Thursday, February 28, 2019

Catching Up With Aaron Lange

Aaron Lange's talent is far-reaching, especially as a draftsman. He can work convincingly in any style, though he's a humorist at heart. Despite reaching out for pornographic and "edgy" punchlines at times, he really is just a solid gag man underneath it all. Lange is more than that, however. He's a take-no-prisoners autobio artist who's willing to look at his worst excesses, past and present, and portray them in an unflinching manner. All that said, I think his greatest strength is as a biographer. He has a way of taking even the most unsympathetic or difficult figures and laying their humanity bare for the reader, generating respect if not affection for them. Lange is an excellent writer and gets at the heart of events and achievements while never losing sight of the underlying and often tortured humanity of his subjects.

His Cash Grab series of minis is a perfect sampler of Lange's interests, plucked from sketchbooks and older publications. Issue #7 is a sketchbook sampler, mixing in gags, brief biographical comics and portrait sketches. A page about a high school friend who just passed away absolutely nails his bemused sense of curiosity, and the text Lange wrote about him is detailed without being too florid. Then Lange turned around with a gag titled "MK-Ultraman," combining the Japanese character with the CIA mind-control program. Then there's a study on logos and rides from an amusement park from his youth in Ohio, combining quotes from Sherwood Anderson and his own childhood recollections. There's a joke about a public service announcement-style character named "Cis" which is funny because Lange keeps piling on details, and that's followed by a drawing and brief bio of the actress Kari Wuhrer. There's a savage comics parody involving Emil Ferris and Ed Piskor, followed by a loving portrait of Lange's wife Valerie. Lange looked like he was channeling Gene Colan a bit there. This is a great introduction to Lange's general interests, and his use of color adds a lot of depth to his drawings.

Cash Grab #8 is all black and white, and Lange labels it as a "Deep Cuts" issue. There's a fascinating story he titled "The Aesthetics Of Grief" about the public appearances of Nick Cave and Susie Bick after their son Arthur died. It's about how they maintained their sense of style even in the face of grief because that's simply part of who they are. Later, he talks about his own alcoholism and how he wished at times the decision to stop would be someone else's, like a doctor. A note regarding his comics in general: Lange is one of the best letterers in all of comics. He is adept at using multiple, personal fonts, line weights and spaces between letters to create a number of different effects and add to the mood of each piece. His portraiture is truly superb, with his drawing of comedian Janeane Garafolo being a case in point. Using key squiggles, lighting effects, hatching, and some spotted blacks, Lange breathes life into a drawing that goes way beyond the photo reference he used for it. Most of the rest of the issue is devoted to portraits of comic book figures and characters from the film Boogie Nights. Lange could make a career out of these portraits in the way that Drew Friedman does; Lange is almost as good at it as Friedman is.

Issue #9 is in his wheelhouse, as it's most gags and stories about the world of porn. Instead of simply doing porno gags, Lange does a series called "Porn Stars I Like." He provides biographical data, quotes, and reasons why he likes them in descriptive and almost poetic terms. Those pages are interspersed with drawings of cats "speaking out" about various topics, as well as collages of porn images with jarring effects. It's a voyage through Lange's id, to be sure, but it feels honest instead of glib. Some of the images (like of a random asshole) are odd, to be sure, but fit into what he's doing in this comic. It's less titillating than it is raw and honest, and he counterbalances exploitation with exploration and humanization of his subjects. To be sure, Lange still attempts to be transgressive at times, with mixed results, but his increasing level of craft as a writer is what's taking him to the next level as a cartoonist.

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