Thursday, September 15, 2016

Alternative; Kevin Scalzo, Jon Allen

Sugar Booger #2, by Kevin Scalzo. The oddest thing about reading the most recent issue of Sugar Booger is that Scalzo's gross-out/fairy tale aesthetic feels almost mainstream these days. The jokes involving the titular character blowing candy snot out of his nose, to the delight of the children, still carry that edge to them, thanks to mixing an ultra-cute drawing style with gross jokes that still fit entirely within the logic of the strip. In other words, nothing here is gross to the people involved in the story; it's only gross to outsiders. It seems obvious that Scalzo had to be a big inspiration (along with Marc Bell) for the TV show Adventure Time, which often uses precisely the same kind of gross/cute contrast for comedic effect. The only difference is that Adventure Time throws in a lot of bro humor parody along with action sequences. There's another big technical difference in terms of the drawings: Scalzo plays up the cute factor with the squarish heads and huge eyes of each character, while relentlessly adding sweat beads in order to simultaneously (but slightly) undermine the over-the-top cuteness elements of the story. The frequently melting environment brings to mind the melting/body horror elements of fantasy comics influenced by Adventure Time and its related spin-offs. What really puts Sugar Booger over the top and what continues to make it an unsettling read is that Scalzo never once winks at the audience. The absurdity of the characters is presented at face value in an almost deadpan fashion, daring the reader to find something strange about it. Scalzo's skill in character design within his aesthetic and the ways he uses strange angles and perspectives adds to the comic's dizzying qualities, constantly keeping the reader off-balance even as the actual storytelling is rock-solid and straightforward.

Ohio Is For Sale, by Jon Allen. This series of stories about a trio of slacker roommates feels familiar at first in terms of the ennui and hijinks the twentysomething guys who live together engage in. However, things get much darker as the book proceeds while still mining the same kinds of laughs, making the humor all the more disturbing.The first story begins, after establishing the boring, suburban neighborhood the guys live in, with the writing frustrations of one of the main characters. He's constantly swinging between egomania and self-hatred, and the opportunity to make a late-night run to the 7-11 was irresistible at that point. Allen very quickly starts introducing the sort of quirky character that provides the protagonists someone to bounce off of in a clerk who offers a maniacal laugh and a refusal to sell cigarettes or provide change. After slowly easing the reader into this world, Allen then jolts the reader by having one of the character's car catch on fire while is friend is nonchalantly sipping on a Slurpee.That leads to the guy who left his cigarette burning in the car being forced to get a job, which he's fired from within minutes. All's well that ends well, however, as he simply steals the car of the person who got him fired.

That first strip was typical of the rest of the book. What starts off as typical slacker humor quickly zig-zags into an ever-escalating series of weird and sometimes terrible events. In the second story, for example, one of the guys accidentally kills his friend when a swing of a baseball bat goes awry. It would seem the strip would get as weird and dark as it could get when his other two friends bury his body, only we follow the dead guy to hell, where he meets a bro-tastic Satan who's desperate for company. The angst generated in this strip comes entirely from Satan, whose quote "Christ--I miss college" had me laughing out loud. The humor here is as dark as certain issues of Peter Bagge's Hate, like the one where Stinky accidentally shoots himself in the head and Butch panics.

Mental illness is a major topic of these strips, like in one strip where the writer character simply gets in the car and drives away, with no destination in mind, as a way of dealing with his depression. The fact that all of the characters are anthropomorphic animals only makes the emotions feel bigger and more intense, as Allen keeps his line simple and direct. The end of this story, where the writer encounters a deer who's dying on the side of the road, is as bleak as it gets. He notes that he comes home not because he's reached an epiphany or solved his problems, but because the realization that anywhere he goes will be more-or-less the same as the place he just left, so he might as well go home.

The final story ties up a lot of loose story threads as the sister of one of the housemates comes to visit, which winds up including her asshole boyfriend. Soon, the visit turns into a party that divides the guys along different lines. The writer is drawn in by the asshole boyfriend's macho nihilism, while the other guys are repulsed. The story incorporates fireworks purchased in an earlier story, demons from hell that escaped in that earlier story, and a simmering ennui and rage that makes itself manifest in a fistfight. After the party renders the house unliveable, the writer simply states "Let's just burn the house down." It's a fitting end for a story whose nihilism is barely kept at bay by the simple and symbiotic relationship of the housemates, though even those relationships are fragile and fraught with almost thoughtless cruelty. This isn't the freewheeling brotherhood of Boys Club, or even the codependent but at least somewhat hopeful relationships of Megahex. All these guys have is each other, and Allen intimates that that is nowhere near enough. Along the way, Allen delivers absurd and sharp-witted gags, perceptive character work that really nails the banality of certain kinds of dialogue, and a starkly illustrated (lots of blacks and thick ink), deceptively breezy storytelling style.

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