Wednesday, October 7, 2015

H is for Hausu (House)

This originally ran on Psycho Drive-In as part of the ABC's of Halloween Series (2014)
Hausu or House (1977) proves the phrase “you’ve never seen anything like …” doesn’t always have to sound (or read) like hyperbolic bullshit. You have never seen a movie like House, for sure.

Imagine a cinematic exquisite corpse, a handmade invention that combines ‘Mr. Magoo Meets Frankenstein,’ a parody of a parody of a Japanese game show which involves martial arts, elements copped from Hope and Crosby road movies (complete with kick-ass dune buggy), Japanese folklore, the most hyper-realistic rotoscoped matte paintings of blue skies, sunsets and rainbows (EVER!), giggly schoolgirls in sailor suits, watermelons and bananas, romance, a dead mother and a white Persian cat (named Blanche) that may or may not be able to deliver mail, not to mention, kill. For the sake of not ruining this head trip, it’s enough to mention only a few of the many horrors of House like the possessed lighting fixture, a dancing skeleton and a very puckish piano. Then, there’s the blood (oh God, Mother!) so much blood. So yeah, the attempt to describe what makes House House equates to a fool’s errand; and yet, for all of its what-the-fuck-ness, its House-ness, the plot plays like Horror for dummies.

During a school vacation, a motherless teenage girl who’s not at home with her father’s new girlfriend, invites six of her friends to go with her on a road trip to visit her long-time-no-see maternal ‘auntie’ at her home in the countryside. So pure it floats, right? Now, because this is House, the name of the plucky protagonist is Gorgeous (Oshare: ‘fashionable’), her six friends are Kung Fu, Fantasy, Prof, Mac, Melody and Sweet, respectively. These are the girls and these are their names. That’s the point. Hint or intent at abstraction or overthinking is coincidental. Except for Prof and Mac (short for stomach) who wouldn’t want to be Gorgeous or Sweet? As for being called Kung Fu? Cool, so cool.

Therein resides the integrity of the structure. The soul of House epitomizes a rare (bloody?) example of the self-aware avant-garde aesthetics of Cinéma pur -- visual composition, motion, the relation between sound and image and rhythmic editing -- sans the art house severity (think more Hitchcock, less Buñuel, but still some, especially the surrealism) and with all the sincerity of the most sincere pumpkin patch.

The madman at the controls of this saturnalian doomsday device of pop culture kitsch and horror clichés is one time experimental filmmaker and advertising wunderkind, Nobuhiko Obayashi. In his essay, “The Handmaidens,” Chuck Stephens writes: “What Toho Studios was hoping for … was a homegrown Jaws: a locally produced summer movie roller coaster sufficiently thrill-chocked … fast and loud, with tons of fun packed between screams.” Think about that: give us something Japanese with the crowd-pleasing sensibilities (and box office returns to boot) of Spielberg. The intentions of the Toho suits read like Act One for an only-in-Hollywood-only-in-the-70’s-auteurist-fiasco, but Japanese.

What keeps House from being a movie by committee (or a Nipponese Alan Smithee film) is, first and foremost, Obayashi’s cognizance to entertain, to be a showman. After the Toho logo fades to black a blue point of light like the flickering of film through a projector appears in the bottom left to form a box at the center of the screen and then the words “A” and “Movie” appear on separate title cards. Only a rotund Englishman lining himself up with a caricature of his own profile before he wishes the audience a “good evening” would be more self-aware, more fun.

As the premiere exemplar of a film that must be seen to be believed, to open too many of the locked doors of this funhouse would be both a cheat and a crime most foul and unfair. There are many points where the ridiculous surpasses the sublime along the way to the fireworks factory that is the Aunt’s creepy country estate. Come to think of it, House is one big fireworks factory. Obayashi developed the story after asking his pre-teen daughter for suggestions and it shows. Either through camera movement, the on-screen action or the dialogue, every scene moves with the rambunctious energy of a sugared-up six-year-old or a kitten. Even the most lactose-intolerant may start to feel cramps and nausea after so much cheese, or worse, inherent vices like cynicism and impatience may hit enough of a pique that stopping the ride seems like the only sane (and smart) action in this bat shit crazy movie.


