Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Complete Badly-Drawn Comics, by Martha Keavney

This collection of Martha Keavney's minicomics from 1988 through 2002 (eight issues in all) represents the work of a cartoonist who was part of the Xeric/DIY generation of artists, albeit one who wasn't especially prolific. What made her Badly-Drawn Comics series unusual was its relentless commitment to its mining humor out of its titular premise. Indeed, her comic probably had more in common with humorists of the 80s like Peter Bagge than the minicomics revolution that exploded in the 90s. What's clear is that in terms of pure, conceptual comedy, Keavney has few peers in comics. Her nearest cousins are probably Michael Kupperman and Sam Henderson. Kupperman's visual aesthetic is more important than Keavney's, as he's trying to draw on a particular kind of nostalgia for things that never quite existed. However, like Keavney, he excels at taking a familiar premise and absolutely flogging it to death, creating a tension between reader and the work that plays on that familiarity and warps it through that familiarity. Like Henderson, the deliberately crude quality of the drawing (especially when Keavney actually figured out a line she was comfortable with drawing) is a key element in the humor, providing a sort of easy-to-access visual that is easy to bend in any number of conceptual directions. Keavney's interest in (and self-mockery for) self-reflexive humor that often self-consciously explains the joke to the reader (creating even more tension) is a large part of her appeal. She sees the gears in hack comedy and loves to rearrange them for the reader.

The first few issues of Badly-Drawn Comics rely heavily on the "badly drawn" aspect of things, consistently bringing attention to this and creating conceptual humor out of it. Her original characters, Nick and Nicolette, often complain about not knowing what's going on because everything is so badly drawn, they have no idea what objects are around them. A "scratch 'n sniff" comic features items like a perfume called Eau de Paper. Keavney runs through these gags quickly before she creates her greatest character: Martha Keavney. She's introduced complaining about the many rip-offs of her famous comic and how bad they are, like Poorly-Penned Portrayals, which is a failure because it's drawn too well. Then there's the "reader participation" issue, which is told from the point of view of the reader hanging out with Keavney. After a pleasant conversation, the reader gets out of hand, angers Keavney (who starts throwing things through the panel like a 3D movie), has sex with Keavney and eventually learns that Keavney is the all-powerful god of her strip. In the next issue, she shows up in one of Nick and Nicolette's stories, who want to get back at her for heaping so much abuse on them.

Keavney also plays around with the formal aspects of comics for laughs (and making fun of Understanding Comics), explaining things like flashbacks, flash-forwards, etc in literal terms. When the caption said, "One Week Later", it was an actual week in Keavney time, as she was startled by the reader's presence. There's a blobby superhero named Letratone Girl who diffuses conflict thanks to her shades of grey. The sixth issue is where Keavney's style is firmly in place and she no longer makes gags about her comics being badly drawn. "One White Chick Sittin' Around Talkin'"explores her frustration with only being able to draw herself, then introduces multiple Marthas as extra characters, then rejects that as self-indulgent after a pun-filled fight between two of the Marthas. The story then morphs into a hilarious It's A Wonderful Life parody, where the assorted "what ifs?" twist and turn on themselves in the most convoluted possible ways.

Keavney doesn't often get into more personal humor, but her strip "The Incredible Adventures Of... Self-Absorbo!" featured her narrowly avoiding having the center of attention taken away from her from a friend who tearfully told her about her cancer. Using her secret power of super-tears, the friend apologized and told her how great Martha was. One of Keavney's great skills as a writer is adopting the cadence of whatever she's trying to lampoon, and she truly nailed super-hero speak here (and in the truly disgusting Hostess Twinkies parody later in the book). Probably her two best stories are "The Mix-Up" and "The Secret Life Of Martha Keavney". The former is a parody of every romance/comedy of manners/wrong time, wrong place trope imaginable, jammed into one story. Martha gets hired by someone who only takes on people in relationships (she was single), so she hires an actor who claimed he was gay (he was not, he lived in a building whose landlord only allowed gay people) to be her boyfriend for a dinner at her boss's house. The actor was told that Martha was a nun, leading to all sorts of hilarious contrivances. The best part of the story is that after setting up the premise, Keavney claimed that a few reels of the movie were missing, leaving only the ending. How everything wound up completely different and yet perfectly happy is completely omitted, making it that much funnier.

"The Secret Life..." is a masterpiece of building on a premise and one-upping it. Martha imagines herself as an Antarctic explorer, until she's shaken out of that reverie by her boss at her job that she hates. While imagining how great it was to be an explorer, she's woken out of that reverie by a fellow homeless person in a subway tunnel, and Martha thinks about how nice it would be to have a job and an apartment. That keeps escalating until we see Martha in hell, and that escalates to a hilariously banal punchline that nonetheless works perfectly in stopping the progression of events. Simply put, there are few cartoonists with the kind of comedic chops that Keavney displayed during her active publishing period, and hopefully the new strip she has in this collection (along with a funny introduction and index) means that she'll be more prolific in the future.

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