The Hands of the Masters

If you check in here with any regularity than I’m sure you know we’ve launched our Kickstarter for LITTLE NEMO: DREAM ANOTHER DREAM and that the book is done and off to the printer.

Let’s watch a few of the artists involved with the book do what they do best: draw. First up, the man of the hour himself, Winsor McCay.

Bill Sienkiewicz, with a sharpie!

Paul Pope, a few months back…

Here’s Dean Haspiel slinging some ink…

The boys from Brazil, Gabriel Ba & Fabio Moon, at work…

There should be a TV channel dedicated to this. Shouldn’t there?

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THE AMATEURS by Conor Stechschulte

conor cover

The gorgeous watercolor work on the beautiful textured paper of the cover is simultaneously idyllic and eerie — two women wash their clothes in a river, the fabric shimmering yellow, blue and red through the water. Two men, in pure black silhouettes, watch from the foreground shore. It’s an ominous beauty that hints at the unsettling story inside — a sense deepened by back cover blurbs printed on cleavers and hacksaws — but it doesn’t in any way prepare you for this utterly strange, funny, and quietly horrifying reading experience, an intriguing and troubling book-format debut from Conor Stechschulte.

conor intro

Jim and Winston are figures more familiar from the stage than from the funny pages. Dressed in identical black suits, hats and bolo ties, Winston is tall & thin with a long, pointed nose, Jim fleshy and round, his features barely disrupting the baby-fat pudge of his spherical head. They call to mind Laurel and Hardy. They arrive one morning, both mentioning that they felt sick and feverish the night before. They enter what they recognize as their butcher shop but it’s empty. No meat, no goods, nothing in the pantry. Slowly they begin to realize that they don’t seem to remember anything beyond their names and professions. They can’t remember how to go about doing their job, or where they are exactly, or how they got here. Then two women who seem to know them arrive — apparently these are regular customers — asking for a pork loin and a pound of ground chuck. Jim and Winston have to figure out how to deliver the product.

conor amnesia

With their broad physical types, squabbling, and comical incompetence, they are slapstick figures forced into confrontation with an existential vacancy — precisely like WAITING FOR GODOT’s Vladimir and Estragon. In fact the whole premise feels theatrical — the empty shop like an unfurnished set, the identical costumes on the men, who don’t seem to know anything more than what you’d read in the opening to a script: Jim, butcher, tall and thin, dressed in black. Like so much avant-garde theatre, it takes advantage of the blankness of its setting — the bare room with false walls, the flimsiness of poor stage craft — to create a heightened superreality of characters on a stage rather than people existing in the world. But this is a comics page, an immersive space where anything can be drawn. The choice to heighten its artifice is disorienting, and pulls you into the momentary nature of the story, the hovering unknown nervous responsiveness in which these characters seem to exist.

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What we’re in for, once we get down to it, is a classic dream trope: the nightmare of unpreparedness. These two are butchers, they’re expected to sell meat to these upstanding women, but they have no idea how. All they know is that failure doesn’t feel like an acceptable option.

The centerpiece of the book is brutal slapstick horrorshow of incompetence and self-harm. Desperately searching the shop, they find a pig and cow out back, and realize their only way out of this is to figure out butchery by the seat of their pants. The lengths that they will go to to accomplish their grim task is funny and frightening; they seem to have a dreamy disregard for their own unsafety.

conor fighting

On one level, the physical reality is convincingly realistic — you imagine yourself into their shoes, the horrible chaos and mess that would ensure if you tried to butcher a pig with your total lack of knowledge and skill. But what’s unreal, and truly chilling, is their total disregard for their own physical bodies, which they easily sacrifice in pursuit of achieving their meaningless task, undistracted by injury, by the loss of limps or fingers. All that matters is getting this right, so the women inside won’t realize how badly everything is amiss. The most haunting — and laugh-out-loud- funny — image in the book is when Jim and Winston, horribly maimed and mangled, proudly present their customers with dripping bloody sacks of unprocessed meat, filled with teeth and bits of bone.

