Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thirty Days of CCS, Day 20: Jeff Lok, Ben Horak & Alex Kim

There's a small but growing "sick humor" arm of CCS grads. It's work that veers between humor and horror. Jeff Lok and Ben Horak personify the humor-as-horror side of things, while Alex Kim works the angle of horror-as-humor.

In Gag Rag #3, Lok's collection of strips and effluvia isn't quite as pointed and raw as earlier issues of his one-man anthology. The drawing is loose and in the tradition of classic comics: lots of bigfoot drawings, bulbous noses, spaghetti arms, and distorted figures. My favorite thing in this issue are the series of "Old Testament" strips that posit god as a sort of baker who has to deal with the bureaucracies of time and doesn't quite know what to do with his new creation, Adam. There are brutal strips about chickens, a Friday Night Lights parody that's entirely on-point about the horrible behavior of the kids and the totally unflappable nature of the coach, and several one-off single-panel gags that draw genuine laughs. That includes a gleeful, running pig squealing "I'm cured!" that works because his face is so genuinely joyful. There's a slightly lesser gag where a cop in handcuffs says "I've uncovered a ring of police impersonators! I'm the leader!" The drawing is functional at best, serving only to deliver the textual gag's excellent punchline. Lok's skill is taking familiar comedic elements and injecting them with an underlying and anarchic sense of nihilism. His difficulty is in maintaining that strong voice when he ventures off into other kinds of storytelling; a strip about a prison ship drawn in this style felt forced and mannered. A compromise of sorts could be found in his Oily comic Ox & Co. It's about an elevator operator in an old-time department store, set in the past. The vernacular of his characters makes it feel like a cousin to one of Milt Gross's many comics, but the sheer weirdness of the set-up is uniquely Lok. The brief comic works because of its density, its commitment to maintaining the integrity of its time and setting, and the darkly idiosyncratic nature of Lok's sense of humor.

Kim's Oily series Dumpling King has been astonishing me with surprises in every issue. In the span of just ten pages per issue, Kim has advanced the story from a noir mystery surrounding murder, a powerful family, an alluring woman and dumpling delivery to something entirely different. All of those elements are still present, only Kim has added mysticism, dragons, magic, witches and their towers and other craziness. All of this is done with a mix of cartoony drawings (Kim loves angular faces) and surprising amounts of detail (he loves stippling even more), and the consistency of the reality he's creating on a visual level allows for the sudden and dramatic shift from a realistic scenario to a fantastic one. The cover alone of #3, with the stippling of a cloudy night sky using negative space to indicate the moon, contrasted against the cartoony face of one of the characters gets at Kim's aesthetic. He's simultaneously creating mood while bending the reality of his world to his will. Kim is a bit slow, so savor each issue when it's published.

Horak is a fine gross-out cartoonist who likes to employ cute images in disturbing ways, and his skill with drawing only heightens both the humor and gross-out nature of his work. His best strips in his one-man anthology Grump Toast #4 are the long-form ones. The "Business Baby and Infant Insidious" are pretty much Goofus and Gallant with slightly more evil intent, as the villainous character actually wears a top hat and black cape. Horak's "autobio" take on being lost at a curiosity shop as a boy and wondering what it would have been like if his parents had taken home a lizard corpse passed off as him was hilarious because of the details: the corpse playing Little League, graduating high school, getting married, etc. Speaking of detail, the "Pinky Palms" strip, featuring a variety of monstrous and anthropomorphic creatures throws the kitchen sink at the reader in terms of weird visual gross-out gags, then reveals that it's all misdirection as it follows home the bartender to follow his seemingly idyllic life. The payoffs for this strip are tremendous, as watching bat-winged chainsaws tear through his family was both awful and hilarious. The other long-form piece, "The Bitchin' Trials and Tribulations of Cheese Hammy Sammy", is a silent, existential biker epic. It details the titular character's (everyone here is a form of anthropomorphic food, Jon Vermilyea-style) horrible and over-the-top deeds, his bun-flipping reformation and his eventual doom as the pigeons come home to roost. Horak continues to mature and refine the sheer horror of his work, and this has allowed it to become effective at multiple levels.

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