Collecting five mini-comics that were originally published between 2010 and 2015, Gulag Casual (2D Cloud) serves as a representative glimpse at the oeuvre of author Austin English. All five stories here are what may be called slice-of-life dramas, though only in the most nominal sense. Each work brims with an imaginative, poetic pulse that engages and compels, but it also obscures the narrative elements almost completely. Both English’s merits and demerits are fully exposed.
Aesthetically, the work contained in Gulag Casual is extraordinary. English’s lines are messy and cacophonous, varying in medium from story to story. In the last two works, “Here I Am!” And “Freddy’s Dead,” English uses bare pencils, rendering his story in a crude, anarchic flurry of raw emotion. Faces and bodies become distended and distorted and obscured—lines blending into one another until the composition is an indecipherable storm—and there is a potent immediacy here. The narrative itself bends and breaks under the weight of English’s graphic morphology, imploding into unrecognizable smithereens, and there are both pros and cons to this. Obviously, it becomes impossible to follow in any linear, coherent fashion; however, while English writes explicitly in the afterword about his interest in narrative, it’s never clear that these works were designed to function in a narrative capacity. These interludes are more similar to the work of Sasaki Maki, and they are best thought of as suites of poetic juxtapositions. In these emotional-narrative arcs, meaning is derived from images’ aesthetic and emotional relation, rather than their logical or narrative one.
English acknowledges these tendencies in his work, writing that his “stories from that time often started off with a sincere attempt at making traditional comics, then inevitably devolved into… my kind of work.” Arguably, the work is stronger for it, and the resistance to recognizability issues a challenge to readers that is at once frustrating and motivating. The book’s second story, “The Disgusting Room,” is the apotheosis of this ethos and the best example of its merits. Here English inhabits a quasi-Basquiat mode, combining pasted on and pasted-over text with grotesquely composed lines; faces approximate a supposed vision of what someone suffering apperceptive prosopagnosia may see; English uses a thick black line to delineate objects, and he textures his pages with glued-on strips of cloth and fabric. Opening with a portrait of the cast and a disclaimer to “Note hairstyles to keep track of who’s who,” the text quickly dissolves into a free-for-all of line and color. Exerting the same control over its viewers as a David Lynch painting, “The Disgusting Room”—and Gulag Casual in toto—is genuinely confounding. It attracts, aesthetically, and English’s artistry is immense, but there is the obvious component of alienation.
Loud and busy and seemingly ugly, the work’s published here are also provocative and confrontational. But in spite of that—or rather, because of it—they are beautiful. [Shea Hennum]
One of the hardest parts of making a successful comic is making sure that it should be a comic at all. There are plenty of comics that would be better on screen or as novels, perfectly functional and perhaps even better without the visual element at all. It’s hard to enjoy a comic that’s not well suited to the medium, and this is even more true of webcomics. Many webcomic creators are amateurs in the truest sense, posting because they love their work enough to do it on top of an unrelated day job, so it’s exciting to see these creators taking full advantage of what can be done online that can’t be done elsewhere.
Though Snakes & Ladders (webcomic) has only been publishing for a couple of months, it’s already one of the more interesting an innovative works out there. Writer and artist Breezy has quickly created a layered, nuanced world with an interesting cast of characters that hits the sweet spot in the Venn diagram between Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game, Alien, and the better episodes of Deep Space Nine. Set in a future that doesn’t look too far removed from present day, Snakes & Ladders stars Black Friday, the commander of a group of mercenaries that works for whoever is willing to pay them, space travel and combat included. The comic opens with Friday and her team realizing that they’ve been sent into a situation that doesn’t align with their personal beliefs, and Friday makes a risky decision in an attempt to do the right thing. It’s a classic story, but Breezy’s art and attention to detail make it pop.
Where this shines as a webcomic is when Breezy uses animated panels that are reminiscent of some of what Ru Xu does in Saint For Rent. The story rockets forward, establishing the scene and the characters without pigeonholing them into a single spot. The story is told slightly out of chronology—part of it in flashbacks, as Friday recounts her memories later—and the characters’ changes look natural, progressing with time and age. Friday and her team are even more fascinating than the alien worlds and lifeforms they encounter. They curse and joke morbidly just like actual military personnel do, a protective and sometimes disjointed family brought together by their jobs and kept that way by mutual annoyance and affection. The team is diverse both in appearance and attitude, and it will be interesting to see how they cope with Friday’s decision to put their jobs, not to mention their lives, at risk by deciding to bring an alien home with them against their client’s orders. There are moments they seem very much like the Commander’s family from Kelly Turnbull’s Manly Guys Doing Manly Things, but they’re not so removed from their day jobs that the jokes come quite so easily as in that group.
Snakes & Ladders is off to a great start. The cast is solid and familiar without being dull, and Breezy’s colorful, organic art makes it that much more of a pleasure to read. [Caitlin Rosberg]
If Zap isn’t quite the most important comic book series of all time (as the breathless hype might have it), it’s certainly in the top five, rubbing elbows with the likes of Action Comics and Dell Four Color. Robert Crumb dropped acid in the mid-’60s and decided it was time to stop drawing greeting cards. The first issue of Zap followed soon thereafter. He was joined by a small mob of fellow travelers, all with their own aesthetic and thematic concerns. They made a lot of noise and, for better or for worse, set the tone of discourse for underground and alternative comics for decades thereafter. The arrival of Zap #16 (Fantagraphics) is, for all its bluster, a cold reminder of looming mortality.