Yes, this is, perhaps, the weirdest of weird cinema. And no, it makes no sense, except, of course, it does. Like all art, film aspires to be a transformative experience, anything goes and the only limit is the imagination (or the budget). Look no further than when the story’s knight-in-shining armor, Mr. Togo, gets his ass stuck in bucket and a small boy in a backwards Mao cap and red overalls starts to play the bucket like a drum, because of course. If this scene were written by Cervantes about another knight errant it would be considered the height of seventeenth century world literature, but here it becomes yet another silly non sequitur. Meanwhile, the soundtrack, blithely unaware of the dramas playing out onscreen, shimmies with the most bubble-gum sounding J-pop song in the history of blithely unaware J-pop songs. Ditto later on when Togo unexpectedly (?) turns into a bunch of bananas while the score swoons with a romantic ballad. Yes, you read that right. Bananas. What does this B-story in a B-movie -- House was second on the bill to less banana-centric (one assumes) teenage-romance, Pure Hearts in Mud -- have to do with the horrors of main narrative? Everything and nothing.  All the over-the-top-ness, the blind alleys House gambols along and its sheer absurdity make it of a piece, an exercise in the mindfulness of play and a true cult movie.

When House’s Id gets too manic it’s its ego, Kung Fu, who puts the madness into perspective. As matte painting clouds turn shades of dreamy tangerine, gold and turquoise, Kung Fu, in search of the missing Mac, delivers House’s most meta line without the slightest irony. She says: “This is ridiculous. Maybe it was an illusion.” Ah for the love of film. Of course, Kung Fu says this after she has fended off a surprise attack of flaming chunks of stove wood with the ancient art of karate. Before Obayashi gets on to the next bit of irrationality the blanket Kung Fu was holding before the fight began drops back into her arms. And scene.
Neither cartoonish gestures nor earnest intensions put asses in seats, let alone butts in buckets. Like the most modish Melville or refined Renoir, Obayashi cares deeply for the craft of film itself and composes every frame like a maestro. Auntie, who before was resigned to a wheelchair, now, handkerchief in hand, expectedly (?) saunters into the kitchen where Prof and Fantasy wash and put away dishes, predictably a waltz strikes up and she tells the girls she feels like she did when she was a child and went to a restaurant in town. Cut to a close up of Auntie next to a refrigerator as she wipes her lips with the handkerchief, pulls a lascivious smile in the direction of the girls and gives a handkerchief flourish befitting a grand dame after an exhausting performance. Obayashi then cuts to an overhead shot with the actors framed in the upper right hand corner. The door to the refrigerator opens and Fantasy watches Auntie steps inside the refrigerator and the door whooshes closed behind her. Fantasy drops a dish (who wouldn’t) and when it smashes on the floor Prof runs in to find out what’s happened. Fantasy explains the unexplainable. As Prof opens the refrigerator to show Fantasy there’s nothing inside (there isn’t), Auntie moves from off-screen into the foreground, turns to the camera and smiles. This kicks off a montage of Auntie as she dances barefoot in the rafters, cavorts with a life-size anatomical model of a skeleton, hums along to the soundtrack (as the cat meows along in melody and dances, via jump cuts, across the piano keys) and tucks into a human hand before giving one last wistful smile.
In House no in-camera editing trick, movement or movie-making technique is left untried. Speed the frames up, slow them down, reverse them, force perspective, spin the camera, use animation always, pedestal, dolly, truck and use as much stage blood as the censors will allow and do it, all of it, at will and never, never go light on the sound effects. It’s like Obayashi took George Lucas’s stage directions to the actors in Star Wars, to heart: “Faster. More Intense.”

House stands as a monument to imagination and DIY invention, a thumb in the eye to today’s slick, vapid binary fascism of entertainment. For the love of God, see House and believe. Speaking of which, for those fun goalies out there, perhaps Jesus’s advice to Thomas is enough: “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Keith Silva writes for Comics Bulletin. He didn’t want to spoil the bit about the bananas, but, c’mon, if the ten seconds we get to see Togo’s unfortunate fate doesn’t sum up this eighty-eight minutes of whack-a-doo-ery, what would? Probably the other eighty-seven-minutes-and-fifty-seconds, seriously.  Follow @keithpmsilva on Twitter. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Vital, Vicious and Visceral: Starve #1 (a review)

W: Brian Wood A: Danijel Žeželj C: Dave Stewart

How do you like your dog?

For those familiar with (or hungry for) Brian Wood’s agitprop storytelling there is much to feast upon in Starve: a near-apocalyptic NYC, the populist rhetoric of ‘Us vs. Them,’ the cultural bankruptcy of celebrity, gross consumerism and, a near-fetishistic environmentalism—call it, Wood du jour. Yes, in much of its ‘stuff’ Starve dovetails Wood’s oeuvre from as far back as Channel Zero, Supermarket and DMZ to more recent work like Mara and The Massive.

Nearly two decades into Wood’s career as a comic book creator, when his peers have either split or are content to act as slaves to their own machinery, Starve proves Wood remains, yes, hungry. Each of those Wood-isms (see above) receives a check in its respective box and yet there is also a further brashness, an attitude, an urgency—Starve snarls, a vital, vicious and visceral beast.