The final moments of the book are beautiful and baffling, and I won’t spoil them here except to say that they harken back to that tense, striking cover. For all of its visceral, in-the-moment storytelling and its unadorned micron art style, THE AMATEURS is a mysterious, unknowable book, one that refuses to make its intentions clear. But there’s something very human and queasily recognizable in their frantic scrambling, their panic in the face of the unknown, their fixation on keeping up appearances first and foremost. Their only impulse on finding themselves in this bizarre predicament is not to solve the problem or try to understand the situation — it’s to hide the evidence, to make sure that no one finds them out. That’s why, in the near-universal dream of being on stage with no script, we never simply walk out of the spotlight. No one can ever know how confused or frightened we are. The masks must stay firmly affixed, in the carefully wrought array we’ve spent a lifetime designing. The show must go on

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THE AMATEURS features a framing story that seems to come from another genre entirely, one set apart from the minimalist anxiety of avant-garde theatre — the musty, leatherbound timbre of Victorian horror. The story begins with the words “I fear that all my life I’ve been sheltered from some horrible truth, some terrible knowledge that I’ve only glimpsed the remotest edge of,” narrated as an entry from the journal of a young girl at a nearby boarding school. This jarring, fascinating shift in tone bookends the story, and it reads like something out of Edgar Allen Poe or M.R. James, a chilling, overcooked gothic creepfest. Still, its central spectactle of a decapitated, rotting human head speaking from the banks of a river is nowhere near the most frightening thing in this tale. Blood and foreboding can’t compete with with the terror of unpreparedness, of transparency, of being seen for the desperate amateur that you really are.

-Josh O’Neill

THIS ONE SUMMER by Mariko & Jillian Tamaki

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What exactly does it mean to describe something as a “YA graphic novel?” Does it mean that its primary audience is in their early teens? Because Mariko & Jillian Tamaki’s new graphic novel THIS ONE SUMMER may be a perfectly pitched invocation of what it’s like to be one of those awkwardly in-between kids — it is, without a doubt, a graphic novel ABOUT young adulthood — but it’s so richly layered and sensitive, so thoughtful and weary-wise that it feels like it may take a heart tutored in failure and loss and other grown-up sadnesses to fully appreciate its pains and pleasures.

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Or maybe I’m not giving fledgling adults the credit they deserve for being complex and thoughtful and damaged. In this brave new world where Farel Dalrymple, Paul Pope, Gene Luen Yang and Jillian Tamaki all have their biggest, most ambitious projects, graphic novels with heavy content and profound, often frightening themes, marketed as YA material, whatever “T+” shit DC happens to be slinging looks even more puerile and embarrassing by comparison. The new model seems to be lame retread kids’ stuff for the aging nerds, literary works of deep human truth for the teenyboppers. Maybe the kids can handle more reality, more depth than we can — maybe they don’t know enough yet to be afraid of it.

True to its title, THIS ONE SUMMER is a season pressed between soft covers, on matte paper, in shades of blue ink. Rose spends her vacation in a beach cabin on an idyllic lake shore, wrapped up in quiet adventures with her younger friend Windy, trying with limited success to ignore her parents collapsing marriage and her mother’s bottomless clinical depression. An almost plotless ramble through an aimless, dissolute holiday, THIS ONE SUMMER is a gorgeously illustrated document of a girl clinging to memory and yearning for meaning.

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Awago Beach is supposedly in Ontario, and the cars and film references seem to place the story in the late nineties, but none of that matters: the Tamakis walk a thin line in their depiction of the setting, giving it just enough lived-in detail — the ratty video rental/convenience store where Rose’s acne-flecked older crush works, the reenactments at the tourist-trappy Historic Heritage Huron village — to give it a sense of reality, of specificity, while in fact Awago beach as depicted here seems to float in some archetypal summer-cottage anywhere, a Coney Island of the mind, a place instantly recognizable to anyone bourgeois enough to have whiled away weeks or months at the shore (down the shore for those of us from the tri-state area) with their families as children, exquisitely bored, always tasting salt on your lips, living in bathing suits, your schedule moored to nothing but meal times.

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The environment that Tamaki creates is stunning, rapturous with sensory detail. The pebbles under bare feet, the lush thrum of crickets and frogs, the wide hot sky and cool clean water — they’re all here, unbearably nostalgic, picturesque, perfect. But the underlying darkness of the crumbling family, Rose’s fear and insecurity, her clinging to and rejection of childlike pleasures — her awkward betwixtness, that itchy, uncomfortable young adulthood — are depicted with a devastating and fearless emotional honesty, an utter sensitivity, that never once tugs at a heart string yet denies no pain or longing. This book is tremendously powerful and affecting, but it’s quiet, observant, uninsistent, like Rose herself — it listens more than it speaks.

