Tuesday, March 14, 2017

New Stuff From Old Favorites: Steve Lafler & Lance Ward

Death In Oaxaca #3, by Steve Lafler (Alternative Comics). It's increasingly clear that when Lafler refers to death in the title of his series about a family of American ex-pats who settle in the arts mecca Mexican town, it's not so much about murder than the personification of Death itself. In this case, Death comes as a friend and source of information for Rex, a cartoonist and amateur musician (and Lafler's stand-in) whom Death visits in his sleep in order to jam with him musically. Rex's wife Gertie decides to become a superhero in Luchadora form, while their teenage son Myles is more of a background character but hints at burgeoning adulthood in this issue. 

This third issue starts to tie a few of the early plot threads together and smartly gets its protagonists on the same page. Death takes Rex on a walk that reveals that Rex is a reincarnation of the son of Eduardo, a local eccentric who is an immortal vampire. What's revealed in this issue is that Eduardo became a vampire when his village sent him to investigate a mysterious, huge rock that suddenly appeared, and the beings inside turned him vampiric for mysterious reasons. Meanwhile, Eduardo, who subsists on animal blood, is getting weaker and weaker and is rushed to the hospital at the issue's end, but not before getting a human blood transfusion. It's hard to say where Lafler is going with all this, as the story meanders in an episodic fashion more than any of Lafler's non-psychedelic stories. It was smart of him to have Rex and Gertie reveal their secrets to each other, as the strength and ardor of their relationship is one of my favorite things about this comic. It's clear that Lafler is happy to let the story set its own pace, as he dips into local culture, cuisine and politics in addition to the soap operatic hijinks (and parody of same) of its cast of characters. There's no question that this comic is a genuine delight to look at from a structural and storytelling perspective; Lafler is one of the best figure artists in comics, with a rock-solid understanding of anatomy that meshes with his loose, playful line. His hatching and use of negative space and spotting blacks is all in service to the story; he never shows off or wastes a line. I imagine Lafler will start to draw together plot lines shortly, but it is odd that there doesn't seem to be a clear antagonist as of yet. That may well become Eduardo or someone else, depending on how many issues he plans for the series. I'm simply happy to be along for the ride. 

A-Hole #6 and Blood And Drugs, by Lance Ward. One of the best and most bracing autobio cartoonists actually does all sorts of comics, and A-Hole is his catch-all anthology for such material. There's his "Fatnuts" strips, a brutal parody of Peanuts that doesn't so much make "Chucky Brown" the butt of jokes for being fat as much as it makes every character their worst possible selves, with Chucky still the center of it all. It's also Ward's catch-all strip for anything he's angry or concerned about, like his characters getting radiation poisoning thanks to the disaster at Fukashima in Japan, Bernie Sanders, science without morals and nightmares. His "Stick Shifter" strips are all-aggro parodies of The Fast And The Furious type of car adventure movies, with the main driver always getting so angry that horrible things happen with the car. There are also strips credited to "Jason Walters", and I'm not sure if that's a Ward pseudonym or not, but the "Kafka The Cat" and other strips are mostly mild genre parodies. While the overall content is amusing, it's not anything that's especially innovative or that sticks with the reader like Ward's autobio strips.

On the other hand, Blood and Drugs, while being (apparently, mostly) fictional and also a different aesthetic approach than his fairly straightforward design of his autobio strips, packs as much of a wallop as his best work to date. Using a six-panel grid to anchor the rest of his page, Ward frequently goes off the rails in this comic about heroin addiction and what a person is willing to do to keep it going. In slashing red and black markers on the early pages, Charlie Brown and Calvin & Hobbes scream at each other until it resolves into Ward on a bus, in deep pain, willing to try anything. Ward sells all of his art to his initial fixes, gets a friend to drive him to a dealer's house (under protest) and is forced to give the dealer (depicted as a Jabba the Hutt-style creature) head in exchange for heroin. Ward bits the guy's dick off instead and flees, knowing that he's doomed and screaming at a local street Santa that he sells lies to children. The whole thing is over the top and scrawled, looking a bit like Josh Bayer's work at some points, only much more scribbled and intense. The key page in the story is when Ward scores some heroin to "get normal" so he can finish doing a story, only for the reader to see four straight blank panels. Heroin takes away one's capacity and interesting for much in life other than heroin. It certainly takes away pain, but it takes away desire, motivation and inspiration as well. The story may seem over the top in terms of its approach and histrionics, but it feels authentic in a way that implies familiarity with these kinds of stories, even if this wasn't something that Ward experienced personally. As always, however, Ward is his own best character, even in a fictional story. 

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