THE WRENCHIES by Farel Dalrymple

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(1)

OK. Listen: great art is a knife that cuts the material universe open, allowing truth to bleed through the gash. But in order to incorporate a vision of the unknowable into our prosaic world, in order to make it manageable, we have to restrict the flow. So our job as readers is to heal the wound, close the gap. In the magical exchange of storytelling, we are the spell-breakers. We kill the enchantments with our understanding and satisfaction. We close the portals that the great knives open. The scars that are left behind form topographies that we use to map our own artless lives.

This is why you can devour some airport pot-boiler with such immense pleasure and then never think of it again — the spell is simple, and you can unknot it in mere hours, drink up its easy magic like it were Jamba Juice. When it’s done, it’s gone without a trace. There’s plenty of value in that — the world needs easy magic. But the best art refuses to die. The greatest treasure is the riddle with no answer. There are worlds that only unbreakable horses will carry you to. There are wounds that will never heal — stories that we’ll come back to for the rest of our lives, trying in vain to decipher and define.

I cannot kill the magic of THE WRENCHIES, and not for lack of trying. After four readings it hasn’t stopped working its strange will on me. I still see the terrible light shining through its bloody cut. And so my task of explaining it to you is impossible. This book’s majesty is so humbling to me, so much greater than the sum of its ink-and-paper parts, that I cannot write about it without sounding like a manic off his meds. So consider this fair warning: here there be lunatic rantings from a baffled brain and a book-addled heart. That, and spoilers too.

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(2)

Farel Dalrymple is a good friend, a collaborator and a regular contributor to Locust Moon Press projects, so I am biased in favor of his always-transcendent work. And I was moved by watching him struggle for years to finish THE WRENCHIES — to create, without compromise or cowardice, the exact mind-bending masterpiece that the clamoring synapses of his imagination were demanding of him. It wasn’t easy or pleasant, and there were times, long after every deadline had faded and vanished into the rearview mirror, when it loomed so big and dark and amorphous that it seemed like it might never be done. So while I admit that my enthralled love of this earth-shattering graphic novel is enriched by having watched my friend labor through its difficult, often painful birth, I don’t think I was privy to anything that isn’t etched into the story as plain as day.

Because THE WRENCHIES, behind the scrim of its impressively imagined universe, its byzantine plot and rich, complex mythology, is an act of excruciating love, an outpouring of obsession and honesty and damaged, wishful kindness. Beyond the blood and thunder, underneath its impenetrable genius and forbidding ambition, it’s a book about the longing for communion, the fear of being lost and alone. It’s a tender, achingly sincere story about the desire to connect, and a document of its own joyous & troubled creation. It’s the book where a great cartoonist becomes truly, spectacularly himself, and the book where you can watch him fall apart. THE WRENCHIES isn’t really a book at all. It’s an invocation. A transmission. It’s the best way that Farel Dalrymple knows how to love you.

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(3)

But hey — I guess I should get around to telling you what the story’s about. Technically I suppose you’d say that it’s a fantastical dystopian YA adventure, that hottest and most zetigeisty of literary genres. At least it’s being marketed as one. In a wrecked future overrun by the demonic Shadowsmen, children are the sole survivors. They live in abandoned squats and underground lairs, banded into gangs, struggling and scraping to survive. The story follows The Wrenchies, the toughest and noblest ragtag kid-militia out there.  We hop into their tale in media res, as they move through the desolation bickering, bonding, trying to keep their shit together and fighting for their lives.

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Simple set-up. But the primary narrative is just a skim across the surface of a bottomless ocean. Like the rest of Farel’s books, THE WRENCHIES is packed to the gills with mini-plots that go nowhere, brilliant ideas thrown away into the gutters of panels, mysteries that are never solved, whole worlds of feeling, of triumph and tragedy and yearning, suddenly evoked and then immediately abandoned. And while this may be an aesthetic strategy — a calculated attempt to immerse the reader in a chaotic universe and rivet her with disorientation — I choose to view it as a built-in feature of Farel’s storytelling. I think that his worlds and mythologies are so real to him, so thoroughly developed and organically, alchemically alive that he’s not fully aware that we can’t see them too. These stories are unmarked maps: invitations to explore, to play, to root around in this marvelous wreckage. Farel doesn’t ask you to read; he urges you to dream.