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The densely wooded shore, the ancient richness of the underbrush, the hot sand, the sky heavy with stars — Tamaki uses a flowing, naturalistic line when drawing the outdoors, and it’s slightly at odds with the elegantly minimal cartoonists’ swoop and gesture that she uses for the characters. She’s at her best out there on the beach among the waves, where she can edge into the abstraction of light on water, a shifting beauty that means whatever we want it to mean — she uses the soft pencil that gives the book it’s cleanly hazy look to shade the murky depths, layered into nothingness, pure sun shimmering through rich blue textures. Her detailed yet iconic sense of the natural world gives the book a dreamy quality befitting its subject matter. Nature’s grace surrounds the worrisome quiet: the blue ink, blue water and blue mood.

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You are there on this beautiful lake, in this bleeding family — you can feel Rose’s father forcing his high spirits, his good-natured cajoling and silly jokes overcompensating for his wife’s grieving joylessness, a sweet-hearted daddy trying to lift his sagging brood on broad shoulders. You’re there in her friendship with Windy, who trails a year and a half behind Rose, spunkily trying to keep pace with Rose’s feigned sexual casualness, the blase shrug that masks her confusion and wayward, unknowable desire. You’re there, in this picture-perfect idyll, with sand between your toes, ice cream smudged on your lip, gentle burn on your cheeks, everything in its place — but blue shadows lengthening, darkness creeping over the water. You can return to the old cottage, to the same beach you’ve been visiting since you were a little kid, but you can’t go home again. And maybe that’s what adulthood — young or otherwise — is all about.

summer underwater

-Josh O’Neill

STRAY BULLETS by David Lapham

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Comics at their best represent a direct mind-to-mind connection between artist and reader. The presence of a human hand and human mind in every aspect of text and image brings you as close as you can get to art imitating thought. To read the work of a truly great cartoonist is to be privileged to a guided tour of a private imaginative world.

And so it was a body blow to this remarkable medium when we lost STRAY BULLETS, David Lapham’s self-published oddball auteurist crime epic. Huge in scope and yet utterly personal, driven by twin engines of hope and avarice, animated by a sprawling cast of outlaws, suckers, and irrepressible lowlives, STRAY BULLETS was a ride-along through a wrecked world still shaded with stupid wonder. It was a living world, a tale to get lost in — you wanted to root through these characters’ drawers, raid their drug stashes. And when it abruptly disappeared a decade ago in the middle of a story arc, after forty soulful, disturbing, hilarious issues, the comic shelves were left a diminished place.

Lapham soldiered on as a freelance writer for a slew of books, a job that was surely easier and more financially rewarding than the lonely, punishing slog of life as a self-publishing monthly cartoonist. He was tapped to write books like CROSSED, DEADPOOL and TERROR, INC due to his well-known propensity for Fucked Up Shit, but these dire carnivals of gore and celebrations of violence leave little room for the elements of storytelling that made his earlier work so special — the tenderness and humor which which he illuminates the darkness. Stray Bullets is a book full of doomed people, soul-rotted losers making disastrous decisions, but they have a helpless hopefulness that will break your heart, and a queasy familiarity that elevates these stories above voyeurism. You’re not gawking at the freaks and monsters — you’re relating, empathizing, wondering exactly what separates you from them.

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This is the work of a man who should be creating his own stories, not filling up the margins of other people’s properties with what has become a depressing trademark of vileness and desecrations. We got an astonishing window into the ever-more-active underworlds of Lapham’s imagination with 2009’s brilliantly mind-melting short-lived Vertigo series YOUNG LIARS — which made it even more depressing to behold his status as a gun-for-hire, dispensing darkness and assigning grim fates one paycheck at a time. This guy is one of the best storytellers we’ve got, and we need his vision, unadulterated, in the unflashy yet impeccable brushwork of his own hand. And now, as STRAY BULLETS comes roaring back to life with an 1200 page blunt weapon of an omnibus edition and a new continuing series, we have it once again.

STRAY BULLETS foils synopsis because it has no central conceit, not even a particular setting to tie all these intricately interconnected vignettes together. It unfolds from Baltimore to Los Angeles, between 1978 and 1997, but there’s no end game, no plot point that this thing slouches towards as it darts from future to past, from east to west, dropping in and out of continuing stories with little regard for the reader’s confusion, each issue somehow a part of this stunningly detailed universe as well as a thoroughly satisfying self-contained story. Lapham tells the parts and pieces that he finds interesting, tossing us into already-unfolding crises and letting the chips fall where they may, suddenly picking up shards and strands of stories that seemed long forgotten.