The main ingredient here is Gavin Cruikshank, a (former) celebrity chef—number one with a bullet on 2015’s list for best new characters—who is estranged from his wife, Greer, and his daughter, Angie. For the last three years Cruikshank has been on a drunk of debauchery and local cuisine. A compelling and complex character, Cruikshank is world weary and cheeky with a pinch of pretentiousness that's more charming than obnoxious.  

Wood’s one misstep is to mention Cruikshank is gay or as he calls himself, “a queer dad.” His ex-wife says she was “twenty-two when we were married and when you came out of the closet? I was forty.” Wood never goes further with how or if Cruikshank’s sexuality [1] either informed his choice to go on his self-imposed exile or to return. Cruikshank contains multitudes, for sure, but why introduce his sexuality and then do nothing to develop it? Here's hoping Wood goes further with this aspect of Cruikshank's character.

The rest of the ingredients are these: world markets are crashing and global warming (isn’t it ‘climate change’ now?) has caused Jamaica Bay to rise twelve inches and swamp Queens and JFK. Fortunately, broadcast television has fared much better in the encroaching biblical reckoning. The number one show is ‘Starve.’ Created by Cruikshank as an Anthony Bourdain-like ‘No Reservations.’ In his absence, however, his creation has put on weight to become a cutthroat reality TV cooking competition. During Cruikshank’s truancy, Greer has had him declared dead and has taken full control of all the show’s assets and fiduciary concerns i.e. Angie. In order to (maybe) recoup some of his filthy lucre, Cruikshank must compete in (and win) an eight episode season of Starve.

This is Wood drawing from a deeper well. Starve is more than its bespoke urban rot and populist politics. Wood collaborates with artist Danijel Žeželj and colorist Dave Stewart, all three are listed as co-owners on the title. To nitpick Stewart’s approach to color on Starve sounds hypocritical like arguing hitting with Ted Williams or tugging on Superman’s cape, caveat dumbass. It’s all well and good to draw from the Crayola box of Armageddon shades and tones, but perhaps there’s more to this world than sepia and ocher, gunmetal and sage. Is it too much to ask any artist, let alone an undisputed authority like Stewart, to imagine (rethink) a pre-apocalypse and therefore break from the accepted language of the genre? Perhaps. Stewart knows blood and so when it’s time for this cooking competition to get on to the real ‘meat work,’ Stewart will surely bring his trademark bloody and sinuous reds.

Few illustrators or cartoonists equal Žeželj for style, emotion or amount of ink per page. His art occupies some liminal space between woodcuts and stenciled graffiti as if Albrecht Dürer and Banksy had a baby. In those viscous lines Žeželj wrings out exhaustion, ennui and joy in equal measure in the faces and frames of his characters with an unmatched poignancy. As he does in stories set in derelict urban settings -- Luna Park comes to mind -- Žeželj’s printmaker’s precision for background details in Starve creates images so suffuse with girders, illegal wiring and bodies, bodies, bodies it feels the opposite of industrial, organic and not manufactured. So fastidious is Žeželj’s line even tiny minutiae like tattoos and logos pop in all that ink. And when it comes to tousled hair, Žeželj’s tangles are matched only by other Wood collaborators like Becky Cloonan and Ryan Kelly.

Žeželj is not a nine panel kind of artist. Almost all of the pages in Starve are composed so panels act as satellites around a central image. Žeželj often layers panels to create a kind of consistent present rather than the sense events take place moment to moment or frame to frame like in a movie. Not only is this technique ‘pure comics’ it acts like the needle of a compass pointing the way through the chaos to tell the story where everything happens all at once. With apologies to Wood and to letterer Steve Wands, Starve doesn’t need narration or dialogue, everything the reader needs to know comes across in Žeželj’s art and that is something too many readers are starved for.

As to the dog in this first issue … it’s going to be a bridge too far for many readers. It’s dark, unsettling and daring … which is the point. Exploitation works to shock, to demand the audience pay attention, the meaning is self-evident and not to be dismissed as purposelessness. The point is to be insulting without insult and to challenge conventions. There is an (over) abundance of testosterone in Starve—which would fit with male-centric reality TV cooking competitions. It’s perhaps an overreach, but Starve (almost) feels like what David Mamet would do in a similar situation and the dog is symbolic of delivering on this chest-thumping male bravado.

The machismo on display fits with Cruikshank’s character -- the wildest of the wild bunch, the cagiest of vets in for one more job, one more score, the old dog brought back to show the young pups what for -- and it fits for Wood as well. Starve is a statement about men, fatherhood and most importantly, redemption. Cruikshank is looking for redemption and not to put too fine a point on it, so is Brian Wood.

