CELEBRATED SUMMER by Charles Forsman

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Charles Forsman’s quietly moving new book CELEBRATED SUMMER is essentially plotless. Two teenagers drop acid and drive around. That’s the whole story. There are no revelations along the way — their friendship doesn’t go through any changes, there’s no character arc. They just drive, from the arcade to the beach to the convenience store, and try to figure out whether they’re having any fun. Then they go home. It’s all rendered in Forsman’s punk-Hergé micron style, where the clear line of Kevin Huizenga meets the scratchy cross-hatching of Chester Brown.

This is Forsman’s second consecutive disaffected-teenage-roadtrip book, following the chilling, Badlands-inflected THE END OF THE FUCKING WORLD. But where TEOTFW was cold and harsh, preserving the mystery of its semi-sociopathic protagonists, CELEBRATED SUMMER is resignedly warm and humane. The former was an intense and frightening reading experience; the latter is a brief and mild one. But it’s also more thoughtful and assured, and in a very quiet way more formally and literarily ambitious than its predecessor.

The main character is Wolf (did he give himself that name?), a tubby, sensitive soul trying to pass as a rough outsider, with his fuzzy half-assed excuse for a mohawk and his Sluggo-style scalp stubble. His buddy Mike is a weaselly but good-natured little dork who sees himself as some kind of sleazed-up, street-smart operator.

Mike is clearly the leader of their little partnership, the one wielding the mantle of COOL KID in their little private world where no such thing exists. Mike is the one who drives the car, who announces destinations, who kicks off the book with a plan:

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Mike has an older girlfriend, and you can feel him weighing out the wages of dangerous adulthood when he says “I’m feeling less like her boyfriend and more like her dealer.” You get the sense he’s trying and failing to grow a mustache. Mike’s the one who keeps his cool when the cops cruise by, while Wolf curls up into the fetal position. In Mike’s mind this makes him an ice-cold outlaw, a position granted tacit endorsement by Wolf’s passivity.

Because Wolf is lost and scared, hoping to hook into some post-adolescent conduit to carry him away from his fat-kid-at-the-pool past and his post-high-school-nobody present. He’s just graduated, scaling the wall that hems in the world of children, and found nothing on the other side. When Mike asks what it’s like to be done, he says, “I kinda don’t feel anything… it just sort of ended, man.” That’s what the acid trip is about, really — he wants to crack through his empty, trackless reality to find someplace new to go, and someone new to be. But all the drugs do is make things wiggle and shift, and take away his ability to piss.

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Forsman’s depiction of the trip violates every acid cliché and leaves you with an LSD experience that lays bare the rawness of the material world and gently warps your perceptions around its borders. Everything is funny and scary. Where most artists would go the day-glo-electric-kool-aid route and give us spirals and abstractions, a world melting into bubbling goop and neon colors, Forsman just subtly bends his monochrome reality, frays it at the edges, and yet when it’s played off his anxious minimalist style, the results are more vertiginous and immersive than the hyperactive overstimulatory experimentation of most acid-trip artwork. There’s no indulgence here.

The brief transcendent moments are fleetingly real, like when Mike becomes enraptured by a tiny white flower. Mostly there’s just restlessness, as these kids drive and wander aimlessly, two teenage satellites adrift in a black vacuum, just barely hopeful enough to continue moving through the stars.

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The only deviations from Forsman’s fly-on-the-wall matter-of-factness come in brief but effective glimpses into Wolf’s head, when he speaks in monologue. His thoughts are honest and ineloquent, quietly searching and self-pitying.

One panel simply says “I’ve always been big. In elementary school I would always hurt the other kids.” As the story moves we get more of a sense of Wolf and his withdrawal, his absent waywardness a scrim behind which to hide his anxiety and anguish, even from himself.

“This was about the time mom started to pull away.” We don’t get any more info on Wolf’s parents that that, but it’s all we need – they’re somehow gone, and he’s left with his fretful grandmother, who he sweetly thinks to call even in the middle of an acid trip.

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The comic takes its title from a great Husker Du song that splits the difference between between sneering and nostalgia. “Just when I’m ready to sit inside, it’s summertime.” The big chunky power chords of that song build until they suddenly drop out, leaving a twelve-string guitar and a beautiful Bob Mould melody that couldn’t sound more out of place in a hardcore punk song. The glimpses into Wolf’s head serve, jarringly, like that unexpected bridge, offering you a radically different tone, something sad and kind bubbling just under a careless surface.