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To describe its plot threads and subject matter is to depict STRAY BULLETS as so much less than it is. The suitcases of stolen cash & coke, the brutal men and fallen women; the upstanding citizens led down paths of corruption — this is the worn-out stuff of lurid crime fiction and rehashed B-movies. It’s the voice that elevates this material above its strip-mined sources. Lapham never affects the world-weary bitterness of the detective novel or the overheated moral fervor of dime-store pulp. Instead he immerses you in his characters’ worlds, in their hard-clung grievances and unmanageable passions, their twitching anxieties and wounded ambition. For all the cartoonish violence, all the avarice duly punished, Lapham never lets you forget that these characters are human, that the roots of their depravity are just standard-issue vices, cancerously ballooned and uncontainable. Their greed and lust are only the broken, wishful yearning of damaged people.

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Though Lapham has almost no regard for chronological storytelling, there’s something cyclical at work here. The story begins in Baltimore, and most of the stories concern relative naifs — upright men, women and children who become mixed up with hardened criminals. By the time everything in Baltimore falls apart and we move westward, for a quiet interlude in the sleepy village of Seaside, NV where a number of the characters go to lay low while the heat dies down. (Seaside, in a perfectly STRAY BULLETS touch of lunatic optimism, is a desert town with a three-mile boardwalk built in anticipation of the moment when California falls into the sea and they become oceanfront property.) The lower stakes stories that take place in Seaside, though still filled with crime and drugs and violence, are as quiet and pleasant as anything in this series — these characters have made their way out of the traps set in Baltimore, but they haven’t reached their final destination: Los Angeles, where so much of the cast washes up, having succumbed to everything, their pasts having caught up with them, their addictions taken hold, hanging on by their fingernails to what little they have left. And then finally back to Baltimore, where Amy Racecar returns home, trailing wreckage and trauma like barnacles and seaweed clinging to her hull.

Which brings us to the greatest character in STRAY BULLETS — the only character who stubbornly refuses to be destroyed, despite all the suffering piled upon her: Virginia Applejack, damaged girl, endangered runaway, avenging warrior, gifted writer, and the ragged, resilient, fucked up soul of this series. We dip in and our of Virginia’s story, following her through the death of her beloved father, her escape from her hideous mother, through bizarre exploits from coast to coast, as she maneuvers herself into and out of trouble, bravely facing up to every new nightmare with resistance and guile, helplessly causing trouble with her vengeful, compulsive need to mete out justice to all bullies, as she finds her way into the margins or center of every major conflict in this gloriously rambling story. By the time we reach the end of the collection, this ensemble piece has clearly become Virginia’s story, a chronicle of how badly her experiences have marked her, how irreparably she’s been twisted by violence, yet how tenaciously she clings to her pride and virtue.

And, in the biggest stylistic departure from the fervid comic hyper-realism of the book, we are privileged to see the science-fictional stories with which she compulsively fills her notebooks on the road, the exploits of the world-beating outlaw and interstellar adventurer Amy Racecar, her idealized alter ego. These windows into the explosive imagination of this brilliant unschooled child are some of the most moving and fascinating moments in this saga. They allow Lapham to cut loose with wildly propulsive sci-fi storytelling and give us our most intimate look at any character in the book.

We don’t get much interiority from Virginia herself — she’s tougher and more self-possessed than the many weaker, more corruptible characters in the series, who tend to overflow with desire and wear their desperation on their sleeves. We watch Virginia move from disaster to disaster, her face always impassive, mental machinery working invisibly, planning her next move. But in her fiction we see the wages of her damage, her longing for safety, power and respect, her fears and defiance, her astonishing fabulistic ability to transcend every weakness by sheer force of belief and invention.

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Amy, the protagonist of her stories as well as the name Virginia goes by on the road, is an absurdist caricature, an ice-cold outlaw with a heart of gold, a world-famous thief with a nation of adoring fans, an infinitely rich crime queen with a strict moral code all her own, who brings down governments, confronts evil where she finds it, plunges into danger unafraid, indestructible, smarter, harder, quicker and cooler than everyone else in the multiverse. For all the silliness in her stories, Amy Racecar is a glowing, iconic presence, and as Virginia’s troubles grow worse and worse we begin to realize that Amy is the wishful icon from which she draws her inexhaustible supply of fortitude. She’s constructed a towering, impermeable myth for herself, and like all the best mythologies it proves to be a well-spring of endless strength and a possible road map to redemption.