Issue #16 is (mostly) old material—but probably new to you, unless you dropped $500 on the complete Zap slipcase Fantagraphics produced in 2014. The gang’s all here, Crumb—of course—joined by S. Clay Wilson, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Gilbert Shelton, Spain Rodriquez, Robert Williams, and Paul Mavrides. The issue highlights just how far some of these names have come in the last 50 years—Spain’s masterfully gritty crime comics sit nicely alongside Moscoso’s intricate, abstract gag pages. Wilson’s satanic orgies haven’t really changed much, for better or for worse. Some of the guys only contribute the equivalent of pin-ups—sketchbook pages or doodles. They all come together for a handful of jam pages that probably represent the last such jam pages that will ever be produced.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The aforementioned jams are filled with the kind of violence and sexual debauchery that made Zap the institution that it is. But it’s no longer 1968. Everyone involved is an old man now—as Aline Kominsky-Crumb puts it in one of the strips she co-produces with her husband for the volume, “Some sadly are no longer with us, others are not in great shape.” The volume is less a farewell than a eulogy. Everyone involved seems to understand that the spirit has already left the building. It may once have been “groundbreaking” or even necessary to produce comics that so cheerfully debased the common decency of Eisenhower-era morality. But now the results seem like nothing so much as a half-hearted attempt to get a pulse out of the old tropes one more time. They already had their $500 tombstone, for sale in the museum where these comics pages hang for the edification of the same snobs whose noses Zap was invented to tweak.
That’s not to say that there isn’t some pleasure to be derived from reading the last Wonder Warthog strip ever, or a Freak Brothers curio like “Phineas Becomes A Suicide Bomber.” But Crumb seems tired. It’s his party, after all. About half his contributions are co-op strips with Aline, and he admits that these are the only comics he cares to draw anymore. He also seems to admit, however grudgingly, that longtime critics like Trina Robbins may have had a point: “We were a pretty macho crew,” he says, before concluding, “it was so long ago… who cares?” The great satyr has been domesticated by age, exhaustion, and a woman with the patience of a saint. Genius or misogynist, the debate will continue for long after he’s gone. “We had a good run,” he concludes, “time to step aside and let the younger ones take center stage… and they’re welcome to it!” Keep on truckin’, indeed. Exit through the gift shop. [Tim O’Neil]
Tim O’Neil outlined why the debut of NYR Comics is an exciting event for the comics industry in his review of Mark Beyer’s Agony last month, and the publisher makes an even bigger impact with its second release: Blutch’s Peplum (NYR Comics). Hailing from France, Blutch is a major name in European comics, but he’s only had one title published in English. It’s been three years since PictureBox released So Long, Silver Screen, and NYR Comics has stepped up to carry the torch for Blutch’s work in the U.S. Peplum is the publisher’s first translated import, and it’s a resounding success, with a bold, eye-catching trade dress and an oversized format that allows readers to savor every little detail in Blutch’s sumptuous artwork.
Blending elements of Petronius’ The Satyricon with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Roland Petit’s ballet The Lady In The Ice, Peplum follows a young would-be nobleman in ancient Rome who endures an onslaught of pain and suffering as he hauls around a hunk of ice containing the frozen body of a beautiful woman. His obsession with the woman drives him to madness as he tries to hold on to her in the face of increasingly perilous obstacles, but he finds a brief moment of salvation when he’s separated from her and meets a young boy who gives him the affection the frozen woman cannot.
Translator Edward Gauvin does exceptional work giving the text a lyricism that matches the emotional richness of Blutch’s artwork, and Jess Johnson’s earthy lettering makes the words an organic extension of the visuals. The texture in the art is especially evocative, and Blutch gives this world a tactile quality that keeps the tone grounded as the story ventures into surreal, hallucinogenic territory. His hatching is essential in creating this wide variety of textures, but it also reinforces the atmosphere of each scene, with Blutch altering the density and flow of the hatching to increase and decrease the visual tension on the page.
The ballet influence goes beyond the conceit of the woman in ice, and much of Peplum’s narrative is told through movement. There are moments of the sword-and-sandal action that is traditionally associated with the peplum film genre, but there are just as many moments of interpretative movement that reflects the characters’ emotional states. The nightmarish chapter four is told almost entirely through body language and facial expressions, and chapter seven intensifies the theatricality when the young man is tempted by a statuesque actress and suffers an acute embarrassment when they try to make love.
The woman in ice is cursed, and Blutch establishes her as a bad omen by cutting to the death of Julius Caesar immediately after she is discovered and taken from her resting place. Her wide-eyed gaze and content smile (modeled on the Cretan sculpture Lady Of Auxerre) project innocence at first, but they begin to taunt the man when her happiness is unfazed by his torment. Much like the woman in ice, Peplum is an object of both beauty and terror. The artistry on display in these pages is astounding, and hopefully it won’t be another three years until more of Blutch’s library makes its way overseas. [Oliver Sava]