INTELLIGENT SENTIENT?

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Luke Ramsey’s INTELLIGENT SENTIENT? defies description. Its back-cover copy takes a pretty impressive swing, though: “INTELLIGENT SENTIENT? feels like an artifact from another time — a lost feature in Omni magazine or the album booklet for a late 1970s Hawkwind record or, perhaps, a print version of Koyaanisqaatsi.” In fact it doesn’t really quite feel like any of those things, but the comparisons in sum point you in the right direction: they evoke the pure found-object otherworldliness and unsettling artifactual shimmer of this weird and startling thing. It’s an item that floats in its own self-sustaining cloud of unknowing – a mislaid, untraceable document of a long-forgotten future.

Among the things it’s documenting are: motherboards and root systems; almond-eyed aliens; snakes made of snakes; mushroom clouds trees with trunks of tangled red veins; the exploitation, subversion and destruction of a bountiful, frightening planet; insectoid mandalas, third eyes, astral projections; puppets, puppetmasters, secret societies; shadows and distorted reflections; the ways the writhing, chaotic mass of the natural world fuses to the sleekly ominous silent hum of the digital one.

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In this thematically and stylistically linked series of wordless illustrations, Ramsey’s art bends and folds in on itself, redoubling and kaleidoscoping into endless patterns, fractals, double helixes and splintered nuclei, building a mythos of interconnection and unearthly mystery. There’s no rendering in these hyperdetailed kenophobic drawings – just an endless, roiling ocean of squiggles and geometric shapes: anarchic, filigreed abstraction wriggling within the strictures of gorgeously designed clean-line compositions. His stretched-out landscape-format images bubble and twist, exploring the endlessly replicating, mirrored architectures of both our universe and culture. As above, so below.

The same esoteric heiroglyphs – pyramids, obelisks, eyes, coils, snakes – keep recurring through the book, appearing both as natural formations and branded onto labels, displayed on the sides of vehicles, inscribed into flesh. INTELLIGENT SENTIENT? explores the secret lives of images — how the transcendent visual archetypes of myth and nature spawn and split in our viral and mindless cultural exchange, which uses up then reiterates used up structures and compositions and icons. In Ramsey’s vision, a supermarket check-out line is as hauntingly empty and alienating as the star-strewn sky. They both make you feel small and alone, and they are both in a certain sense masks for the unknowable essence of reality.

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As in the stunningly detailed but unassuming, even modest pink-on-pink cover, Ramsey uses a combination of high- and low-contrast color choices to introduce a shrouded dimensionality to his strange compositions. He buries painstaking detail in barely-differentiated shades of black on dark brown, or red ink on a red background. It shows an admirable willingness to camouflage his own beautiful and laborious work, and its coy subtlety is magnetic — it lures you deeper and deeper into this book’s quiet, disconcerting simulated reality. It whispers that you should look closer. There’s always more to see – always more paths to follow and lines to unravel.
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INTELLIGENT SENTIENT? is animated by a precise and compelling aesthetics that reinvents the universe with a kind of paranoid wonder, builds it up and breaks it down. Its inscrutable message has a cryptic urgency: the world is not the world. There is unspeakable beauty and cunning intelligence hiding behind every curtain. Pull them back at your own risk.

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I’m almost to the end of this review, and I still haven’t answered the most pressing question posed by INTELLIGENT SENTIENT?: should you read it while high on mushrooms?

I haven’t taken mushrooms in a very long time, so I can’t speak from experience. I feel I should be cautious here and advise against it. The horror vacui in here is very ominous and itchy, and maybe too compelling for a psilocybin-vulnerable mind to handle. I don’t want to be responsible for anyone’s psychic break.

But there’s a deep longing in Ramsey’s artwork for some kind of ineffable communion that lies beyond the limits of language and ego. This book wants to be ripped free from its confining context. It’s a world in and of itself, and it aspires to exist on its own terms – not as a collection of illustrations but as a teeming, unfathomable reality. It wants you to fall inside. INTELLIGENT SENTIENT? represents a wild, reckless thrust past the petty fears and estrangements and oppressions of mudane life into a frightening, beautiful, unmapped terrain – a bold attempt to establish contact with the thing behind the thing. It deserves an unguarded mind to meet it on its journey. So come to this book ready to believe. Eager to be abducted. Let Luke Ramsey and his collaborators pry open your mind. See what spills out.

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So in other words, yeah. Read this book on mushrooms.

Then report back here and together we can try to signal the mothership.

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-Josh O’Neill

 

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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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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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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

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.

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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

 

PRETTY DEADLY by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Emma Rios

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The English writer Walter Pater said that all art aspires to the condition of music. I’m not so sure about that, but PRETTY DEADLY certainly does. It wants to inhabit the haunted space from which country songs like “Long Black Veil” or “St. John the Gambler” emerge — the bleakly spectral west of lost highways, of fiddles at the funeral pyre, of hangmen and heartache. It sounds a high, hollow note as its lonesome melody unwinds, echoing through the canyons.