On the final page of Starve #1, Cruikshank narrates, Wood writes, “But I won’t play the game they want me to play. This is my fucking show. I’m going to do my eight episodes and burn this whole place to the ground. Watch.” These words nest within full page image of Cruikshank from the chest up. Žeželj draws a skein of raw meat as it curls out from below Cruikshank’s top teeth and bottom lip like a serpent’s forked tongue. Blood drips from the meat onto his chef’s whites, he looks vampiric … he looks awesome. Wood’s words are a promise, tenacious and immediate, Gavin Cruikshank like Brian Wood means to reclaim his vigor and prove his worth. Watch.

[1] In a later issue, Angie mentions her father’s workaholic nature which may explain why he lacks a partner or the time for to pursue a sexual or romantic relationship.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Sonnet for Airboy #1

W: James Robinson A: Greg Hinkle P: Image Comics
Draw me in with scatology                            
of grown men in crisis. We have been there.
Airboy in twenty fifteen, why would we care?             
Is it some meta bullshit skeleton key.    
If so, so unsustainable it will be.               
No, we must trust the creators here, they’re
James Robinson, Greg Hinkle who craft Air-
Boy out of ecstasy and debauchery.              
Chuck Dixon this is not, but lots of dicks
Is it auto-bio or some a joke?                    
Whither heroes? This comic should be banned!
A studded nip? Charlie? All in the mix.
Why classify? Enjoy the crapulent soak.
“Gentleman … This behavior will not stand.”

Saturday, May 16, 2015

On the Road: A review (of sorts) of Space Riders #2

W: Fabian Rangel Jr.  A: Alexis Ziritt L: Ryan Ferrier P: Black Mask

Dedication: For Sal and for Dean and black coffee

I first met Fabian Rangel Jr. and Alexis Ziritt’s Space Riders not long after my wife and I split a delicious crepe drizzled with honey and walnuts and stuffed with ricotta. I had just read another duller than the dullest dull corporate comic I won’t bother to talk about, except it had something to do with some miserably weary ‘secret’ something and my feeling that everything about superheroes i.e. corporate properties nowadays really does make me feel dead inside. With the coming of Space Riders began the part of my life you could call my life on the road to gutters filled full with faux smudges, ersatz water stains and all Ziritt’s phantasmagorical ribbons of red, orange and green exploding like spiders across the stars and all that crackle, crackle, crackle; and Rangel Jr.’s tale of an anthropomorphized mandrill first mate by name of Mono, Yara whose half Fritz Lang and half Hajime Sorayama and all hip-swinging-karate-kicking gynoid and, course, Capitan Peligro, a dangerous sort, duh, the son of the “toughest son of a bitch in the galaxy,” wielder of the Ghostmaker and enemy to Vikers and space whalers everywhere. Whither goest thou, Capitan, in thy tiny shiny skull ship, thy Santa Muerte in limitless space as black as the morning’s coffee as “black and [as] infinite?” Where goest thou? Space Riders #2 proves one-eyed beardy boys and green-skinned-magenta-haired alien warrior girls with Genesis-era-Peter-Gabriel-style makeup in America and across all the universe have such a sad time together when they must part because he’s a Space Rider and she’s a wizard; but oh, my dingledodies, my mad ones, that kiss, that kiss, that kiss they share it burns, burns, burns in madder red and salient saffron, her hand on his hirsute cheek, their lips in ferocious symmetry of questions unanswered—EE-YAH! EE-de-lee-YAH! Ey-y-y-y-y-es—oh Donna Barbara you space wizard and speaker of Enna-ish, you, you protectress of strange wonderful tribal creatures of wherever. Rave on. Rave on. Rave on! Rangel Jr. is the HOLY GOOF, a con man of comics who writes like an old tea-head of time. See how he takes what’s in those old musty dusty moldering stacks of memories and youthful indiscretions so fraught with the efforts of the imagination injection machine, the ones found in four color panels and now only safely held by the white cotton gloves of some sub-sub-sub-librarian in basements and morgues? You know, all the ones to Flagg, those old serials filled with head hurling super wizards and mystery woman of the jungle, right (?) the one with the bedroom eyes who becomes the fearsome and not-to-be-fucked-with skull-faced Fantomah? How he, I’m talking about Rangel Jr. here, loops and grooves and riffs to create the mimesis of mimesis of the infinite? See how he stands astride the heaps of pulpy comics stacked like cordwood, stands there with outstretched palms hovering over keyboard like those old monks in their cells with ink pot and pen who stave off ‘the’ plague as they bend to their illuminated manuscripts? Rangel Jr. wrestles this vortex of madness to a draw enough so as to let it live on its own. He does not tame, he acts and encourages and all that stuff, stuff, stuff that wonderful stuff is his medium. With him it’s all “sure, baby, mañana,” and I shamble after as I’ve been doing all my life after writers and madmen who interest me, on to the next issue, the next fix— mañana, a lovely word and one that probably means creator-owned comics. And Ziritt? Ziritt is a God lashed to the drawing table or the cintiq undulating through the infinite like great an-anu herself in all her dreaming, her munificence. Those thick ink lines so supple they roll and roil like the Susquehanna in the wilderness of the American spring. Ziritt’s pencils, inks and colors are, as Yara puts it about a ship the crew encounters, a ship, a space station of sorts, perhaps, in the shape of a seated robot like great wise Solomon himself, a robot composed of all the best parts of Force Five -- Grandizer, Gaiking and Dangard Ace -- Yara sez, “that design … is beautiful.” Here is a cartoonist who knows what he likes. Ziritt’s figure work looks like the drawings of that one kid in high school who would fill pages upon pages of blue-ruled notebook paper with space ships, astronaut guys, and aliens with skulls encased in helmets or with the heads of wolves or pyramids while I wept for that seer and pig-palaver-ist Simon, killed by machismo, chaos and sharp sticks. I always envied those talented kids, kids like Ziritt who could slip the bonds of High School English class and light out for worlds of their own non-Lucas-ized imagining. Ziritt brings Space Riders its intestinal fortitude, its balls. Those fools of consistency and continuity, those hobgoblins of little minds who take the name of Kirby in vain as if it’s some truth-telling device, some test, a buffet the enlightened use to wave away whatever bits of golden age knowledge crosses their transom. Oh those sad, sad-eyed fanboys who will never understand … Ziritt does not draw for them or for Jack Kirby or for the heavy holy trinity of Maroto, Moreno and Lindell … he draws for himself, for Ziritt. So in America when the “class 5 tractor beam” pulls us all into the mouth of a giant seated robot spaceship-thingy and I sit at the old broken-down re-purposed cubicle watching the long, long lines of MCU sheep at the Cineplex and sense there is something more in all the primary color and paper that rolls onto the shores of the LCS week-to-week in one unbelievable huge bulge we call Capital-C Comics, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, of comics and what they hold, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear, and ol’ Rangel Jr. and Ziritt? and nobody knows what’s going to happen next to our heroes now captured by those robots with their glowing green wire-frame heads and smoke streaming from round eyes like newly made bullet holes, I think of Space Riders, I even think of old Hammerhead the first mate we haven’t found (yet) I think of Space Riders.