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Though the incredible care that goes into the artwork and the immersive thoroughness of its imagined universe are apparent from page one, its not until the third of the book’s six chapters that its breadth of scope and horizon-wide vision start to become clear. Hollis, the book’s most memorable and iconic character, doesn’t make his entrance until page 109, when a set piece of true bravura storytelling cuts abruptly away from the apocalyptic narrative to sweep us into the life of a kid from our recognizable, mundane modern world, and in thirty-six pages that rush by like a series of dreams, plunges us so deeply into his troubles and his naive, damaged hopefulness that he immediately takes over as the protagonist of the book.

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You can’t help but love this chubby, blushing boy in his home-made superhero outfit, and you can’t help but pity him for his spiritual anxieties and his sweet, helpless brokenness. This weird left turn in the story, this little diversion into a strange kid’s normal life swings with exhilarating momentum and emotional verisimilitude through humiliation, triumph, and heartbreaking sadness, and by the end of the chapter you’re so fully absorbed in Hollis’ story that you’ve sort of forgotten about the apocalypse and the Shadowsmen.

So you’re hanging on for dear life when Hollis is transported (via the authorial portal of a comic book) into the terrible beauty of THE WRENCHIES’ futuristic hellscape, and embraced as a hero and brother-in-arms by The Wrenchies gang, who often murmur encouraging things like, “It’s OK Hollis. Everybody thinks you’re cool!”

Because the Wrenchies’ truest and most insidious enemy is despair itself. They huddle together (“I like the nights best because we sleep in a force field,” Hollis heartbreakingly narrates), a human outpost against the horror of isolation that the ruined world itself seems to embody. “The very air out here seems to imbue everything with failure,” one character says, and the moments of violence and terror seem an almost welcome respite from the vacant weariness and gathering quiet that begins to settle around our heroes like a blanket of ash, slowing their slogging quest nearly to a standstill.

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And what is their quest? To kill a man named Sherwood Breadcoat, who proves to be the linchpin and Rosetta stone of this whole perplexing, shrouded mess of myth and magic.

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(4)

Outside of his starring role in its opening sequence, Sherwood mostly haunts the corners of this story — in references from other characters, little bits of his history and relevance bubbling up here and there —  through his strange music, crackling everywhere out of mysterious radios. You can tell that his significance is heavy, and that he’s somehow bound up in the DNA of THE WRENCHIES, but he’s always just off-page, lost in the panel gutters, another one of this book’s endlessly tantalizing hints and ciphers.

Until the final chapter, when he takes the story by storm in another sequence of stunning ambition and narrative energy, identical in length and similar in format to the Hollis sequence from chapter three.

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Unstuck in time, we hurtle through the strange and tragic life of Sherwood Presley Breadcoat as it oscillates between the fantastical and the mundane — through stints as a space adventure, an art student, a junior spy, a government functionary, a warrior-priest of the arcanum… and finally, a cartoonist.

Sherwood seems to be a sort of personified sigil linking our reality to the multiverse of terror & beauty that spills out of every corner of this book, and his obligation to keep the world safe from the Shadowsmen weighs heavy and harrowing on his narrow shoulders. He tumbles, damaged and spiritually hungry, through the epic and the enervating alike, always looking for his long-vanished brother Orson, doubting and increasingly hating himself, trying in vain to keep his shit together. Concerns about the fate of the world are juxtaposed against petty, relatable worries and anxieties. (“Oh God, what a creep and an asshole,” he thinks about himself after an awkward encounter with a woman on the subway. He worries about wasting too much water in the shower.) Sherwood is where the obligations of the mythic hero meet the grating, frayed neuroses of a self-loathing modern man, and the confrontation is spectacular, bizarre and heartbreaking.

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After decades of fighting & fleeing, hiding & plotting, a thirty-something Sherwood hits on his big plan. It’s an act that demands every ounce of magic that he can summon and then some, and as the breakneck narrative of his life twists and torques, we see the toll that it takes on him: how badly he gets lost on his quest, how horribly he hurts himself, how slowly and inexorably he gives in to the despair. “The protective spells around Sherwood’s apartment begin to weaken because of all the time he spends feeding his own concept of pain.” Yeah. That sounds familiar.