 

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Hope and belief are the double-edged sword of STRAY BULLETS. Re-reading the series from end to end, I’m reminded of the inscription on the gates of Hell in Clive James’ translation of the Divine Comedy: “Forget your hopes — they are what brought you here.” That covers most of the stories in this series — muddled men and women, led to Hell down wish-lit paths. But these stories are edged with dreams, full of yearning and sincerity. At their core, these cautionary tales are kind and human. Like all the best noir and crime fiction, they contain enough light to show how deep the dark can be.

-Josh O’Neill

Read more of Josh’s in-depth comic reviews here.

On Annie Lennox, David Bowie, and Waking Up

Imagine: you are a seventeen-year-old Annie Lennox, 1972. Listening to Ziggy Stardust with headphones plugged in to the hi-fi, alone with the songs, trying without luck to solve the seemingly insoluble mystery of what in the world this Spider from Mars is doing to you. Stuck in your shabby little teenage life, receiving this interstellar transmission that lays you open, hits you where you’re weak. You close your eyes and the music envelopes you. This little room in this worn down house, your bad haircut, your petty kid confusions — they all fade away and you are there in the bigger, scarier world from which this stuff is broadcast, this shadow dimension that feels realer to you than the mundane one in which you live. John, you’re only dancing.

Jump two decades, 1992. Here you are in London in your billowing dress and sequins, with your white-painted face and black-painted eyes in the visage of some dark goddess, having successfully climbed through the speakers into that other world, the one made of music and sex and voodoo, the one where this impossibly beautiful shape-shifting genius lives. He’s right here, Ziggy himself, Alladin Sane, the Thin White Duke in a pale green suit – you can see him, you can touch him, and even better you can sing with him. Not just any tune, but UNDER PRESSURE – this four-handed battering ram of a song, this song that doesn’t make sense at all unless its performers wield it as a weapon and try to burn each other down with hungry love. It’s a song that you have to try to win, and if it works its magic and the center holds you fight to a draw, close it out having laid everything on the line, Rocky and Apollo Creed clinging to each other, barely standing, spent – ain’t gonna be no rematch.

So here’s you, dizzy, drunk on impossibility, unsure sure how you got here in front of this sea of humanity, fronting Queen with David Bowie – you’re supposed to be paying tribute to Freddie Mercury, but for the moment it feels like you are Freddie Mercury, and didn’t he and Bowie fuck? Who knows what the rest of the night holds. You know one thing: you will give yourself to this performance, this moment, this song. You’ll get its blood under your fingernails. You’ll hang yourself from it like a cross, let it tear you limb from limb. You’ll sing it harder, louder that Mercury ever did, you will sing it better than the imponderable creature singing with you, this flesh & cheekbone godling with the mirrored eyes and lacquered hair – he’ll sing it like he always does, just like it sounds on the record, the consummate showman, his three decade career beyond its finest days, but damn if he doesn’t look ageless, good as ever, better even – he’ll sing it well but you’ll sing it like you’re trying to stave off execution.

And after the breakdown, with barely a moment to catch your breath, as the melody starts to build again to the shattering keen of its climax, you’ll let yourself get carried away: standing together on the lip of the stage you’ll wrap yourself around him, feeling his cool body and hot breath, his pulse barely elevated because he’s David Bowie, and what would it take in 1992 to make his heart race? You’ll push your face against his, feeling the softness of his skin, his fresh shave — he is human, after all, not an ambisexual android, not the man who fell to earth, just some person of impeccable vision, a dreamer who built a better myth, newer, sleeker, that turned on multitudes, multitudes which include you. And you’ll pull yourself closer to his body, constricting on him as tightly and ferociously as you’ve splayed yourself out across this song.

It’s erotic to be sure – your lip-quivering longing as you touch him with your mouth, push your space-face close to his – but it’s bigger and wider than lust, it’s wishful identification and hero worship and ego and sorcery and transcendence, that whole larger than life rock & roll current burning through you. It’s an erection of the heart. You want to fuck him, of course, that goes without saying — but what you really want to do is combine with him in violent harmony, your claws in each others’ hearts as reality comes crashing down around you in some kind of metaphysical orgasm, little death made huge, two perfect post-gender geniuses locked in an Ouroboros of art and fame and sex and myth and music.