Space Riders #2 is available May 13 at fine retailers in America and elsewhere. Space Riders #1 and #2 can also be procured in both physical and digital manifestations direct from Black Mask Studio.

Keith Silva rereads On the Road in what Eliot sez is the cruelest month. He writes about comics and pop culture. Such endeavors have made him an inveterate caffeine addict with an increasing taste for stronger vices like Kentucky bourbon and single malt scotch. He does not need his hand held unless it’s by his wife or daughters. @keithpmsilva

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Peter Pan Collars Don't Lie: The Deceptive Simplicity of Operation Margarine

Cartoonist: Katie Skelly
Publisher: AdHouse Books

Katie Skelly knows her way around exploitation: what to show, who not to cover up, where to put the accents, when to be bold and how much of each. Her 2012 debut graphic novel, Nurse Nurse, was a tease in all the best ways, a goofy nitrous high of see through strips held together by a barely there narrative, but the charm, oh, the charm. Skelly’s characters possess all the pathos of Shultz’s Peanuts with the charisma of a Daniel Clowes or a James Kochalka oddball. Operation Margarine sees Skelly pin the needle to the right and give a throaty roar of a creator in full.   

The lives of bad good girl Margarine (sounds like bombazine or aubergine) and bad ass Bon-Bon have become dead ends, or worse, cul-de-sacs. Margarine is a society gal (Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night wearing Mia Farrow’s pixie cut from Rosemary’s Baby) fresh from a recent breakout from a psych ward, Bellefrew. Bon-Bon bears the scars of too many bad relationships with other women’s men, she steals, favors black leather biker jackets and alcohol. Margarine and Bon-Bon want the same thing: escape. Their problem is neither one knows where nor what they’re escaping to.

Operation Margarine plays like Skelly’s riff on truth or dare, expect ‘dare’ is the only option. For Margarine and Bon-Bon, truth (especially the past) is a fink, painful, messy and best put in the rearview mirror. When Margarine asks Bon-Bon, "So, where you from?" the response she gets says a lot, "Marge, I have an idea. Let's skip this part. Let's just be ... new people." In other words, 'nuff said. The motorcycles they ride, the clothes they wear and cigarettes they smoke act as signifiers, these girls are bad, sure, but they’re not drawn that way; those peter pan collars don’t lie.