Worst of all, due to the head-spinningly asynchronous narrative structure of THE WRENCHIES, we know as we watch all of this that odd, brutal stuff that his furious efforts are doomed to failure, that the enchantments in his blood and the formidable powers of his imagination will become the dark engine that dooms the world. This is THE WRENCHIES in its purest form — a dangerous and worrisome collision of playful, childish fantasy with a hard-won adult knowledge of how hard and weird the world is, how deep the dark can be, how lost you can get. How far astray you can follow your own heart.

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What we’re witnessing amounts to a desperate summoning, an act of sorcery beyond the wizard’s considerable means. THE WRENCHIES wants so badly to pull you into its world, even as its world is collapsing. By the time Sherwood reaches the end of his journey, haggard and drunk and disconnected, lost in a haze of drugs and booze and self-pity, having torn himself apart in a desperate attempt to perform one last great spell, he’s bereft of all perspective and hope.

The romance of his great sorcery has become a thwarted metastasis, a black magic of abjuration and annulment. As all the pipes and passageways of the obsessively diagrammed world of the Wrenchies plug back into one another, loop around and bite back down on their same old weary cycles, this huge and dizzying world begins to contract like a python around its prey.

Finally, as the stability of the story’s diegetic reality holds on by the thinnest of threads, it begins to feel that Sherwood is the source of everything — all pain, all hope, all magic, all beauty and hatred and decay. The many worlds of THE WRENCHIES are just a pile a broken glass, looking back in glinting shards at their creator and perceiver. Universes, real and fictional, are only mirrors. They reflect back exactly what you put in. Sherwood put in everything; so did Farel. And they both reaped the whirlwind.

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This bizarre and brilliant book, at its ever-shifting center, is a flight from loneliness and despair. Its most heartbreaking ambiguity is that you never really find out whether Sherwood’s gambit worked, whether his obsessive mesmeric fixation on the beauty and value of this ruined world is an source of salvation or self-destruction. All you know is that this stunning, titanic work is there now, awe-inspiring, maddeningly incomplete, beckoning you back for a second, third, and hundredth reading, looking for the same indeterminate truth that its fictional and actual authors broke themselves trying to  trans-substantiate.

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(5)

Look: it doesn’t take the world’s closest reading or a profound knowledge of Farel’s favored sartorial choices to realize that Sherwood the sweater-clad cartoonist is some kind of authorial avatar. And it doesn’t take much knowledge of his religious upbringing to guess that the life of Hollis is memoir of a different sort.

Farel approaches the cryptic autobiography of the Sherwood & Hollis sections, the dual pillars of this story, with a devastating truthfulness, channeling the powerful currents of fear and faith and hubris and failure that went into the making of this, a book that took five and a half years to craft and swelled to double its intended size. I’m not psychoanalyzing here — Sherwood’s great magical struggle in this story is a struggle to finish drawing a comic book called THE WRENCHIES. It’s shamelessly, fearlessly on the nose. “The biggest flaw in Sherwood’s complicated plan was wasting years drawing a comic book. It took him too long to do all that drawing.”

You don’t expect, at the climax of this timey-wimey interdimensional sci-fi epic, to encounter this sort of unadorned self-exposure and emotional nudity, and you aren’t prepared for it. This brilliant cartoonist, in whose sure hands you’re carried, on whose ocean of vision you’re buoyed, is wondering what the fuck he’s even doing — if there’s any point to any of this. It hits you in the chest. In a fantastical story filled with well-executed tricks and brilliantly deployed tropes, you don’t expect the author to reach his hand through the page like a drowning man, begging to be pulled free.

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(6)

I think that one of the reasons we read is to practice love. In the safety of our own private homes and our own private minds — both the mind that creates and the mind that receives — we can love without reservation, without fear, without filter through the complex defense mechanisms that protect us by governing our chaotic real-world interactions… the protective spells around our apartments. For a certain bookish sort, this is the truest way of showing who we are — through secret codes and marked-up maps, with sigils and cartoons and inkblots, with wordplay, encryptions, strange punchlines and silent music.

Which brings us back to where we started: to the other side of our role as readers. When we try to break the spell, like I’ve been doing here with relentlessly clumsy analysis and explaining, we are asserting our magic over a story’s, trying to subsume its spiritual energy. Our lust for stories is destructive, wild and hungry. When it swallows a work, the music dies. We cut our connection to its author, hang up the spectral telephone.