The plot is oddly structured, and so driven by revelation and backstory that to describe much of it would be to ruin part of the fun. But the narrative is driven by Fox, a grief-stricken blind man with a dark past, and Sissy, the little lost girl with whom he shares his travels. They make their living, such as it is, as roving storytellers, moving from town to town and singing the dark ballad of Death-faced Ginny, the Grim Reaper’s daughter. After a few twists and baffling machinations, they wind up with Ginny herself on their tail, and the apocalypse rumbling behind.

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The end — the crashing-down, the river of blood, the fire next time — that, more than the daughter of death, is the great ghost haunting the pages of PRETTY DEADLY, whose characters live lives on the fringes — snake oil salesmen, traveling troubadors, streetwalkers, cowards and liars. Their existences are tenous, itinerant, bound together only by weird, damaged love, by the few connections that refuse to wither and die. Ginny turns out to be just like them — an abandoned nobody who wants the world to burn. But everybody cares about something, and they wind up holding existence itself together with dirty fingernails and gunsmoke.

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How art this densely detailed, this packed with panels and ambitious storytelling choices so effortlessly evokes the open plains of the American west I’m not sure. Emma Rios has taken the style of Paul Pope — the wayward, manga-inflected storytelling and sloppily precise brushwork — and weathered it, barrel-aged it til it started to fray at the edges. Like Mike Mignola, she favors big, splashy illustrations with lots of small inset or intercut panels, turning every page of into a collage-style design piece in its own right, an experiment in the form which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. She tells Kelly Sue DeConnick’s story as a accumulation of tiny, fragmented moments cascading over one iconic image — the mess of reality spilling over the myth — rather than a progression of linear story beats. It can be awfully confusing, but it can also be riveting. For all the recognizable influences, there’s a magnetic, original voice here, as soulful and ambitious as those of her forebears.

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DeConnick’s script, too, favors off-kilter storytelling and fractured rhythms, dropping us into an already-unfolding narrative with almost no context, barreling forward and gradually filling us in with hints, flashbacks, and recollections, letting us sink or swim. Reading it as a monthly book I found it difficult to follow to the point of frustration. Having it all in one place, that weakness can be read as a strength — here is a book that demands your full attention, a book with no course charted through its pleasures and dangers. It wants to be puzzled over and figured out. Its joys are not the joys of suspense, or of plot at all — it operates on a poetic plane, in a mythic mode of storytelling.

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There is a framing sequence, for instance, in which a skeletal bunny speaks to a dead butterfly — there has been, to this point at least, no explanation of how these characters relate to the main plot, or why they are our narrators. And yet, from a poetic point of view, it seems like a fitting choice, even an obvious one: the story is being told the way it wants to be told. It sounds like the voice of a dead rabbit, and so a dead rabbit speaks it.

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The cleverness of this book’s conceit is the blending of the oldest, most worry-weathered of American genres, the western, the ancestral mythology of our still-embryonic nation, with something older, deeper and more mysterious — the ancient gods and monsters of religion and myth. For all its spells and curses, its talking crows and prophesied beasts, PRETTY DEADLY doesn’t feel “supernatural,” the way zombies and vampires do — it feels hypernatural, the way the Odyssey or the epic of Gilgamesh do. It brings the old world gods to the American west. They seem angry and vengeful, like they know they’re on their way to being forgotten.

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I find it very odd that PRETTY DEADLY is an ongoing series. If ever a comic felt end-driven, this one does. (Quite literally, with armageddon hanging in the balance.) There doesn’t seem to be anything resembling a balanced status quo that you can hang a serial structure on, no sensible way that I can see to keep the line indefinitely moving. Once this current plotline is resolved, I have no idea what this series will even be about.

Maybe DeConnick and Rios don’t know either. They’re certainly not afraid of making a big mess from a narrative standpoint. But they’re channeling something pure, mysterious, bafflingly recognizable. I am firmly in favor of this flawed book with its startlingly lyrical voice and its delicate, haunting song. It seems to emerge from some dusty, mythic back country, some weird old American ghost town at the end of an endless road. These stellar creators have the courage to follow that song. Some spirit tongue has their rapt attention, and they have mine.

-Josh O’Neill

THE AMATEURS by Conor Stechschulte

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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.

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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.

conor ladies

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

conor james

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

summer title

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.

summer swimming

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.

summer dead

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.

summer schedule

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.

summer nature

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.

summer beach

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

straybullets1

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.

sb waitress

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.

stray bullets #1

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.

stray bullets revenge

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.

sb amy

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.

 

sb amy 2

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.