Skelly’s work is a study in deceptive simplicity. From her line to her writing and from her character development to her panel composition, all of it aims to exploit the reader’s expectations, to write off a lack of realism for a lack of depth. To read a Katie Skelly comic is to pay attention to small details. As austere as each panel may be each one contains all the information the reader needs and nothing less. Skelly’s neatness and orderliness is her tell. Like her characters, Skelly seems to say, ‘go on, underestimate me, I dare you.’ Like the man sez, “the sweetest kittens have the sharpest claws.”

Skelly’s art of deception comes correct in her cartooning. To maintain appearances, Margarine’s blond urchin cut offsets Bon-Bon’s black bouffant, dark and light, good and bad, a binary pair if there ever was one. This kind of black and white dichotomy gives Skelly a unique way to use and exploit her B&W comic to her full advantage. After an ambush and an octane-fueled flight from the heterochromia iridum Billy and her gang, the ‘Faces of Death,’ Margarine and Bon-Bon cool their boot heals around a campfire under a star filled desert sky.
In all Operation Margarine’s one-hundred-and-four pages, this is the one moment Skelly chooses to draw as a full page, a silent character study of peaceful repose. Margarine’s eyes close as she takes a drag on her cigarette. She supports herself with her left arm, her posture is open. She wears her leather jacket like a wrap, a society girl through and through. Opposite Margarine, Bon-Bon, holds her cigarette away from her body, her big eyes narrow on the campfire smoke and the stars in the sky. She sits with her legs curled up (coiled) in front of her and slings a leather clad arm around her body like a black iron bar. She looks as hospitable as a rattlesnake. Such a simple and serene image, so quiet and yet Skelly makes it thunder with heartfelt and complex emotions of these seemingly clichéd characters.

In the following page, Skelly drops the black-and-white-good-girl-bad-girl aesthetic and everything becomes a bit more … transparent. Except for two small square panels in the upper left (scorecards of who’s who), Skelly turns Margarine and Bon-Bon into blanks, outlines. Margarine, always the naïf (at this point, at least), says, “I’ve never been in the desert before.” Bon-Bon responds, “only one thing to know about it … there’s nowhere to hide.”

The combination of Bon-Bon’s words with the composition of the page and that final panel mark Skelly as a master cartoonist and storyteller. She provides all the portent and foreboding of a horror movie as she dwarfs Margarine and Bon-Bon at the bottom of the frame to make them look small in the midst of a cold, dark and uncaring universe. And then there’s the second half of Bon-Bon’s sentence -- the ‘there’s nowhere to hide’ part -- which provides an extra little turn of the screw and acts as the knockout punch to the wind up of the facing page with all its perceived serenity. Troubled and in trouble: Bon-Bon and Margarine laid bare. This is the style of delicacy, drama and dread with which Skelly operates in Operation Margarine, all of it in one (not so) simple panel. 

In Nurse Nurse and Agent 8 -- an erotic web-comic at -- Skelly sugars off her love of Barbarella and other trashy genre-specific kitsch to create something singular, something very Skelly. She’s less an imitator and more a genre-stylist; innovative and comfortable in the cottony familiarity of genre. Yes, Operation Margarine is about two wayward wanton women who ride motorcycles through the desert in search of satisfaction if not solace and should Skelly want to ape such exploitive fare like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! she will, but Operation Margarine ain’t it. Still, it’s fun and to mix and Skelly sure as hell accessorizes like it’s going out of style.

As her podcast, Trash Twins, with Sarah Horrocks makes plain, Skelly is familiar with the high-brow notions of low-brow culture. Again, Skelly shows herself to be a ‘playa’ when it comes to genre tropes, exploitations of exploitations. In Operation Margarine’s inevitable showdown scene, Bon-Bon and Margarine are met by the book’s big bad, Billy, or at least her long legs.
This gunslinger stance, one lone duelist framed by the forked legs of another, is a trope in and of itself. Skelly plays off this ‘Western’ iconography, yes, but as seen through the lens of the ‘bad girls lost in the desert’ storyline and Skelly’s love for the exploitation genre, this image also riffs off of a similar showdown from Russ Meyers’s “belted, booted and buckled” masterpiece, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!  

There are more than a few throw-down/show-downs in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and all of them frame up the physical assets of the three leads, especially the iconic Varla played by the even more iconic Tura Satana. When Varla and Rosie (Haji) confront the old man (Stuart Lancaster), Meyer foregrounds his lead’s backsides like twin colossi in black denim. Their prominence in the foreground squeezes the small frail handicapped hermit and his big dumb son as well as the frame itself. It’s clear who has both the upper hand and who draws the camera eye. For what it’s worth, Meyer cuts to this same shot (the exact composition) six times in less than two minutes, always heavy-handed, always the pervert.

