Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Yet More From Aaron Lange

Let's take a look at another round of minis from Philadelphia's own Aaron Lange:

Cash Grab #4-6. This series is Lange's grab-bag of sketchbook stuff, out-of-print material and other ephemera. #4 is a sketchbook issue wherein Lange starts to play with color, mostly of either people he knows personally or actors that interest him for some reason. Lange is an exceptionally perceptive portrait artist, even when working from photos, and he is able to nail eyes in particular. The other thing about Lange is that there's no gag or pun too dumb enough for him; once he grabs on to it, he doesn't let go, like in "Spock of Seagulls" or "Adamantium" (featuring the singer as Wolverine). On the other hand, some of these jokes are laugh-out-loud inspired, like the psychedelic, full color "Wuv Me 2 Times", a Jim Morrison drawing by way of Margaret Keane's big eyes-style. My favorite drawing was that of his portrait of the great Mary Fleener, when she confessed, "'Trim' means pussy?! No shit."

The fifth issue is more focused, as it's portraits from movies that made an impact on him as a teen, from Hollywood productions to b-movies. It's a case of autobiography by way of the artists that spoke to him. In many cases, he tends to add a touch of angularity to his poses, like the way Gillian Anderson's face is framed, or the way the hair on Milla Jovovich is drawn. He also has a way of touching on the most noir characteristics of his subjects, partly through his use of effects like dense hatching, spotting blacks and even stippling. The latter was true for his drawing of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, for example. That darkness and even a tinge of madness is especially present in the slightly uneven way he drew her eyes. It's not all darkness, however; his drawing of Miranda July befits her whimsical nature, and the way the lettering of her name melts and frames her head perfectly completes the overall quirkiness of the composition.

Issue #6 is his "deep cuts" grab-bag, including an interesting strip called "Time Release" about a pill-addicted comics retailer. Lange's drawing would get both more refined and more stylized later on, but he captures the degradation of the dealer trying to score pills off of a cosplaying Star Trek fan that ends in violence. The final joke, that the pills aren't what he expected, just added to the absurdity and nihilism of the story. Lange taps into that desperate loser vibe in his stories in much the same way that Noah Van Sciver does, getting across a real sense of empathy. As Lange notes, he very well could have ended up like that dealer if his life had taken a slightly different turn. Other than his film reviews (which are excellent), most of the rest of the issue consists of fairly disposable gags and anecdotes.

Those comics are interesting, especially for Lange fans, but the real main event is Trim #5. This is his current one-man anthology that has seen him take a step up in terms of sophistication and ambition as a writer. Starting with an incredible letters column that features praise from R.Crumb and an admonition from Van Sciver to cut back on his more juvenile, shock-value material. I think the sweet spot for Lange is somewhere in the middle, telling biographical or autobiographical stories that explore disturbing events or unusual people. Take "Pastor Dan!", for example. I loved the touch that made the title look like an old-time MAD title a la Harvey Kurtzman. This story details Lange's childhood as an altar boy at his church and his favorite pastor, the titular Dan. Lange was drawn to this weirdo, who recommended a Monty Python movie to him, recounted killing a cat as a youngster and generally was a positive if odd adult presence in Lange's life. Lange is very much one to provide little commentary in his stories beyond moving along the narrative, preferring to let the reader ponder what it all might mean.

Another sweet spot for Lange's sensibilities are his "Art School" short strips. They are roughly autobiographical and aren't a repudiation of art school like Dan Clowes, but rather a hilarious exploration of who he was at the time and what the rest of the school's culture was like. From hissing at a bunch of hackey-sack hippies to dropping acid at the wrong time in class to an exquisitely drawn weirdo classmate smoking dope with an "x" carved in his head, Lange has a real sense for surveying sheer weirdness and making it funny. It also helps that he takes aim at himself as a butt of jokes as much as he does anyone. There's another story about him coming home drunk and coked up, watching porn and then throwing out his entire collection--only to get locked outside in his underwear. Lange's ability to range between naturalism and exaggeration helps to establish place and tone while still allowing ground for absurdity.

There are a couple of stand-out longer pieces. "Blood and Soil" is another in a series of strips about his family that examines his German heritage, including his great-uncle Erich who was in the Luftwaffe in World War II. He did his job as a pilot but was not accepted to college because of his "perceived political leanings" (anti-Nazi?). Amusingly, his great aunt once told his father that she never had children because "she couldn't stand to bring another German into the world", which is hilarious and awful all at once. Lange is at once fascinated by German military imagery, uniforms and pins while being acutely aware of their impact and the ways others appropriated the imagery to spread terror or to simply shock. Lange neither glorifies nor wishes to forget his family's history, poking fun at it with pop culture and rock references.

"Parco Dei Mostri" is a tribute to his skill as an artist, as he brings to life a monstrous sculpture garden dating back to the 16th century but only recently rehabilitated as a tourist destination. This is an excellent example of the sharpness but also slight distance of Lange's narrative voice. As a writer, Lange clearly spends a lot of time thinking about his subjects. The way this story was arranged, as images taken from his mom's vacation, frames these pieces once considered to be pornographic by his contemporaries but are now harmless and for the whole family. No matter what kind of artifice is at work in one of Lange's stories, he compulsively pulls away the curtain to let the reader in on exactly what's happening and why.

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