The book’s final moment is its most courageous. Wolf walks through the rain in his dirty sweatshirt the day after the trip, remembering his childhood. “I can never be there again,” he thinks. “I cannot be saved.” And then, as he steps through a puddle, we see him as a little boy, snug in his raincoat, with a caption that reads, “I’d give anything to not be scared.”

This is so direct and sincere that it dances dangerously close to maudlin sentimentality. It’s clearly a moment designed to pull your heart into your stomach. But its power is in its irony: Here is Wolf, perched on the verge of a voided adulthood, peering back with longing at a youth that was probably not much happier, just safer. The only difference was that there used to be someone to wrap him in a coat when it rained.

But this kid has his grandmother to yell at him for staying out all night while making him a BLT. And someday, after he’s found and lost his bearings a dozen times, he will look back wistfully on the simple melancholy of a summer when school was done and he was high and all he had to do was drift. The story ends on Wolf reaching back for a lost youth, with no sense of how much more he’s bound to lose.

circles– Josh O’Neill

 

BARNABY, by Crockett Johnson

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BARNABY, by Crockett Johnson, is less a newspaper strip than it is an object of love. Only mildly successful during its 1942-1952 run (a warm-up for the career-making, genre-defining classic HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON, which features an identical protagonist), it has attracted not a large fan base but a wildly, irrationally enthusiastic cult of supporters and proselytizers, including Dorothy Parker, Art Spiegelman, Duke Ellington, Chris Ware and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (Now that’s a dinner party.)

Fantagraphics’ faithful and reverent new edition, with its beautiful banana-yellow, era-appropriate book design by Dan Clowes and wonderfully informative and enthusiastic essays, brings this nearly-forgotten material roaring back to life. Jeet Heer writes, “It’s hard to talk about BARNABY without raving.” Parker writes, “I cannot write a review of Barnaby… it is always a valentine for Mr. Johnson.” Having newly become aware of this comic, I am a late convert to their brand of tongue-twisted devotion to this wonderful proto-Calvin & Hobbes creation — this off-beat, sweet-hearted suburban saga located at the junction where modernism meets magic.

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The subject of BARNABY is the relationship between the titular adolescent boy and Jackeen J. O’Malley, his glad-handing, possibly-imaginary roustabout of a fairy godfather. O’Malley is a character for the ages — less guardian angel than drunken uncle, full of patter and tall tales, possessed by insatiable appetites for food and drink and self-regard. He bluffs his way into Barnaby’s high esteem, and shanghais him into ill-considered schemes and misadventures. It all plays out against the backdrop of the second World War – a perfectly appointed middle-class idyll disrupted by air raid sirens, rationing and the draft. BARNABY is entirely a product of its era, with many references to the politics of the day, but it also has a folkloric quality. It seems to float, as the best newspapers strips do, in some eternally mythic American moment.

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The central joke is that Barnaby, unlike Calvin, is no hyper-active kid with an outsized imagination. He’s calm and collected, a reasonable, well-adjusted little boy. His personality is perfectly reflected in Johnson’s almost translucently clear-line cartooning, in which everything is boiled down to its barest essence — life as one big declarative sentence. Not a pen-stroke is given to nuance or shading. Barnaby’s belief in O’Malley is equally uncomplicated and complete, emblematic of his character as a whole: his fairy godfather is magical and heroic by definition, and no failure to display his powers or act heroically (or even decently) will convince him otherwise. Everything about Barnaby is matter-of-fact; everything about O’Malley, from his braggadocious claims to his very existence, is a matter of fiction. The sweetness of their relationship is that O’Malley gets to be grand and mystical in the eyes of the kid, and the kid gets proof positive that the world is an enchanted place. O’Malley is just a mostly-incompetent con man with wings, but he gives the gift of magic to this quiet, cool-tempered child.

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Everything in Barnaby’s world is trying to shoot down the fantasy. Parents, teachers, and child psychologists all conspire to snap him out of the delusion. But his faith in the supremacy of his fairy-godfather can’t be shaken. Despite the fact that O’Malley’s “magic wand” seems to be a cheap cigar, and excepting his power of flight O’Malley never exhibits a single supernatural ability, Barnaby is utterly convinced of his pal’s near-omnipotence.

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There’s a curious blurring of the strip’s reality halfway through the book, when it turns out first O’Malley can be seen by other children, and the later by mobsters, drunks, and other fringe elements. So the strip, which initially seems to be about a boy and his imaginary friend, gets an authorial endorsement of its fantasy: O’Malley is real — he’s just invisible to members of the establishment. The rock-solid button-down social machinery of work, school, home, whether in peacetime or war, cannot be penetrated by the very real outre magic of Barnaby’s backwoods.