Like Meyer, Skelly exploits the iconography to make it her own. The long legs and short skirt of the dangerous Billy frame the smaller and less powerful Bon-Bon and Margarine. Billy becomes a Goliath; so much so her upper body doesn’t even fit in the frame. To this point in the story Billy has only been the threat of a knife. Now Skelly pulls that knife and shows it to her heroes. Whereas Varla and Rosie were the intimidators in F,P!K!K!, Skelly subverts the subversion and makes her heroes the demure and defenseless ones. This intimidating image calls back to Bon-Bon and Margarine in the desert being crushed by an unfeeling universe except now that menace sports thigh-high black boots. A killer figure for sure. Once a knife like Billy gets pulled, someone has to die and someone has to live to tell the tale.

For all its female empowerment, Operation Margarine has balls in more ways than one. All in all, it’s a coming out party with Margarine as its débutante. She’s the object of the title and the story. But it’s the ‘operation’ or in this case, the operator, Bon-Bon, where the story and Margarine get their strength. Like her namesake, Bon-Bon has a hard shell, but she’s soft(er) on the inside. She looks out for Margarine. She is her protector, her champion and in a way, Margarine’s (re)maker and creator. Katie Skelly is a Bon-Bon. She knows to create, no matter the medium or the raw materials, means to let go. At the end of Operation Margarine Bon-Bon lets go, she has to, and so too does Skelly. Ride on, Margarine, ride on.

Operation Margarine is available from AdHouse Books or directly from Katie Skelly.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

God Hates Astronauts #1

Now, Albert Einstein was a fuck-up as a cartoonist, that said which by the way is redundant in both writing and speech because, you know, you just said what you said and therefore never mind but he did manage to say something very smart and Einstein-ey-ish about starry-eyed dopes like God Hates Astronauts writer/artist Ryan Browne. No less of an authority than the internet says Einstein (supposedly) said: ''Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.'' Pro-tip: using overused clichés (talk about redundancy) like this one from Einstein (allegedly) in one's writing is like using the phrase 'that said' in everyday speech. That said … few piss into the wind or shovel shit against the tide better than Browne. God bless you and your tortured need for acceptance.

This is Browne's third (maybe fourth) attempt to (throat-clearing noise) launch this pet franchise of his into the hands of indifferent comics readers. First, GHA was a web comic, than a successful Kickstarter (backers even received what they ordered) and then a trade paperback published by Image Comics and now an on-going. Insanity. Pity colorist Jordan Boyd and letterer Crank for hitching their wagon Browne's star.

God Hates Astronauts #1 defines the word 'mistake' and (for once?) is a total miscalculation on the part of Image Comics. There can be little doubt Browne has Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson's dirty pictures. Perhaps GHA #1 is a 'mercy-publication' and somewhere out there in some sub-sub-sub-library of some Northern California court an intrepid soul would find a sealed presentment or some out of court settlement … the case of Browne vs. the board of Image Comics shareholders. Who knows. Who cares.

Honestly, why pay the $3.50 cover price for God Hates Astronauts #1 when in six months even the variant cover, by no less than Geof Darrow, will crowd out other has-beens and never-weres in the quarter bin or stuffed into grab bags at Free Comic Book Days for decades to come? Future generations will mistakenly stumble upon this paragon of defiance against good taste -- especially when there are so many post-apocalyptic zombie noir comics, crossover events and other original sins -- and ask wha?


Why the ire for the plucky upstart Mr. Browne and his (albeit) feeble attempt to slice off his own piece of the creator-owned pie? Simple … satire. See, satire doesn't sell. Satire is the creeper in the corner who shows up uninvited, you know, like educational programming on corporately-owned TV stations. Best to air such dreck at 5 AM when the drunks finally pass out. That's the audience for God Hates Astronauts, blackout drunks, maybe masochists. Absurdity is an outlier, horses shouldn't drink beer from the bottle and the foibles of comics shouldn't be tweaked, whether playfully or not. Browne's a tweaker. His jokes depend on gratuitous visual gags, silly sound effects, bestiality and a deep knowledge of Billy Bob Thorton's filmography, four things no one asked for, ever. With, perhaps, the exception of 3-D Cowboy and The Impossible, God Hates Astronauts #1 is a comic best described as not for everyone.

Yes, Browne is an über-talented cartoonist and writer. And yes because of GHA he's more than likely going to end up having to pimp himself out as an über-talented cartoonist Uber driver when he's inevitably pantsed for defrauding comic book speculators who were (innocently) buying God Hates Astronauts #1 not to read (where the fuck have you been?!?) but because it was published by Image Comics, so money. Caveat Emptor dumbasses.

The good news is God Hates Astronauts will run eight issues, ten, at best, an adulterated un-fucked-around-with distillation of why we can't have nice things. Embrace the insanity, embrace the stupidity: God Hates Astronauts #1.

