Thursday, March 2, 2017

Minis: Ben Passmore

Ben Passmore's work visually reminds me a bit of Brian Ralph, the godfather of simply-cartooned area-exploration comics like Cave-In and Daylight. Ralph's detritus-filled post-apocalyptic backgrounds and the characters who explore them have influenced any number of cartoonists, and Kaz Strzepek is another name that comes to mind in looking at Passmore's stuff. Of course, Passmore clearly thought it would be interesting to use an environment like that as an extended metaphor for a comic about isolation, addiction and the quest for meaning and connection. At the same time, he repeatedly makes fun of himself for using this metaphor, letting the audience in on the joke in both issues of his series Day-Glo Ayhole that I've read. The world he sets up is pretty much a pastiche of every post-apocalyptic form of media one can imagine, from The Road Warrior to cannibals to zombies to mutants and more. There's a machine turning people into cockroaches that are feeding on a wave of pornography.

Passmore's work is both a brutal indictment of society (which isn't all that far away from the world he depicts) and himself. In particular, his stand-in character talks about an addiction to pornography and the ways in which this has made it difficult for him to have real sexual and emotional relationships. There's a profound poignancy in these scenes, even as Passmore is traipsing through piles of garbage, heaps of porn and hostile cannibals. At the same time, Passmore uses another character (with "No Limitz) tattooed on his forehead) as a kind of Mad Max stand-in who proceeds to kill everything in his path because he's desperately hungry. There's one hilarious scene where a group of survivors wind up killing themselves because they know about his reputation, and they want to save their food. The punchline is that "No Limitz" comes across their food, he tosses it aside because he doesn't like apple pie. There's a guest strip in the first issue by Erin Wilson that made me laugh out loud, as it asked the question "Where Are All The Ladies?" in Passmore's post-apocalyptic rant. The women spot "Ben" and "No Limitz" and invite them to their oasis (complete with water slide), but Ben notes that he "can't hear much over my internal monologue".

That was a great gag, but it is telling that the first major female character in the book was essentially formed out of Ben's essence, like Eve came from Adam's rib. There's also the suggestion that she initially was formed from a porn clip from Ben's imagination, and she initially presents in that way. They trek across the wasteland as she tries to help him restore his human form, becoming closer while he still tries to work out his feelings about relationships. They even briefly cross paths with No Limitz, who goes on to encounter Jesus on the cross and the hand of God. They of course all get into a huge battle, with No Limitz whacking the hand of God with Jesus on the cross. The hand of God gets bummed afterward because no one will hang out with them. Passmore's dialogue is hilarious in this sequence, as Jesus is just another mythological trope to deal with, but it's clear that he took particular glee in the way he designed this sequence. By the end of the issue, the woman (Jodee) leaves Ben because of his inability to get over his essential fear of connection, and both No Limitz & Ben get torn to shreds but a monstrous, mutated, double-headed cop. Passmore hits upon the addict's worse-case scenario: someone willing to love them but finding themselves unable and unwilling to love them back. The deaths of his stand-in and his action stand-in are just a manifestation of that moment of devastating clarity, with death by cop being an especially on-the-nose way for an African-American character to go, especially in the remains of New Orleans.

There's no question that the "day-glo" part of the comic is a crucial aspect of the story. Passmore uses oranges, purples, pinks and yellows, but they're actually fair soft pastels instead of lurid colors. This is important because of the impact he's aiming for; he's not trying to bludgeon the reader with the visuals, but rather soften the landscape so as to allow the more thoughtful aspects of his story to emerge. New Orleans (which is where Passmore hails from) is another key part of the story. Considering that the city in a sense is still recovering from its own apocalyptic moment after Hurricane Katrina, especially its African-American community, the idea of touring an unrecognizable landscape with the occasional familiar piece of detritus is a powerful image. So is the lawless, brutal quality of the cops, who are just there to preserve disorder, to quote Richard Daley. While the reality is that this is still a personal wasteland above all else, it's not hard to see the ways in which the overall chaos and cruelty of the world can have an affect on one's psyche and coping mechanisms.

Goodbye, published by Silver Sprocket, is a kind of companion piece. Passmore takes Plato's bit from the Symposium, that humans were originally two beings (two heads, four arms, four legs) that Zeus split apart, creating the desire to recreate the existence of a soulmate. Passmore transposes that concept to that sense of being a young person and part of a glorious scene, in those early moments of creating a family of choice before real world concerns like jobs, marriage, children, and capitalism in general break up those moments of pure aesthetic joy. There's a remarkable gag where an anarchist in a coffee shop is growing increasingly enraged by two young women describing their vacations and showing each other photos on a phone until he goes off on them. When he looks at the picture, it's of one of the women with a machine gun and a circle A flag fighting the revolution somewhere, immediately putting him in his place and forcing him to accept how truly bourgeois he is. The last half of the book is an internal argument focusing on that very problem: how to become truly active in making change, and if that's even possible. There's a moment of hope in which there is less of a "me" in the form of people of a single self at war with itself and a "they" in the form of that recaptured aesthetic of connection forming again, even if just for a moment. Passmore mixes philosophy, humor and emotion in his stories in equal measure, all in an effort to get to a sense of truth about both himself and the world. That truth may not be very pleasant, but it is at least hard-earned.

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