Until Mr. O’Malley is elected to Congress.

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This is the kind of great joke that Johnson specializes in: oddness and disruption so deadpan it seems obvious. Barnaby’s dog Gorgon, it’s suddenly revealed, can talk — but he turns out to be such a rambling bore that everyone just wishes he would shut up. When Barnaby and O’Malley go to visit a giant, he turns out to be three feet tall and “sensitive about his size.” There are very few belly laughs to be had here, more quiet chuckles, and many of the strips seem to forget to supply any punchline at all. But you don’t care — you’re not here for payoffs, you’re here to be immersed in this clean, cracked world, the wry amusements and the utterly recognizable characters who stick with you. The solid earth of perfectly crisp drawing and flawlessly defined personalities allows Johnson to play fast and loose with his invented reality.

The brilliance of all this is that, through some mysterious alchemy of cartooning and character, it manages to provoke an immense reaction of love in the reader, without ever resorting to any kind of sentimentality or manipulation. There are no occasional moments of heart-tugging sweetness, like there were in Calvin & Hobbes, no Schulzian pathos. Just a dry, almost clinical depiction of the adventures of this boy and his favorite figment. The depiction is so coldly clean, so unwilling to invest itself in its characters’ points of view, that for all of its charm and ease it has an almost autistic, Kubrickian gaze.

And yet, when Dorothy Parker describes these characters as “important additions to my heart,” I am right there with her. There’s something unguarded and hopeful in the total lucidity of the storytelling and the sharp-relief definition of the characters, something unjudgemental and welcoming and unafraid, that invites you in. And if you answer that invitation, before you know it, Mr. O’Malley will storm into your house, ravage your ice-box and light up a cigar.

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Maybe that’s unsurprising — O’Malley is a pure force of blustering charm & friendly bullying presumption. It’s his nature to tromp in where he isn’t invited. But you will also find that, very quietly, this little watchful boy with his wide American eyes and gullibly observant optimism has pulled up a chair. He sits there with his polite smile and uncanny enthusiasm, and compels you to invest some small, unconflicted piece of yourself in the most mundane & preposterous magic.

And like Barnaby, we will take our magic where we can get it.

barnaby end– Josh O’Neill

 

SABERTOOTH SWORDSMAN by Conley & Gentry

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And the prize for Most Unexpected Sorta-Almost-Masterpiece goes to Aaron Conley and Damon Gentry.

SABERTOOTH SWORDSMAN is a video-game-like web comic and now graphic novel about a wimp with a kidnapped wife who is granted tiger-form and masterful swordsmanship by the Cloud God. He has to fight, slash, scratch and claw through all kinds of crazy situations to get to the Malevolent Mastodon Mathematician, who is basically the level boss. Also, there’s a plague that’s turning everyone into monsters, and the Mathematician has magic rings that can… heal people? I think?

None of it seems particularly well thought out, but it’s a lot of fun. It has a kind of punkish efficiency, and the story hums along. Mostly the narrative is just a hook for the deranged brilliance of Aaron Conley, who draws the titular tiger hacking his way through Lovecraftian horrors, slobbering goons, and at least one big-breasted Cyclops with desperate verve and furious invention. Sabertooth Swordsman, to both its detriment and credit, is less a book than it is a showcase for one of the most exciting new artists in comics. Conley is a beast with tremendous abilities and outsized ambitions. This comic reads like an Yngwie Malmsteen guitar solo — unbelievably impressive, and way, way too much.

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It’s tough to balance my opinion here — I think there’s a lot in this book that doesn’t work, but it doesn’t work in that gloriously over-ambitious ultra-talented, obsessively creative way that is often preferable to something that DOES work. Basically, I love this book for not giving a fuck whether I think it works. These are two guys who are going to follow their internal impulses to glory and destruction. Nit-picking it is like critiquing a comet while it goes streaking overhead. The momentum of the thing renders all other points moot — it does what it does.

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The above page is a perfect example. What the hell are we looking at in that top panel? I see an eye, and I think some kind of insectoid creature, but you really have to look to make him out. Is the eye connected to the bug? Or is it just part of that weird panel border design thing?