You push in, closer and closer, your eyes closed, as dreamy as they were listening to Ziggy on the floor of that boring teenage house. You let the song, this perfect song, carry you, your lips moving ever nearer to his but never touching, some tantric proof of Zeno’s paradox, your heart hammering, your voice swinging every note like a haymaker, your eyes tight as he keeps his gaze set dead on the crowd, the perfect performer, deflecting every gaze, shining back the light shone on him brighter and hotter. Happily withholding everything, so utterly comfortable with his role as a totem, an object of painful longing and unmanageable desire, from you, from the crowd, from the world. Enjoying your perfect love but betraying nothing, letting your pure incendiary thirst hang hopefully in the air. Until the note ends and with a sly smile he steps away, finally looking at you, snapping his fingers, and the greatest moment of your life is over.

Or maybe your heart can’t handle that kind of thunder. So forget Annie Lennox, try this one on: you are me in 2014. A fledgling comic publisher and retailer with a career that’s half imaginary, no book that’s done any big sales, no money, no business plan to speak of, just a lot of love and partners who constantly inspire you and an unshakeable desire to make comics even though you don’t really know how and can’t draw, a fixation that you don’t entirely understand but you know stems from the fact that comics did something to you when you were a kid, worked some kind of strange magic and you never shook it off so now you’re stuck in this fucked up industry with no idea what you’re doing, with nothing on your side but this pure want.

And you and your dudes wind up concocting this tribute to Winsor McCay, who is your favorite cartoonist of all time (tied with Bill Watterson), start pitching it to people and suddenly the thing takes on a life of its own and the lineup of contributors reads like a list of the people whose work you admire most, some of them the actual ones who enchanted you in those formative, bad haircut, transmission-from-another-planet years.

All these pages start pouring in and they’re so wild, so massively ambitious, just full of sublime desperate passion, all these brilliant people from the top to the bottom of the comic industry breaking their backs, working fingers to the bone, drilling deep into the wellsprings of their vision, creating these glorious strips that look back with gratitude and forward with hope, dancing across the huge, forgotten expanse of this broadsheet page, pushing comics to their very limit.

And as the whole beautiful thing begins swimming into focus it starts to feel like you’re spending your days in conversation with the dreamer himself, this titan who died eighty years ago, and it feels like he’s listening. Talking back to you. It feels like you reached through the page somehow, these magical pages that ravaged your mind, that infiltrated your dreams, that became a central part of your understanding of the world and yourself, of your fantasies and nightmares. It feels like you read so hard, and loved so much, that a doorway opened, and even if you could only poke your head in for a second you could feel the soft Slumberland sun on your face, taste peppermint on the wind. You’re doing it not by talent, not your own at least, but by lighting a beacon, finding remarkable people who love what you love and bringing them together. And it turns out, for fleeting moments, that yes Virginia, love is as potent as money, as strength, as power.

You press your face against it and it dances away. All you get is a taste – it can’t ever be yours. But goddamn, Annie, thanks for the reminder: if you ever get a chance to sing with David Bowie or build your own Slumberland, you better not fuck it up.

-Josh O’Neill

DELUSIONAL by Farel Dalrymple

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Nothing that Farel Dalrymple has ever done feels complete. From the oddball sci-fi drama of OMEGA THE UNKNOWN to the sweet-hearted downbeat whimsy of POP GUN WAR to the inverted stream-of-consciousness high fantasy of IT WILL ALL HURT, it all seems like a glimpse, a skim across the surface. Beneath the warmly inviting illustration style, the raw childlike whimsy tempered by flawless internal storytelling rhythms, each of these books contains undepicted depths and a spectacularly detailed private universe. Farel’s worlds are icebergs, and the comics themselves are just the bit that juts out of the water, the part that sailors can see.

One of his constant visual motifs is connection – his settings tend to crawl with plugs, pipes, wires, tunnels, speakers, drains, cables. And every portal – every manhole, every powerline, every side-door and burrow and off ramp, these conduits and byzantine pathways with which his work is compulsively filled – leads somewhere into some new story, some undiscovered country: a dirty joke, a harrowing secret, a hidden community, another world containing rituals and hieroglyphs and pocket dimensions of its own. Like in a Robert Altman movie or an Thomas Pynchon novel, it’s sometimes hard to follow the central narrative – your attention is always running off in seven directions, chasing some glimmer of questionable magic that flickers across the page and flits out of view.

