Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Fantagraphics: Matt Furie, Simon Hanselmann

Boy's Club, by Matt Furie. There have been countless slice-of-life comics devoted to twentysomething slacker dudes who get high and/or drunk, eat pizza, play videogames and fart on each other. Matt Furie's Boys Club is the apotheosis of this sort of story for a number of reasons. Portraying the slackers here as cute, anthropomorphic animals gives their antics a sense of innocence that would have been impossible if they had been rendered in a naturalistic style. (I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that Pepe the Frog has become an internet meme.) Second, Furie deftly toes the line between satire and and genuine affection for these goofballs. Third, Furie's comic timing is superb, as he turns antics that might have been tedious into great gags. Finally, the sheer joy the characters in this book feel in being around each other is real and palpable. That sense of being young and knowing that you've found your tribe and absolutely reveling in that fact is liberating and exhilarating. Everyone knows that this can't last forever, but the expiration date on this experience is so far off at this point that it doesn't seem real.

That's why the funny-animal aspect of this book is so important. It's a land of make-believe wherein pranks, fart jokes, acid trips, filthy group houses are the only reality that matters. It really does feel like characters from children's literature grew up and partied together. The lighthearted nature of it all makes it feel like an extended, dirty and drug-infused episode of The Monkees. That show had a sense of its own ridiculousness, and it's obvious that Furie isn't presenting any of these characters as anything to aspire to. Indeed, he's constantly and subtly mocking these characters' speech patterns, musical references (e.g., The Black Eyed Peas), jokes, fashion interests, etc. However, he also uses their anthropomorphic qualities as a base for forays into psychedelic weirdness. The cute characters transform into monstrous versions of themselves as they stare off into space, Pepe's eyeballs pop out of his head and slink away, still attached by the optic nerve. Landwolf gets naked and dances with a strobe light flashing, spinning his penis into a circle. Most of the stories are just one to two page vignettes, with the exception of a story featuring Landwolf wanting to commemorate an especially large bowel movement. Furie's skill in being able to draw characters that draw the eye in and won't let go is a big key to the success of the series, and the single-color linework adds a touch of eye candy as the choice of color shifts every few pages. This is certainly a book about bros, but they're by far the most charming and harmless bros I've ever seen depicted.

Megahex and Megg & Mogg In Amsterdam, by Simon Hanselmann. Hanselmann's slacker comics feel like a response to Furie's work in some regards, especially in terms of what happens when living an aimless and hedonistic lifestyle extends past its expiration date. Hanselmann draws from a number of disparate influences, including what appear to be some autobiographical events, to tell the story of three housemates and their slacker, degenerate friends. The most obvious and celebrated is the Meg and Mog children's series by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski. Hanselmann takes Furie's concept of cartoon characters growing up to become degenerate slackers and runs with it, using characters more familiar to UK and Australian audiences than American. In particular, the odious Werewolf Jones appears to be a response to Furie's Landwolf, the most obnoxious of the Boy's Club quartet.

The Megahex stories are filled with psychedelia, pranks, slacker slovenliness and young people refusing to grow up. While Hanselmann's comic is frequently far funnier than Furie's, it's devoid of the satire Furie employed so deftly in his book. Instead, Megahex is a meditation on the dark side of living this kind of lifestyle. The relationship between Megg (the redheaded witch), Mogg (her housecat and lover, which gets exactly as uncomfortable as one would expect) and Owl (an anthropomorphic Owl who's the only one who has a job and some pretense at trying to grow up) is frequently quite abusive. Werewolf Jones in particular is the epitome of the out-of-control, aimless, obnoxious and ubiquitous asshole who latches on to people, exploits them, abuses them and then is offended when people get angry at him. He initially establishes his worth by providing drugs and outrageous party hijinks, but there's a difference between being amused by someone like that from a distance and actually having them in your life.