But when a story is huge and indestructible, when it draws from a depthless source of internal life and unutterable truth — when its creator hides nothing, sells you nothing, is willing let you ride along in his glorious vast lostness, his fear and confusion — it absorbs our little cantrips and counter-spells as easily as the ocean absorbs a skipped stone. To my awe-struck judgement, the spell easily holds. You can connect to this beautiful book with your whole heart, and yet its power persists. The Wrenchies’ paper universe is as real as ours. Realer, maybe. And we are the lucky readers, spell-breakers turned supplicants, who get to lend it its sustaining magic. That magic is called love, and it’s the only substance stronger than the despair.

It’s OK, Farel. We all think you’re cool.

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– Josh O’Neill

Help Get Skyliner in the Air

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An eighty-year-old man, after a humble but well-regarded career as a poster designer & illustrator in Poland and the United States, decides it’s time to try his hand at cartooning. Over the course of almost two years, between his regular dialysis treatments, he completes a 354 page graphic memoir detailing his experiences as a young artist in Poland — dodging the Communist draft, chasing beautiful women, yearning for a better life in an America that only exists in films, jazz songs, and his dreams.

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To save money, he draws it with off-brand SHOUPIE markers that come five-to-a-pack at the dollar store. He gives everything he has to this book. Near the end of his life, he becomes a full-fledged cartoonist. Comics have set his imagination on fire. His book is a singular artistic achievement, a beautifully illustrated story that surges with ardor and kindness and longing, a love letter to the folly of the American dream, a tribute to the music and culture of his adopted home. He calls it SKYLINER. It’s a remembrance. A powerful and unique legacy to leave behind.

Wouldn’t it break your heart if that book never saw print?

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I will admit to some bias here: I have a horse in this race. Ed Krayewski, Andre de Krayewski’s son, has been a friend of mine since he was sixteen. I’ve watched Ed grow from a somewhat annoying kid into a wonderful man with a flourishing career and a lovely wife and a majestic head of hair. I was with Ed through the death of his mother, and his father’s worsening illness. And I’ve watched with admiration for the last few years as Ed, whose greatest virtues are staunchness and devotion, has gently urged Andre on to complete the staggering achievement that is SKYLINER. Ed translated the text from Polish to English, and acted as a stringent editor, bringing a lifelong love of comics storytelling to bear on his father’s unique art style and highly personal story. Ed is single-handedly running this Kickstarter campaign. In the waning years of an exceptional artist’s life, his son became his greatest collaborator in a project that as much as it’s a memoir is a tribute to their bond, and to Ed’s desire to see his father’s memory properly stewarded.

And now, with only days left on the Kickstarter that Ed has flogged within an inch of his life, they still have an awfully long way to go. After two tough years, several hundred SHOUPIE markers that stained Andre’s hands black, small-run pressings of the first few issues, and three weeks of a well-run and well-designed crowdfunding campaign, the money’s still not there.

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If this campaign were to fail, it would be a sin against comics. This project speaks from an utterly authentic and uncompromising place, and is ultimately proof positive of the overwhelming power of this glorious medium: that an accomplished artist who by all rights should be pursuing not much more than bed rest could be so inspired by his first experiences with cartooning that he decides to create a giant graphic novel — that his imagination is so thoroughly captured that he immediately becomes a full-time cartoonist, and even upon completing his immense memoir project continues cranking out short stories and strips (some of which will be published by Locust Moon), exploring and glorying in the possibilities of sequential storytelling, in the power of the page.

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No one is ever going to make a penny off this book — they’re just raising enough money for a very small print run. The goal here is to take a truth that came directly from Andre Krayewski’s heart, press it into ink on paper, and put it in some people’s hands. If you become one of the people who make it happen, you’ll be the proud owner of an beautiful edition rich with story, alive with raw illustration energy, and glowing with love.

Andre and Ed will thank you from the bottom of their hearts. And then, once you receive this remarkable book, you can thank me later.

Link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/156390002/andre-krayewskis-skyliner-the-complete-series

SPXcellent

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SPX

SPX, it seems generally agreed, is the most fun weekend of convention season. So much more than a small press marketplace, it’s a celebration of comics with a quirky character all its own. Our time in Bethesda was filled with booze and belly laughs, as we caught up with old friends, sold a veritable buttload of comics, and even busted out some serious dance moves.

