Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Kilgore: Emi Gennis, Tom Van Deusen

The Plunge, by Emi Gennis (Kilgore Books). Gennis' line and prose are extremely similar: precise, clear and fluid. Gennis is known for her sharply-paced historical comics that often dwell on morbid subjects, so she actually had me in suspense in reading the story of Annie Edson Taylor, who went over Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1901. While the story was very much a procedural on how she came to the idea, how she designed the special barrel and what happened during and after her attempt, this comic is really about all of the things that really made Taylor interesting. She claimed to be 43 but was really 63, and what she hoped to accomplish as an unmarried, older woman was to make enough money to essentially set up her retirement fund. She claimed to have been all over the country, teaching and founding various schools, even though her claims were invalidated. What was clear was that she was single, was clever and was a survivor above all else. The tragedy of the story was how this independent, intelligent woman was ultimately exploited and tricked by a con man, denying her the legacy and security she so feverishly worked for. Of course, she was trying to exploit her own shock-value hucksterism, but in a time when women had so few channels for achieving material success and security, it's no wonder. Visually, Gennis chiefly uses two tricks: dense hatching and claustrophobic page design and panel composition when she's confined, and the use of a lot of negative space (implying that freedom she hungered for) on most of the the other pages. This is a compelling, well-told story with a number of different angles, both factual and anthropological.

Scorched Earth, by Tom Van Deusen (Kilgore Books). This is viciously funny satire, with autobiography-as-fiction informing these stories of a Tom who is a slovenly and grotesque figure whose worst features are his massive sense of entitlement, infantile emotional development, and a narcissistic streak that's a mile wide. In reviews here and here, I compared him to a sociopathic Peter Bagge character like Stinky Brown, or perhaps more precisely the logical extreme of beta male who feels like they're being persecuted. When given the slightest amount of encouragement or power, Tom abuses it in some extreme but completely realistic ways. He fancies his one-night-stand as a girlfriend that he can brag about to his mom, then turns her polyamory as a way to hit on younger girls at a party. There is a disturbing level of authenticity in terms of "Tom's" speech patterns, behavior and thought processes, as though Van Deusen dredged the depths of his desires and imagination and came up with his worst possible impulses as fuel for satire.

The material that wasn't in the first two issues of Scorched Earth goes even further in some ways, though Van Deusen makes it very clear that his Tom character is meant to be a buffoon and not taken seriously. One could draw that conclusion from his earlier strips, but there was just enough ambiguity to really give his comics a surprising level of shock value. The strip where he's talked into getting an absurd, dangerous and expensive vaping device makes him like like an obvious idiot, even as the salesman plays him like a drum. He falls for rhetoric praising his taste, his masculinity and his "executive" status, and eventually winds up catching on fire. In another story, he does a youtube unboxing video for a new katana he bought (sort of like people do for toys), mostly to insult another youtube user. Van Deusen does something interesting here, as most office comedies tend to focus on a protagonist working against an irritant.

Here, the irritant (Tom) is the protagonist, which is done to deliberately make the reader feel uncomfortable while giving him characters to bounce off of, as he incredibly brings his sword to work and proves to be insufferable to his rational co-workers. In another work story, he's given that tiniest modicum of authority (interviewing a job candidate) and it immediately gives him a god complex, as he tries to fire a co-worker who annoys him and he starts the interview in the bathroom in a misguided attempt to see if the interviewee can think on his toes. It's cringe humor at its best, as is the follow-up to the story where he gets dumped and decides to hire someone to harass the guy whom he thinks is going out with his girlfriend. Here, Van Deusen goes beyond the plausibly douchey and goes straight to absurdity, even as the tone of the story remains entirely consistent. This is where Bagge's influence makes itself clear, as there's an escalating series of poor decisions and deals with unstable wild cards that ultimately make a situation turn absolutely bonkers. This comic is very much an antidote and answer to autobio comics where the actions of the author go largely self-unexamined. Van Deusen's storytelling and sometimes wobbly line add to the whole aesthetic of depicting someone who is just moments away from saying or doing something horrible, or having his entire life collapse around him.

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