Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Aaron Lange Sells Out

One of the most talented of the latest generation of underground artists (the Mineshaft generation?), Lange's comics are a mixture of brilliant drawing, challenging insights and juvenile humor. For Lange, his idea of selling out came in the form of his CaSh Grab comics, issues one through three. Published by The Comix Company, they are meant to mostly be sketchbook highlights but Lange inevitably adds his own ideas and meditations on any number of subjects, starting with his struggle to get sober. There is a remarkable power to be gained in understanding one's own sense of powerlessness in the face of addiction, and going sober not only did nothing to dull Lange's edge as an artist, but it gave his work a great sense of clarity. The first issue of Ca$h Grab has a lot of portraits drawn at bars, and Lange is superb at capturing the essence of his subjects with a naturalistic style the emphasizes weariness and even pain on his subject's faces, like that of a "horny mom threw teen daughter a naked twister sex party, AA sponsor says". Lange drew her as sad and searching with big eyes and a sense of desperation, not as a lurid figure.

Which is not to say that there's not any filth to be found here. No one does it better than Lange, but even here, he uses it for more than just shock. Depicting addiction as a beautiful, naked woman begging him to come back gets at his lament of "oh, gawd, it's just so awful sometimes". A lot of the drawings here were clearly done as a way to keep his hands busy and his mind active, from drawing pictures of Scully from the X-Files to old superhero logos to an account of a recent acid trip. Without perhaps even meaning to, Lange created a sobriety journal with a remarkable amount of impact. The second and third issues are more conventional, as they are mostly assembled from reprints of the kind of Hollywood portraits that Drew Friedman does. That is, the portraits, though mostly naturalistic, often offer a kind of commentary about each figure. Every now and then, Lange made a joke about the subject's appearance or their role (Elizabeth Montgomery). There are punk figures, figures from old Hollywood and cult figures. Lange ranges from his standard, thick black line to a painstaking use of stippling. The effect is different from Friedman, who uses a hyper-real style to make his figures seem more rubbery, while Lange seems to want to create a noir, sleazy atmosphere for all of his subjects to be a part of. The third issue has more of Lange's silly jokes, like changing the DeNiro film to "Uber Driver", with DeNiro holding up two phones that have pictures of guns with them, saying "Are you texting to me?" A lot of the images in this issue came from commissions, but the funniest image was that of Klaus Nomi as The Punisher.

Lange's real work comes in the pages of his series Trim, and the third issue has a lot of highlights. I find Lange's casual use of racist and homophobic terms to be kind of dumb, because it's obvious that he's a smart person who actually thinks about social and political issues. Part of that stems from his "I don't give a fuck" attitude, which adds energy to a lot of his work but also detracts from it at times. Opening the issue with images from his high school yearbook and the creepy feeling he gets from looking at them now is Lange at his best: confronting his id without letting himself off the hook. "Where Have All The Cool Faggots Gone?" is actually an interesting piece in its analysis of the conflation of outsider culture with gay culture as he discusses a number of historical figures, but coming at this culture from a position of obvious privilege was not only obnoxious, it refused to do the hard work of actually trying to investigate the current avant-garde of gay culture.

As always, his autobio is top-notch. "Bummer Vacation" finds him quitting his awful job and running off to his mom in Cleveland, leaving his long-suffering wife behind. It's a fascinating account of literally trying to go home again, finding some aspects of it sweet and other aspects bitter as inevitable decay struck at beloved childhood memories. More than anything, the trip served to calm him down. "Float" is about him finally getting to try a sensory deprivation tank and feeling ready for whatever hallucinations and/or revelations it might bring, only to panic after just a couple of minutes in the tank. As someone curious about the experience yet knowing that I would also resist the experience, I could sympathize. The back half or so of the comic was dedicated to the sort of "horrible, horrible" gag cartoons that Ivan Brunetti used to do, only Lange relies heavily on visual and verbal puns. This is where Lange goes all the way to the edge and beyond, with jokes about Rwandan genocide, Nazis, Anne Frank, desperately wanting a drink and more. My favorite features included the running "Sassy Bartender", which plays on the increasingly dumb and dirty names for drinks and "Bill Fingered", a Batman joke I couldn't help but laugh at. Lange's approach, as always, is to pummel the reader with joke after joke, delicately-rendered & filthy image after image. For every dumb or gross joke, Lange lands two smart and pointed gags. Lange's comics are high-risk, high-reward and packed with content from cover to cover.