On the other hand, who cares, because that drawing is awesome. I took a sort of perverse satisfaction in deciphering some of these confusing drawings. Figuring out what’s going on in the panel becomes a kind of Where’s Waldo game you can play. That’s the Cloud God lurking behind the insect guy, smiling with bared teeth — I just figuted that out right now, as I’m typing this, and it delighted me. That’s not really how comics are supposed to work, but that’s how this comic works. At least for me.

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There is one huge production misstep in this book, and I assume it’s a market driven choice rather than an aesthetic one: this collection should really be in color. The fundamental problem here is that everything looks the same — every tentacle, every tree, every fold of fabric and sound effect and horrifying creature is rendered in Conley’s hyper-detailed wormy-clean linework. Color would have gone a long part of the way towards solving that problem, and it’s a big part of the reason that this review is coming off as a lot more critical than I intended it to be.

Because there’s such pleasure-in-looking with this stuff that the critical mind just shuts down. You’re just so enraptured by the deranged display of Conley’s puppy-eager virtuosity that a highly flawed book reads as a towering success. You can see all the influences, Moebius and Darrow and Pope and all those guys, but it has an insouciant swoop, a tone of deviant debauchery all its own.

There is such palpable joy in this artwork, a stretching (often beyond the breaking point) of the expressive limitations of comics, a violent reveling in the infinite possibility of the blank page, and what you really want to do is stand up and applaud. Conley can achieve things that very few artists are capable of. His art is animated by thunder and fire. If he ever learns (or simply chooses) to show some restraint, to rein in his astonishing capacities and use them sparingly, in service of storytelling, he will be a force to be reckoned with.

Until then, I’ll just be enjoying these preposterous guitar solos.

SS6– Josh O’Neill

 

HEYDAY COMICS by Daniel Elisii

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The comics of Daniel Elisii arrived in the mail in a little cardboard box, so thoroughly packed and obsessively taped that it took me nearly ten minutes to get the package open. Reading them was a similar experience — tugging at loose ends, trying to pry open maddeningly adherent little corners, frustrated and driven by an inexplicable intuition that there might be something wonderful inside.

Elisii is the creator of HEYDAY COMICS, a series of, thus far, five issues. There is some kind of narrative at work here, or at least a universe being built — a harsh landscape of shifting unknowable deities and small, petty creatures. Several tales concern Kokopelli, a skinny insectoid biped, and his quest to find his lost horn, which seems to have mystical properties. We see him beg, dance and wheedle before Dazza-leth, some kind of creator-god figure. We see him murder and sacrifice — finally he gives Dazza-leth his eyes, and is rewarded with the gift of sight.

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Honestly, I can barely follow some of the narrative here, and I gave myself a headache trying. This is some kind of intuitive, esoteric storytelling, where plotlines don’t follow one another so much as they bubble up from some kind of primordial mythic stew. They shift in and out of coherence as quickly as their tone switches from roar to whimper, from revelation to bitter humor. There is some kind of dreamlogic at work here, in this bizarre half-world of scurrying organisms and booming disembodied prophecy. But the logic seems to be beside the point.
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The glory of this baffling work is in its voice. These comics thunder and slither. They speak through the cracks in the earth and the cavities in your teeth. These are poems, not stories, but the word “poem” calls to mind something gentler, more lyrical than these alienating strips. Their tone seems to come from someplace old and frightening, but reads clean as a whistle. These strips have a drawn-with-the-fist quality tempered by a pure cartoonist’s eye. They are Looney Toons cave paintings; reading them is like discovering an image of Bugs Bunny on the wall of Lascaux.
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There is urgency here, though it is muddled by speaking its own language. Though the drawings themselves don’t show the influence, in some ways the otherworldly tone reminds me of Jack Kirby’s late-period work. Like the New Gods, Elisii’s comics refuse to meet you halfway: they stand on the rock and declare their vision and wait for you, the followers, to gather. There is a tiger-force at work.


This voice speaks from who-knows-where and insists on being heard. “The Gods sing a mighty song for those who listen,” writes Elisii. I am frankly not so sure who or what is doing the singing, but it’s clear to me that Daniel Elisii is listening.

elisii 4– Josh O’Neill

Winsor Wednesdays

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Some beautiful McCay illustrations & book design from a little-known Hearst-published propaganda book. 1929.

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The full, glorious wrap-around cover.

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McCay was working in his standard Herald editorial-illustration style, which leads me to assume this book was authored by Arthur Brisbane.McCay015-1024x606The book also features cartoonier illustrations from Hearst cartoonist and friend of McCay, F. Opper.