Wednesday, October 23, 2013

J.T. Dockery and the Coal Mine School

Reading through the collected comics of JT Dockery, I was struck by the cover of his book Despair. On it, it promises guest appearances by Julia Gfrorer and Chris Wright, and my immediate thought was "Of course it does." Dockery's scratchy, dense, cross-hatch heavy and comedically pitch-black comics have a lot in common with Gfrorer, Wright, Anna Bongiovanni, Zak Sally, Max Mose and a few other cartoonists (including sometimes Eleanor Davis and Eamon Espey). What they all have in common is the way they use comics as a way of unloading pain, trauma and the contents of their id. With regard to the latter, it's not in a free-wheeling manner like S.Clay Wilson or Robert Crumb, but rather an approach that sees that id captured, pinned down and examined thoroughly on the page. These artists also tend to use mythology, fables, fairy tales, junk culture and horror as mediating devices. The human body and what it does is a matter of clear fascination and revulsion, as body horror is not uncommon in their works. I don't want to risk being too reductive in trying to lump artists into a particular sub-genre or movement (it's certainly a weakness of mine), but I want to highlight and celebrate these artists, given that I find their comics to be fascinating as art that works on multiple levels: aesthetic impact, emotional, psychological and cerebral. These are smart cartoonists who make their work easier to understand by providing metaphors that are concrete, primal and easy to grasp, while never making their meanings plain or obvious. Dockery thanked Gfrorer and Wright for their contributions to Despair, noting that they all labored in the same "coal mine" in making comics. A coal mini is dark, dangerous, oppressive and yet those who work in it share a certain camaraderie regarding their labors. So my shorthand for this kind of comic will be the Coal Mine School.

Dockery has had three major collections of comics, each of which showed his progression as an artist both technically and narratively. Dockery's comics are a sort of cross between Robert Crumb and Chester Gould by way of HP Lovecraft, mashing together a pulp framework and the howl of the id. That said, there's also a probing, curious intellect evident in his work, one that takes inspiration from poetry, folk tales and hard times. There's a matter of fact surreality present in Dockery's work, where the grotesque and bizarre frequently have sexual overtones as true surreality does. That said, there's a strict kind of dream logic to be found in his work, with a set of rules that aren't always easy to discern but are present nonetheless. There's also a pitch-black sense of humor to be found on each page, where the laughs are usually unsettling in nature. In Tongues Illustrated is a collection of strips that start off with unconnected stories but soon launch into the adventures of Mask or Machine, Private Investigator (a golden age pulp superhero type) and Jack Lustmond (a Sam Spade type). Both heroes are instantly in over their heads in their various adventures, quickly undone by women and overwhelmed by greatly superior villains. Dockery loves thinking about people who don't fit in and fall through the cracks, like the author Harry Stephen Keeler, a man with a fertile imagination who wrote nearly impenetrable novels written in ethnic slang. The book concludes with a final series of strips about Lustmond, his femme fatale Mona, and a series of primal images about their relationship and the origin of the universe. It doesn't quite cohere, and indeed this first collection of strips feels fragmented, as though Dockery is reaching for a thousand ideas at once and doesn't quite know how to arrange them.

Dockery's second major work is Spud Crazy, an adaptation of a Nick Tosches script. It's easy to see why Dockery took this strange work on, because it's jam-packed with noir imagery and tropes, strange sexual fetishes, shadows, narrative fragments and memorable images. It begins by conflating the image of a sexy female leg with a potato and goes from there. Indeed, even though Dockery didn't write the script, Spud Crazy is a recapitulation of sorts of the kinds of tropes, images and themes he explored in In Tongues Illustrated. The main difference, oddly enough is that Tosches' script leaves more to the imagination, making this a comic dominated more by its images than its words. Once again, there are detective tropes, femmes fatale, mysterious nightclubs, plants growing out of strange places, and a dead prostitute. The story doesn't have a particular beginning or end, per se; indeed, one can imagine reading it on a loop and picking up nearly anywhere in the narrative. The introduction by Richard Hell (!) and longer essay by Bob Levin are interesting supplemental material but not essential to reading and absorbing the comic. I do recommend listening to the accompanying CD as a sort of soundtrack, but I would also regard this as more supplemental than essential. Dockery's images stand alone.
The first volume of the winkingly-titled Despair is Dockery's best work to date. Published in early 2013, the comic is 90% Dockery, with endpapers based on the tarot's Ten of Swords (disaster) by Gfrorer and a short story by Wright at the very end that's all about the ways in which direct knowledge is very limited indeed. The first story, "ThisEatsItself", is a horror tale that's visceral in a manner not unlike Thomas Ott. It follows a man who buys a strange object that he eats, only to wake and find that his mouth is gone. In short order, he discovers a mouth on his arms, with jagged teeth. A mouth appears at the end of his penis, and he finds himself feeding them whiskey and then pieces of his own flesh, including an honest-to-god injury to the eye motif when he cuts out his own eye and feeds it to his mouth-penis. More mouths appear and eventually his devouring a magical book leaves the book and makes him disappear. This is a brutal, dark and yet bleakly humorous story about consumption in all its forms. Dockery also prefaces an adaptation of a Stephen Crane poem with a short story about wakefulness, which is really about the sensation of waking up into a nightmare. It's about desires thwarted but unabated and coming to terms with one's situation. "The Black Riders and Other Lines" features trial after trial, with Dockery inserting his own caricature into each of the trials, either as observer or participant. Each of the stanzas is about the end of hope, the end of being or the end of feeling, conflating all three at various points. It plumbs the depths of despair, which is why I imagine Dockery was drawn to it, yet this coal miner of an artist always manages to find a laugh in the most desperate of situations. How else could he manage to keep digging?

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