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Andrew Carl, Rafer Roberts, Dave Proch

Oh, and also, we debuted LITTLE NEMO: DREAM ANOTHER DREAM.

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Sean getting his Nemo signed by Andrea Tsurumi (right page)

After two years, we finally had books to sell. It felt almost surreal. Having spent so much time with these beautiful pieces, having bickered & bonded over every page placement, every design element, having written endlessly about McCay and Little Nemo, having given interviews to any & all who would interview us, having generally turned ourselves over the last eight months into single-minded Nemo-making-and-promoting machines, here we were for the very first time with copies of the book to put into people’s hands. DREAM ANOTHER DREAM has attained such a giant status in our minds, as a tribute and collective effort and crowd-funded passion project, that it’s easy to forget that in the end, it’s a book. You can buy it if you want it. It’s up to you.

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Alexis Ziritt admiring those insane colors on his Nemo page (right)

We didn’t have many copies — there are only 50 in the US at the moment, having been overnight shipped and smuggled across the border at great expense and vague legal peril. We’ll be parceling them out over the our hectic convention schedule (come see us at Rose City in Portland, MICE in Cambridge, APE in San Francisco, and NYCC in NYC!), a few at a time, to tide you all over until the LOCUST MOON COMICS FESTIVAL, when we should have our bulk shipment in stock and we can sell them freely and – even more importantly – begin fulfilling the rewards of our beloved Kickstarter backers.

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Jen Tong seeing her Nemo page for the first time in print

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Here we were with 18 (quickly sold out) copies of this majestic creature, on the lushly-carpeted floor of one of the best and most exciting comics conventions in the world. We were tabling with our old pals & brothers-in-arms (and Nemo contributors) Farel Dalrymple and Jasen Lex, which gave our booth a grandeur and a comics firepower befitting the glorious book we were debuting. We thought we were making good sales, but Farel blew us away — there wasn’t a moment all weekend when he didn’t have a long line waiting for him to sign copies of THE WRENCHIES. The way our tables were combined, I think a fair amount of confused people thought that Locust Moon was THE WRENCHIES’ publisher. I sincerely wish we were. It’s one of the greatest comics of all time.

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Farel making his mark on a soon-to-be-epic copy of Nemo…

We discovered when inspecting the SPX floor plan that, including the two fine tablemates just to our left, 26 of the book’s 140 contributors were exhibiting at the show. So Andrew made heavily annotated maps marking each of their locations, and we sent the proud new owners of LITTLE NEMO: DREAM ANOTHER DREAM off on scavengers hunts to get as many signatures as they cared to or could. I jokingly offered a free prize to anyone who got all 26. A constant sight on the show floor throughout the weekend was people stalking from booth to booth with an unwieldily gargantuan book under one arm and a marked-up map held aloft with the other, like some kind of alt-comix version of The Amazing Race. When a number of people returned to the table with every contributor checked off, I had to figure out what the hell kind of free prize I could offer them.

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…Rawn Gandy adding to the now well-scavenged set of signatures

SPX has always been a youthful show. For all the incredible comics luminaries they always have on hand, it’s always been the show where people are most excited about handmade books and self-published minis. It’s a show that thrives on New Comics Energy, and we couldn’t have been happier to contribute to that influx of medium-sustaining novelty with an unusual and unlikely project of our own. (Many thanks to Warren Bernard for helping us make this magical weekend happen.)

As usual, half of the reason for the glory of SPX is due to the Bethesda Marriott Hotel, whose comfy confines are given over completely to the endless array of misfits that we call a comics industry. It’s more than just a con venue — it’s the eye of the storm, for one brief weekend this one building is the center of the comics universe. You exhibit there, you drink there, you draw there, you sleep there. (You eat elsewhere and abruptly realize there’s such a thing as outside.) By the end of the weekend it feels like home. I’m not sure Jesse Reklaw ever put on a pair of shoes. To the maids and bellhops it must be kind of like going to the zoo, if the animals were all inside of your house. Their hospitality was stunning, and can in no way be attributed to the eight bazillion dollars they generated in overpriced drink sales.