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DELUSIONAL, then, while theoretically a book of ancillary material, the bits & bobs of a career’s worth of restlessly inventive cartooning, seems to me to be the genuine article, the thing itself – what we talk about when we talk about Farel Dalrymple. It’s his back streets and back pages – his messy, teeming imagination, given outlet over time in sketches and illustrations and strips. The margins, the gutters between the panels – that’s where Farel really lives. And while we can’t really go there with him, we can chart his progress and receive his reports. We can eagerly await his postcards from the edge, which sometimes arrive in art books like this.

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As anyone who follows this site is probably aware, whatever minor success Locust Moon has had is largely due to Farel, who has been a friend and collaborator since day one. From his gorgeous ONCE UPON A TIME MACHINE cover to his sketchbook pages in QUARTER MOON to his back cover blurb in Rob Woods’ 36 LESSONS IN SELF DESTRUCTION, he has been involved in some capacity in every single book we have ever produced. He is a blood brother and feels like as much a part of Locust Moon as my own partners.

When I think of Farel, I always think of the brutally hot Philadelphia summer of 2011, and the first book ever published by Locust Moon. Farel was visiting from Portland, and we (Farel, Chris Stevens, Rob Woods, Jimmy Comey and myself) spent two weeks locked in a huddle in our failing comic shop with its broken AC, blissfully undisturbed by our as-yet-nonexistent customer base, working til all hours of the night on what we creatively entitled THE LOCUST MOON COMIC, a purposeless but joyful tribute to the imaginations of two little girls.

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To be camped out with these brilliant, passionate people breaking down stories, thumbnailing pages, watching a 22 page comic come together before our very eyes – it was not my first experience making comics, but it was the first time I realized that the only way to do it properly was to throw yourself at it, body and soul. It was my first great high – that incandescent thing that addicts always talk about – and I’ve been chasing it ever since.

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Ever since those nights watching Farel blearily sling watercolors on the couch until 6am, I have been constantly inspired by the full investment with which he approaches his work – giving himself to it completely, refusing to compromise on his bizarre, brilliant vision, sometimes to the detriment of his career, but always to the benefit of his readers and friends. He’s never tried to bring his enormous skills to the marketplace – he’s just tried to find ways to get paid for his inscrutable impulses. The mountain will come to Mohammed. And he’s found an audience that will follow him, marching to the off-beat rhythms of his weird old drum, down alleyways and obscure channels, hoping to trace every wire to its mysterious but self-sustaining power source, searching to see where it all leads.

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DELUSIONAL is a guided tour of this strange & extraordinary imaginative machinery, and we are privileged to watch it work and worry over more than a decade, knotting and unknotting, stringing and contorting itself along ideas and tensions that are never resolved, but return in new forms, speaking with new voices, adapting, vanishing and reappearing down those outlets and burrows that connect page after page. It sometimes reads as compulsion, not intention: there’s an imbalance – too much is going on in this brain and spirit, and it needs release. Farel’s characters aren’t sock puppets that he uses to tell stories, they’re not slotted into plot points – they’re organic, evolving creatures, and sometimes they need to be taken out for some light and air.

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And that, maybe, is the delusion of the title – Farel thinks these people are real. Orson & Smith, Barch & Belf, Almendra Clementine, the Regular – Hollis the pudgy sad-sack superhero, Percival the bespectacled goldfish, Emily the cool-tempered rocker – the space-suited kids with detachable hands, the robotic mice and virtual reality cats, the dorks in helmets, the barbarians with broadaxes, the astronauts in trouble – the creeping Shadowsmen that seem to slither their way into story after story – these and so many others keep returning, swimming into view, weaving in and out of the pages of this book freely, without the strictures of master narrative to pin them in place, changing forms, swapping personalities, appearing in various versions. There is no playing-pretend in these comics about flying fish and talking rats – there is just giving voice to these singular characters and their urgent, muddled messages.

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The sensitivity of this exploration and cartography, the absolute obedience to the internal voices and their various ways of expressing themselves, the willingness to follow rather than lead – that’s the true negative capability required of great artists. Above all, Farel listens, watches, thinks – lets the wind blow through him.

And I’ll be damned if this snazzy little casebound hardcover – appealingly designed by Chris Pitzer with subtly shifting colored paper and a vibrant sky-blue cover – this collection of by-definition non-essential material might not be the best place yet to see Farel’s remarkable imagination at work, absorbing everything, observing itself, processing the world into strange, moving comics and drawings.