One thing that I love about these books is that Hanselmann makes absolutely no apologies for his characters, but he also presents them as complicated and broken. There's one brutal scene where Megg, Mogg and Werewolf Jones present a birthday "surprise" to Owl, which turns out to be Jones trying to sexually assault him. Even Megg and Mogg knew things went too far that time as they buy Owl a present as a form of apology, but they refuse to acknowledge its importance later on in the book. The pranks they pull on Owl often wind up landing him in jail, in the hospital or fired from his job. They have the same flavor as the meanest of Johnny Ryan scenes, only Hanselmann pulls back and makes everyone involved realize that these are horrible things that the characters are doing. As the book proceeds, vignette by vignette (some are one-pagers, some go on for much longer), Hanselmann reveals that every character in this book is a broken person in some way.

Both Megg and Mogg are on antidepressants, but Megg still often falls prey to crippling bouts of depression that land her on her "sadness mattress", unable to even get up and use the toilet. Megg also sees a therapist whose behavior and methods start off as head-scratching and devolve into hilarously inappropriate, especially when Megg ambushes Mogg into coming to a session for couples therapy. Mogg frequently asked for sexual acts that made Megg uncomfortable and was intensely insecure about his own sexual capabilities. They were the working definition of a codependent couple, and when she tried to break up with him, they both realized they had nowhere else to go. Mogg's hilarious and pathetically sad "solution" was to wear a Hamburglar mask. Owl consistently sabotaged his own sobriety and ambitions (modest as they were) by choosing to keep these people in his life, in part because his own feelings of worthlessness no doubt contributed to him accepting the abuse that was constantly heaped upon him. Werewolf Jones proved to be the most broken character of all, unable to hold down a place to live and being the world's worst father to his out-of-control sons. The scene where Jones starts crying and tells Owl that he has feelings for him leads to one of the best comic breaks in the book, as we see Owl on a plane to Amsterdam in the panel right after that revelation. What makes each character's behavior even more difficult to bear is that they are all capable of moments of kindness and empathy (even and especially Werewolf Jones), but they choose to do so rarely.

The moments that being drunk or high that provide  joy, relief and escape are just that--moments. Hanselmann depicts an increasing amount of ennui, paranoia and worst of all--pointlessness. When Owl decides to quit drinking alcohol at one point in the book, Megg and Mogg secretly get him drunk with a "health smoothie", leading to a hilarious and awful sequence where Owl berates a couple in a video store for their choice of movie and then laughs off a punch in the face. Owl's flaw is that he's driven by fear, especially a fear of his own success. Like the others, he drowns out the buzzing feeling of self-hatred in his head through stoner and drunk rituals, until the end of the first book when he's decided he's had enough abuse at the hands of his so-called "friends". It's an interesting character moment, because it was made clear in the second book that Megg & Mogg are essentially helpless without Owl at least partially tethering them to reality.

The structure of the book, sliced into vignettes, means that Hanselmann can simply reset and choose any road to go down with regard to the emotional content of the strip. In a given story, you might see a short gag, a longer vignette focusing on the darker side of one of the characters, a story that ties into the overall emotional continuity of the book, or a spectacular visual sequence that embraces the psychedelic aspects of the narrative. The magical realist nature of the characters allows Hanselmann a great deal of leeway here, as the initial premise of the book and its characters is highly elastic. It's easy to snap back to the three housemates sitting in their living room at the beginning of a story without taking the reader out of the narrative. The same is true for Hanselmann's visual approach to his stories, as he has a central style that features an 8 - 12 panel grid, a fairly thin line weight and and an active (if muted) use of color. Depending on the mood and demands of the story, he might switch to a 16 or 20 panel grid (he had 35 panels on a few pages!) in order to accelerate the narrative, which usually zips along pretty quickly for a comic where a lot of people sit around on many of its pages. The color in some of the stories is richer and more vivid than in others, but Hanselmann never lets things get too far away from his template. Even the guest artists like Furie himself and Sammy Harkham fit right into Hanselmann's overall aesthetic.

Megahex is not just about the sensation in one's life where it feels like the party's about to end, it's also about the feeling that the party wasn't very good in the first place. It's filled with characters who are not only totally out of equilibrium with themselves and others, it's not clear that they were ever healthy or in sync. It's funny and sad in the same way and at the same time, because the things that people do when they're sad are every bit as ridiculous as the things they do when they're happy. For a series about slackers, these books are remarkably emotionally visceral and intense.

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