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Ben Sears, Andrew MacLean, Chris Stevens, Aaron Conley, Zack Soto

This SPX was heavy on the social events, from the Ignatz awards (whose many unfamiliar nominees were a welcome reminder that comics is bottomless, and we should all be reading more than we are) to the baffling spectacle of Simon Hanselmann’s wedding (we missed the vows, but walked in at the very end to see Simon making out with Gary Groth while a five piece brass band played All You Need is Love), to the SPX prom, facilitated and arranged by our own homegirls the Dirty Diamonds, which featured a jam-packed dance floor, an inspiring interpretive performance of Madonna’s Express Yourself by R. Sikoryak and Kriota Willberg, and this majestic photo, which should really be featured here at least twice and, even if the con were a total failure, completely justifies the weekend.

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SPromX

Fashion round-up: I wore a beautiful Nancy tie that Denis Kitchen gave me, a fact that I’m surprised hasn’t found its way into more post-con blogs and recaps. My own sartorial beauty was outstripped only by Tom Scioli, who was sporting french braids woven by the dirtiest of diamonds Claire Folkman, and Simon Hanselmann, who was wearing a wedding dress, which seems like cheating.

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Nancy

We scored a lot of amazing books and prints, including Dustin Harbin‘s NoBrow dinosaur leporello, Andrea Tsurumi‘s remarkable new YA sci-fi collab with Molly Brooks, Kelly Phillips‘ hilariously revealing Weird Al superfan autobio, and one lone copy of Ben Marra‘s storied, seemingly-always-sold-out TERROR ASSAULTER, which Dave, Andrew and I read aloud to each other while eating chicken nuggets in our hotel room. I’m pretty sure that’s how Ben intended the book to be enjoyed.

Oh SPX. I hope that thoughts of you will sustain us through the meat-grinder shit-show known as New York Comic-Con. You only get one chance to make a first impression. I’m glad that SPX was ours.

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Josh O’Neill, Andrew Carl

– Josh O’Neill

The Locust Moon Top 40: August 2014

40. FABLES vol. 20

Willingham & Buckingham’s seemingly-endless saga wends towards its conclusion, out of the darkness of its previous volume and back towards its heroic roots.

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39. REMAINDER by Farel Dalrymple

The tour-de-force cartooning in this WRENCHIES side story would make Moebius proud.

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38. KILL MY MOTHER

Jules Feiffer is one of the true architects of the comics medium — here, in his smoke-wreathed noir debut graphic novel, he shows that he’s still on top of his game.

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37. This D&D Audiobook

Let Ice-T and Dan Harmon (sadly, not doing his impression of Ice-T) and friends read Dungeons and Dragons to you. It’s…something special.

36. MEGAHEX

Simon Hanselmann’s weirdly sociopathic stoner gag strip MEGG, MOGG & OWL, collected here by Fantagraphics, is a stealth delivery system for some terrifyingly dark character studies.

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35. MULTIVERSITY #1

Bucking the shitty MOR trends of DC, shamanic comics mastermind Grant Morrison delivers a brain-blasting metacomic, with gorgeously detailed universes drawn by Ivan Reis. Surprising that the suits are letting the iconoclastic Morrison have this much fun with their precious continuity.

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THE MOTHER’S MOUTH by Dash Shaw

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I usually use this space to highlight new, or at least newly-in-print comics and collections. But I just read something great, and I want to tell you about it. THE MOTHER’S MOUTH by Dash Shaw is a deeply moving story and a stunningly original exploration the unique capacities of the comic medium. Everyone should read it. We have one copy at Locust Moon. Come and get it, lucky reader, and be enriched. It’s no longer in print, so everybody else is shit out of luck.

Much of Dash Shaw’s brilliance lies in the way be brings his ravenous appetite for innovation to tender, human narratives. Though he seems to be devising his approach in the moment, restlessly mining his inventiveness page by page, the stories are old and the characters familiar. His books are small, well-observed and subtle, but his themes are huge and unmanageable, the stuff of great literature — brotherhood, envy and crumpled desire in NEW SCHOOL, for instance, or loneliness, obligation and loss here in THE MOTHER’S MOUTH. These pure evocations of human longing are the emotional backbone of his work, powerful pulsing centers that guarantee that these stories, for all their obfuscating experimentalism, will never buckle under the weight of their own ambition.

