Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Getting Filthy With Aaron Lange

Aaron Lange is one of a handful of the few truly skilled underground comics pornographers. This is a class of cartoonist that goes beyond the merely perverted, like Robert Crumb and later Rick Altergott, and exploits sex for shock and humorous purposes. Whereas Josh Simmons fuses filth with horror (especially body horror) and Robin Bougie's porn is explicitly and unflinchingly satirical, Lange plays it strictly for laughs. For Lange, there are no lines when it comes to jokes; like the brutally acidic stand-up comedian Anthony Jeselnik, Lange gleefully crosses and erases all lines of propriety and respect for others. His material is frequently racist, sexist (to the point of misogynistic and beyond), homophobic and sometimes anti-Semetic. He is not only unapologetic about this, but in fact gleefully revels in crossing the line. Perhaps the most offensive of his cartoons was "Anorexic Jew", from Romp #3. At the end of this gag, he asks, "Do I have an Eisner Award yet?" acknowledging and sneering at the comics establishment (and really, polite society as a whole) in one fell swoop.

Of course, like Jeselnik, Lange is extremely skilled in how he constructs his taboo jokes. One thing that's true is that while Lange's Romp material in particular is shock humor, he never lets the shock alone act as the humor. He always has a solid, smart punchline crafted that blends perfectly with his superb drawing ability, all in the service of his decidedly politically incorrect jokes. What sets Lange apart from your average smut-peddler is a willingness to really "spill some ink" about himself and his family in his autobiographical pieces, all of which are uniformly excellent and entertaining. Not since Denny Eichorn started Real Stuff has there been an artist tell so many sordid tales about himself and others, only Lange's stories are more organically whole because he handles both writing and art duties. (Not surprisingly, Lange has drawn a couple of features for Eichorn's newest iteration of his series.)

For example, his "My Grandad" (from Razor Burn #?) is a warts-and-all, matter-of-fact account of his beloved grandfather, who happened to be a member of the Hitler Youth who then fought in the German navy in World War II. It revels in his grandfather's contradictions as a human being; a self-professed "hippie" who nonetheless recalled the good old days when everyone had jobs in Germany because of Hitler. That personal complexity is the key to understanding and enjoying Lange's work, because his personal accounts reveal a loving and caring individual who is also neurotic and possessed a huge self-destructive streak in the past. A good example of this playing out is "Second Handed" (also from Razor Burn), a remarkable story about working with junkie grifters as a used record store clerk. It shows tremendous empathy for the junkies and desperate people he encountered without mythologizing or romanticizing them. These stories are Lange at his best.

On the other hand, "Dumb Cunt Funnies" and "LSD Genie" and "Apocalypse Period" are pandering underground fodder. There's not much humor to be found here, as jokes about women on their menstrual cycle were tired a long time ago. Much better are his "Loneliness is..." and "Sexual Frustration is..." features, which combine stereotypes and cliches with real truths, both personal and generalized. His Archie-inspired "Washington Beach" feature is outstanding as it mocks hipster culture. Admittedly, his targets are a little on the easy and obvious side, but his excellent comic rhythm is at its best when channeled through actual characters. Another highlight of the mostly great Razor Burn is "My Dad", another warts-and-all feature about his father. His dad is a far less polarizing figure than his grandfather but is no less full of contradictions. There is real affection in this portrait and a sense of a no-bullshit relationship between the two of them.

The three issues of Romp that Lange sent on have their moments but are generally less interesting than his more personal work. That said, there are a number of inspired moments. "Incest and Peppermints", a tale of brother-sister incest designed as a form of protest, is so over the top that it can't be taken the least bit seriously. Lines like "Take that, Henry Kissinger!" made me laugh out loud. Similarly, the strips featuring his sexual sad-sack character Hesh tend to be some of the strongest work in these comics because of how ridiculous they are. These are the strips that remind me most of Altergott's gross absurdism, with a strip featuring an Indian man eating Hamburger Helper out of a woman's vagina being the most over-the-top and yet undeniably clever. Hesh and his friends Jazz and Veronica (an S&M enthusiast) all try to push the limits in a deadpan manner that becomes ridiculous thanks to Lange's mastery of perverted situation comedy. He wisely positions Hesh as a loser who's the object of pretty much every punchline, be it humiliating "baby play" or being unable to participate in piss play because he's got an erection.

His most recent comic, Trim #2, displays Lange's best and worst instincts as a cartoonist. On the one hand is a weak-sauce gag like "White Male Privilege." It feels less like a strip by a cutting-edge cartoonist and more like one by a Men's Rights activist. In the strip, there are three scenarios: 1) A woman on a date with a man, telling him that sex is out of the question and asking him to pick up the check; 2) A woman telling a professor he's being denied tenure because of a sexual harassment claim; 3) A young black man harassing a white couple on the street. Lange's attempt at deflating the concept of white male privilege fails spectacularly, because even the examples he brings up are lame. The first panel seems to suggest that men are owed sex, especially if they pay for dinner; the second suggests that sexual harassment is either always falsified or else unimportant; the third conflates the discomfort of being harassed on the street with being harassed (or worse, murdered) by police, discriminated against in real ways that affect quality of life, etc. It's Lange punching down against easy straw man targets. The worse part about the strip is not that I disagree with the politics, but the hacky nature of the gags. It's a disingenuous strip.

On the other hand, his fantasy story "Sexy Alcoholic Girlfriend" takes a certain kind of stereotype and personalizes it in such a way that makes it both funny and intimate. "Clear Autumn Day", Lange's encounter with the Church of Scientology, is equally revealing in that it confronts his depression. The "free personality test" promised at Scientology storefronts showed that all of his test scores were deeply in the negative, with the exception of "motivation", which was high. This alarmed the tester, who said "I'm afraid of what you're motivated to do!" Lange's art is at his best here; a cross-eyed self-portrait with beads of sweat flying off his head and the vastness of outer space behind him, really get at dizzying patter that was thrown his way by the scientologist. Lange's "Six Drawings of Zoe Lund" is a fascinating, affectionate take on the actress/writer/model; each image is naturalistic, yet bears Lange's unique illustrative stamp. Lange loves spotting blacks, uses curly & thick lines liberally and stipples details like lipstick and pupils. He nails Lund's mesmerizing on-screen persona, that sense of great intelligence and unpredictability. "Do You Wanna..." is another one of Lange's dirty, Seussian rhyming schemes, this time devoted to getting drunk. It's disposable but amusing at times.

Lange certainly blurs the line between edgy and puerile. There's a certain palpable glee present in his more transgressive material, like a little kid being caught writing dirty words on a bathroom stall. There's an energy present in these comics that lifts many of them above simple pornography, as Lange takes genuine pleasure in drawing filth and making it funny. The energy in his more serious strips is different; it's manic but almost desperate. Lange obviously has things he wants to get off his chest, and while he usually manages to make the worst of situations sound funny, there's no hiding the desperation, the loneliness and the sheer frustration he feels. That defines his work more than anything: he's an underground cartoonist fully capable of unleashing his id in the most puerile way possible, but he's also in touch with his emotions and how to grapple with them on the page. That freeing of the id is balanced by the weighing of his ego, creating a unique reading experience that's often uncomfortable and frequently hilarious.

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