Or, as Farel more simply puts it in his detailed, conversational index, “Most of the stuff in this book is stuff that came up out of my own brain.”

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-Josh O’Neill

ANT COLONY by Michael DeForge

antMichael DeForge’s ANT COLONY is a wonderfully whole piece of comics craftsmanship. Externally baffling but internally consistent, it does what great art comics often do – it teaches you how to read it. Best experienced in a single reading, it’s a book that you swim through. And by the time you reach the far shore, gasping for air, you’re tempted to return to the beginning and dive back in. Not because it was such a pleasurable reading experience, but because you’ve only just absorbed its language. Now that it’s over, you’re finally ready for it.

It begins with a statement of ennui that’s at once existentially universal and hilariously particular. It’s like the setup of a joke: two ants stand on a decomposing apple, and one asks the other, “Why does everything have to be so tiny?”

“I’m just so sick of this itty-bitty lifestyle,” he goes on. Most of us can relate – who hasn’t anxiously pondered their own insignificance? – but there’s something disorientingly funny about watching an ant’s spiritual crisis as he discovers his own puniness. It gives us a God’s-eye-view while speaking directly to our experience. We’re drawn in and held at bay, watching the ant farm and staring out from behind the glass.

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That seems to be DeForge’s great trick in this disturbing, uncomfortable opus of a graphic novel, and it forms a tension that never slackens. We’re introduced to a large cast of ants and other bugs in a detailed, surreal insect world. We’re given so much to identify with, so much that’s recognizably human – the dissatisfaction and intractable misunderstandings of a squabbling couple; a child dealing with his abusive, mentally ill father; ants sitting on couches, watching TV, bitching at one another. But there is also so much that is strange, repulsive, and unknowable – the boy who inhales a cloud of microscopic earthworms and is transformed by them; the spiders with the heads of Tex Avery wolves, who copulate by extending worm-like appendages into one another’s bodies; the queen, drawn like some byzantine flat-perspective centerfold, her legs spread as she’s rotting and dying. The book invites our identification, then rejects it. It gives us recognizable figures in an alien world – one as frightening and foreign as (if not particularly similar to) the insect kingdom itself.

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Though there are a lot of strange pleasures to be had here for the reader who enjoys this sort of thing – morbid comedy abounds, DeForge’s linework and design sensibility are inimitably striking, and the bold color choices are directly appealing – ANT COLONY is at its core a very dark, ugly book. DeForge creates situations in which we expect the drama of human connection – a couple divided by war; five runaways trying to find or build a home; an orphaned child, rescued and raised by enemy combatants – but instead gives us amoral coldness. In one typical exchange, one ant says, “What are you doing? Why are you trying to drown that baby?” and his boyfriend replies, “I dunno.” There is a lot of murder and death in this story, none of them crimes of passion – they’re all committed with a casual shrug, as a procedural necessity or a way to fend off boredom. These ants seem to kill each other the same way we kill them – absentmindedly, and sometimes for no reason at all.

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The exception is that one ant from the opening, the one bemoaning his itty-bitty stature. He seems to feel in a recognizably human way. He meditates, declares himself a pacifist, and refuses to take part in the war with the red ants. He reaches out for his boyfriend, who’s never anything but surly and aggressive. When he and four other ants go on the run, he tells them that they’re a family now. Watching his constant (sometimes pathetically needy) attempts to engage emotionally as they’re met by the pure autistic insectoid impassivity of the characters around him is the most affecting element of the book, its emotional core. But don’t mistake him for a point of view character – DeForge’s storytelling here has a blank, loveless gaze. Though often hilariously funny, his point of view is algid and bleak.

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Last week I reviewed Drawn & Quarterly’s translated edition of BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet; these two books make excellent companion pieces, if you enjoy being ushered by stellar cartoonists into the heart of teeny-tiny sociopathy. But there is a key difference: while both are frightening and morbid books, the reading experiences diverge. BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS, for all its existential snarl, enraptures you with beauty and cuteness, begging you to offer up your heart for it to devour. It fills you with rage and hurt. ANT COLONY, meanwhile, has a flat affect and implacable presence. Both stories sweep you through carefully designed, grimly vicious universes, baffling nightmares where nothing vulnerable is safe, and where weakness is death. The difference is that BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS is a tragedy, and ANT COLONY thinks that shit is funny.

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-Josh O’Neill