Trim #4 may be the best issue yet, anchored by the excellent biography of musician Peter Laughner that also serves to act as a sort of history of Cleveland itself. With a flowing, open-page layout that mixed in naturalism, caricature, stippled portraits that had a ghostly quality (an intentional effect), Lange told the short, unpleasant story of an influential but highly self-destructive musician who was in a number of bands, including the first iteration of Pere Ubu. In Lange's view, Laughner and Cleveland were inseparable: two doomed, isolated and underappreciated entities consumed by disaster. There's no question that he was a genius, but he was also violent, unpredictable and frequently anti-social, making him difficult to work with in a band setting. Throughout the story, Lange peppers it with repeating jokes, lyrics and images that reflect the "Ain't No Fun" quality of the story's title and also a title of one of Laughner's songs. This is punk as true nihilism, seeking nothing but total immolation of everything, including oneself. This is Lange at his best: cogently critiquing Laughner without either judgment or sentiment, letting the facts speak for themselves even as he improvised a different visual technique to anchor each page, be it a psychedelic background for Laughner's high school band days or a savage pencil-dominated drawing of animals reclaiming Cleveland. Lange's research was clearly extensive, and it was clearly relayed with a minimum of tedium and a high degree of focus on its most interesting aspects. The rest of the issue is also solid, as Lange puts his remarkable observational and raconteur skills on display in a story about the strange behavior of his new neighbors and unleashes the usual array of pretty funny, filthy gags, the best of which were the hilariously weird "Pig the Fucks" (involving putting pig noses on cops) and "Twerk Will Set You Free", which is perhaps the most absurd Nazi-related filth I've ever seen.

The collection of Washington Beach strips basically showed that a little of that concept went a long way. Compiled in one place, the strip mostly feels like a waste of Lange's talent, as he takes fish-in-a-barrel aim at hipsters and their assorted drug habits, obsessions and sexual habits. While the structure and rhythm of the strip is drum-tight, the gags are often groan-inducingly obvious or cheap. That said, some of the running gags (one of the hipsters often saying "I better txt andy about this!") were sharp and Lange is superb at creating callbacks. On the other hand, his My Dad collection is tremendous, with each strip building on the next to create a hilarious, nuanced portrait of his father that gently mocks him and also displays Lange's genuine affection and admiration. The mini is also a document of Lange's growing skills as an artist over the past few years, as his figure drawing in particular has become much more confident and bold, even as his versatility in terms of drawing style has blossomed. There's one sequence of strips where we see a completely naturalistic image of his dad, a stripped-down/geometric Brunetti-style drawing, a cartoony version and a number of in-between versions--all of which made sense depending on the nature of the anecdote. Two fun running gags: Lange throwing in a blatant lie about his father that his dad would yell about, and Lange's father yelling at his brother (drawn either as a hippie or a punk) about all sorts of things. Lange's use of layout is unusual, as he packs a lot of material into a small space but uses carefully-placed and differently-shaped panels (often circles) to break up the page and let the eye rest a bit.

Finally, there is Huge, a double-barreled blast of putrid filth aimed at the Trump administration and all of the associated cronies. In other words, when they go low, Lange responds by plunging his targets into oceans of bile, shit and filth. He actually starts out in smartass mode, using various slurs as Trump's hair, but then goes into full Ralph Steadman mode, creating hallucinatory nightmares of monstrous Trump figures with penis pustules all over his face, dripping blood and other fluids. Other targets like Mike Pence and Steve Bannon are barely human predators, eating rats and drowning in semen--barely able to grunt. It is an all-out assault that hits as hard as any Trump caricatures this side of Warren Craghead. Lange really hits a nerve with depicting these leaders as luxuriating in death, decay and their own depraved sickness. Unlike Lange's usual filthy drawings, there's no joy or fun to be had here: just a powerful mirror held up to those in power. These images are drawn as much as they seem to be vomited straight from Lange's mind onto the page, and their impact is more visceral than anything I've ever seen the talented Lange do.

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