a nebbishy Candide sort of character, constantly beleaguered by his surroundings and bullied by more forceful personalities. However, as we get to know him, we understand the tragedies that have shaped him and learn that his own decision to choose life or death is a complicated one. It's interesting that Malkasian presents this struggle with death as an organizational and institutional one. Death is reduced to a bureaucratic struggle by Safely-Now, with the idea that it can be prevented by coming up with enough rules and warnings. One cult arises around the idea of death being preferable to life, though its leader notably doesn't practice what he preaches. Another religion arises out of the fear of death. That latter cult was in opposition to traditional ideas of accepting death as part of a tradition and custom. Percy emerges as a figure who embraces "all this pointlessness...as very entertaining", inspiring others even as he resolves his own struggles and sadness.

Malkasian tells the story with rubbery character design, grey tones and an assured pencil line. Her characters look like a cross between Bill Plympton and her Nickelodeon work, and the story's tone itself feels like that as well. There's a sense of joy and creepiness on every page, and Malkasian keeps the story lively and even suspenseful as she slowly unravels the story's themes, twists and turns. The result is a new kind of "fairy tale" with abundant charm and surprising depth.

Bardin the Superrealist is by Spanish artist Max, and it's more of a collection of interrelated stories than a single full-length narrative. The stories revolve around the title character, who has suddenly been given insights and abilities relating to the "superreal" world--a plane that's above our world. He's given these insights by the Andulsian Dog, a character evoking the famous title of the Dali/Bunuel film. There are all sorts of cheeky references to surrealism, and while there are plenty of surrealist themes (especially with regard to sexuality), this book owes a lot more to dream logic. In particular, Max skillfully portrays dream logic in the language of comics.

Bardin ponders divinity, mortality, creativity and wrestles with demons in his dreams. What makes this a great comic is its light touch and comic timing. In fact, Max eschews traditional surrealist techniques in favor of a spare cartooning style that is reminiscent of classic American cartooning. There's a little Herriman in there, maybe a little Milt Gross and other influences as well. The pace goes from frantic to languid, but the book is at its best when Bardin is interacting with his friends in a bar. From writing a manifesto for creating comics, to refereeing a poetry contest, to an explication of the patron saint of idleness, Max doesn't dip into surrealism so much as he does into well-honed gag techniques. His art here serves to set up his jokes, and it does so with great efficiency.

On the other hand, the most visually striking strips in the book deal with dreams and hallucinations. Bardin engages in extended debates with god-figures that are profane, convoluted and hilariously blasphemous. Perhaps the highest blasphemy of all is the resemblance of the god-figure to a certain iconic corporate mouse. Max goes crazy fooling around with divine schematics and icons, and these strips have a compelling internal logic that takes a few readings to adjust to.

His dream strips are really nightmare strips, playing off the Fussli painting "The Nightmare", where a ghastly monkey and horse torture a sleeper in repose. The horse and ape in Max's strips are a comical pair that trade quips with each other as they find new ways to torture Bardin, mostly revolving around implanting images of him having sex with his mother. In the book's last story, "The Sound and the Fury", Bardin gets even with his antagonists, going on a bloody & violent heroic quest in his dream, killing every opponent in his path. Finally, he meets up with a stunned horse and monkey and kills both of them as well. Consumed by bloodlust, he drives a sword into into his own sleeping form. Realizing his mistake, he slinks off the page as the book ends. It's a fitting end to a book's worth of wackiness.

Despite some occasionally heavy philosophical underpinnings and bizarre imagery, this book is really a lighthearted tribute to cartooning's golden age. The book makes no attempt to explain itself to unsuspecting readers--we're confronted with the initial premise and then the book meanders off into some very odd corners. Bardin manages to take its source material quite seriously, yet presents it in the most flippant and lighthearted of manners. It avoids pretentiousness with the playfulness of its art, but there's no doubt that Max is trying to get at something essential in his own consciousness. In this book, a punchline and a Great Truth are often the same thing.

There's a certain buoyancy to the first two comics I've reviewed. Even though both books deal with some heavy topics, there's a lightness and even optimism that shines through. This isn't the case with the third, and most beautiful, book I'm reviewing here: Walt Holcombe's Things Just Get Away From You. Holcombe's art is simply jaw-dropping, once again echoing classic comic strips of the 20th century. His art is so beautiful it almost hurts to look at. His composition and character design are his greatest strengths. His characters are expressive and fluid, drawing the reader into their world with their cartoony and exaggerated movements. Holcombe is a master at using blacks on his pages, giving them a certain weight for the reader's eye to process. On top of all that, his decorative sense fills each page with so much for a reader to see, yet never interferes with the story's flow.

Holcombe's character design ranges from friendly to sexy to funny. As a reader, I really enjoy just staring at his characters, and they draw a reader's eye and hold it to the page. The lightheartedness of his art would threaten to degenerate into froth if it wasn't for the fatalistic, downbeat nature of his stories. In essence, Holcombe writes about relationships and their inevitable downfalls. His view of humanity is cynical at best and frequently misanthropic. The possibility of finding and keeping true love, in Holcombe's strips, seems to be a near impossibility. Contrasting these themes with the sweetness of his art is an unsettling experience for a reader, especially when one reads several of his downbeat strips in a row. Unsettling, but still quite rewarding.

The two centerpieces of the collection are "King of Persia" and "Swollen Holler", both tales of love lost and found. The first story involves a man who has everything but true love. This king wears a fez, spectacles and a featherduster mustache. He's immediately funny to look at, and the woman he falls for (a commoner) is a delicately-designed creature, all curves and mysteries. After being spurned, he undertakes a quest to find an emerald in order to win her hand and save her life. That leads him on his way with a talking camel (who is in love with him and jealous of the woman) to a sky kingdom where Holcombe goes absolutely crazy with his imagery. The story mutates into a sort of 1920's era flapper and top-hat story for awhile, before the king treacherously steals the gem and reneges on several promises along the way. Finally, he wins her hand, but it's not happily ever after. Instead, he grows bored with her, ignores her and drives her to a horrible end. Unable to accept any blame, he winds up with a well-deserved fate. The tragedy of the story is the fate of his faithful camel, who only wishes to be with him forever.

The exchanges between the king and the camel as they're on their quest are painful and almost confessional in nature. They stick out in a story that has fairy tale trappings, feeling more real than most true-life stories. The main characters are narcissists, almost to the point of sociopathy, yet Holcombe forces the reader to identify and even sympathize with them--up to a point. All of the whimsy and illustrative fireworks in this story serve the dark emotional core. Unlike Bardin and Percy Gloom, where the contrasts in art and subject matter tip towards optimism and self-determination (respectively), "King of Persia" not only paints a grimmer picture for the possibility of happiness, it does so with a brush that says that most of our wounds are self-inflicted.

Slightly more upbeat is "Swollen Holler", a mini-epic about anthropomorphic insects and their dysfunctional relationships. Once again, every character here sows the seeds of their own downfall. The reason why this story is a bit more hopeful is that despite (and eventually, because) of their assorted flaws, they wind up together in the end. The heartbreaking thing about this story is that once again, the wounds are self-inflicted. One of the main characters rejects his girlfriend (a delightfully-rendered and graceful insect-girl) because he feels that he's not worthy of being loved. She flits from lover to lover, putting him on the spot by humiliating him. The scenes between them are painful, almost like reading someone's diary in how true-to-life they feel.

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