The plot, slight as it is, concerns Virginia Miles, a children’s librarian who must return home to care for her elderly mother. She falls into a cautious, uncomfortably intimate relationship with Dick Lucido, a damaged, gentle musician. They blunder towards some kind of guarded love, fingers pushing through the bars of their shame, fear and isolation, as Virginia’s mother fades and dies. But somewhere over the course of all this you fall under this book’s weird spell, and start receiving Shaw’s urgent, befuddling transmissions.

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Virginia’s story is told in a clunky-clean traditional narrative style, with thick marker lines and brushstrokes, her mother’s face layered, shroud-like, with clean black wrinkles. But just as much space is given over to old photographs, scientific and psuedo-scientific schematics, diagrammed dance steps, newspaper articles, found objects. There are moments when it feels less like a story than a bundle of mementos and documents, wrapped in wax paper and bound up with string. Sometimes you read this book — other times you pluck your way through it, puzzling, turning it over in your hands, feeling for its gnomic meaning in the dark.

There’s a tangle of sex, grief and memory at the center of THE MOTHER’S MOUTH that you can never quite unravel — at least, I couldn’t. Virginia, wracked with sorrow over her mother’s illness and utterly vulnerable , alone in the world, falls in with the daydreamy, Michael Jackson-obsessed Dick and we see their weird, halting, awkward courtship (“Oh my god, I’m sorry did my breath smell?” “Oh, I don’t know, did my breath smell?”). But then there are lengthy detours into Virginia’s first (probably only) love affair, a preadolescent fling with a boy named Richard, who died when he was swallowed up into the depths of a sandbox. Near the end of the book, there’s a news article about a Louisiana therapist who accidentally kills a child named Richard, suffocating him during a controversial therapeutic technique in which patients re-experience their own births. What actually happened to Richard? What is his relation to the similarly-named Dick? What does this assemblage of stuff, connected with the thinnest strands of desire, nostalgia and fantasy, mean?

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Your guess is as good as mine. But answering those questions is not the purpose of this story. It’s the mystery, the haunting feeling of the accumulation of all these bits and pieces, the way they mirror one another, operating according to aesthetic as much as narrative logic. Shaw’s world here is a darkly funny fractal, and his vision zooms in on the tiniest memory, a crumpled snapshot, a child’s drawing, then out to the geologic scale of time. We watch Pangaea break apart then come back together again, see the moon swallowed in darkness, then shimmer through as a crescent now reversed, observe a mythical creature decompose into fossils in a series of cross-sections of sedimentary rock. His versatile, telescopic camera always discovers the same thing: that time marches on, that loss is inevitable, that life is fragile and beautiful.

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In one bravura four-page sequence, a sex scene between Dick and Virginia branches into the roots of a tree, the trunk of which flows into a river, which transforms into a topographical map, which, panning back, is revealed to be the sandbox in which Richard died. Everything is everything else — look at the sweep of history or a microbial organism and discover your own anxieties, grievances and hopes. The same messages are encoded into every sequence. When Virginia’s mother dies, her spirit just puffs our of a her chest as a little Pacman ghost, then floats off as a white silhouette against an empty black spread. Figuration, symbolism and narrative are jostling for page space, pulling against each other, as disjointed as they are unified.

MM necktie

Like in the work of Chris Ware, the towering ambition of the formal approach plays brilliantly off the smallness and mundanity of the story. Virginia and Dick are stuck in prisons of their own device while the vast universe, impossibly beautiful and frightening, spins around them. THE MOTHER’S MOUTH explores huge and hopeful ideas about Dharmic interconnectedness, universal mirroring and infinite regression in a tale of badly damaged people, lost souls shrouded in scar tissue.

It ends with tentative hope, pillow talk, and Dick’s plans for a haircut. In THE MOTHER’S MOUTH, Dash Shaw summons an entire universe just to make two people feel a little less alone.

MM cover- Josh O’Neill

 

good this week

ok, we didn’t have a chance to read anything yet this week, but these are the books we really wanna read…

rocket raccoon #2

gtw1

nightworld #1

comics-nightworld-1

she-hulk #7

she1

i was the cat

oni

trillium

TRILL_Cv1_3vf5lr6cju_

the complete elfquest vol. #1

complete-EQ

the ring of the nibelung

The-Ring-Of-The-Nibelung-cover-by-P.-Craig-Russell-480x717

jack davis drawing american pop culture

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food wars!

Shokugeki_no_Souma_Volume_1