Keith Silva knows satire and sarcasm are fool's errands so he started a twitter account: @keithpmsilva

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Tick #1

This review originally ran as the 'Dig the Long Box,' a column on the now defunct 

New England Comics (NEC) in Brockton, Massachusetts was where I went after weeks of mowing lawns or stacking wood. Today, I think of it as a kind of nostalgic 'doper's dream,' the LCS as cathedral; phalanxes of long boxes lined up like a secretarial pool in a 1930's screwball comedy, comics covering the walls in clear Mylar sleeves that intensify gaudy covers, and (in my mind) acres of space  to wander (wonder?). NEC was where I was first struck by the lightning bolt of The Dark Knight Returns, learned what the word 'covet' really meant after seeing The Incredible Hulk #181, where I first encountered the earth-pig (Cerebus), made the acquaintance of Daredevil and when I first saw The Tick.

The Turtles hit at the apogee of my adolescent comic book collecting. My world was black and white and everything was anthropomorphic, skilled in some Martial art and a parody of a parody of a parody. No, I do not own copies of Geriatric Gangrene Jujitsu Gerbils or Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, yes, I did buy a lot of issues of Boris the Bear, one issue of something called Buce N Gar, and I even own a couple of the worthless issues of Albedo Anthropomorphics. Oh, sure, I did my required reading for Marvel and DC, but if it was black and white and put out by some fly-by-night independent publisher nobody had ever heard of, before (or since), I had to have it.

Original 'The Tick' strip
Creator-owned wasn't (really) a thing back then. In the mid-1980's, the black and white independent revolution in comics was just getting started. It was still more-or-less of a camp and not the Wild West boom town it would become. Eastman and Laird had staked their claim and the sharpers and innocents alike were quick to fill the speculators demand which meant both promise and a lot of lousy comics. When NEC published their own comic book, The Tick, from a strip that had run in their newsletter, it was a definite must have. Like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (New Hampshire, sadly) the Tick was local, the creation of a fellow member of the Commonwealth, Ben Edlund, so, I bought it.

Sidebar: Like so many other comics from that time in my life, I own this #1 and that's it. I didn't know The Tick lives on until, my friend (and inveterate hoarder), Aaron Meyers, vehemently chastised me in a tweet. [Shortly after this review posted I sent my The Tick #1 to Mr. Meyers and the home he runs for comics, it's a safe space where I know The Tick #1 will be well cared for and happy] Apparently, there's money in these creator-owned comics, well, the 'good 'uns,' anyway, sucks to be you, Fish Police. I never saw the live-action The Tick TV show with 'the face painter.' I knew there was a cartoon (1994), I guess (?), but by then, as James Robinson says in Starman, 'I'd moved on to wine and women.' NEC continues to publish The Tick on occasion, so, good on them and good on Edlund. The various, sundry and (I hope) profitable permutations of Edlund's creation are all beyond my ken, so, let's stick to 1988 when all there was was a black and white comic book about a wannabe superhero who wore a View-Master around his neck.     

The Tick #1 feels different from all those other black and white critter books of the 1980's, see, it's (a bit) oversized. If a cheap, easy (and somewhat subtle) joke like that bends back your antenna, The Tick is your jam and Bob's your uncle -- the unnecessary reference to British slang here is not important to understanding The Tick; however, it does add to the absurdist nature of this comic. The Tick triumphs as comic and concept because Edlund understands parody and comedy are at their funniest when the characters take themselves seriously, the seriouser-er, the funnier-er. So acute (and so serious) is Tick, his story begins in a mental institution. Yes, superheroes stand-in as our modern myths, blah-blah-blah, and yet, Nano-suit or not, a guy in a cape would not fly outside a green screen or the pages of a comic book; and that, of course, is part of the fun. The Tick is in itself a parody of a parody (TMNT and its clones), but Edlund knows being self-referential is only (really) funny when one is self-aware as well.   

Other than from the force of his own internal monologue, issue #1 offers no explanation of how the Tick goes from being a padded room, where he feels restrained and bored, and a page turn later is leaping from rooftop to rooftop. As the saying goes, 'nuff said. Tick and The Tick moves fast. By page three, Tick admits he once thought his destiny was to ''become emperor of Greenland'' and then to ''build a Polynesian longship in my garage,'' and now he decides destiny has tapped him to be ''this city's superhero.'' And so it goes.

When The Tick takes its bow, Edlund is in college, not even old enough to drink (legally), but he was already seriously soused on comics. The opening panels of issue #1 show an artist who has heroic poses down pat and a writer with every heroic trope under his fingernails. It is safe to say, Edlund read a lot of Daredevil and paid close attention to ol' hornhead's penchant for bouncing off of conveniently-placed flagpoles. Edlund runs a flagpole gag a full seven pages, the sound, ''wub wub wub'' acts as ambient noise while a cigar-chomping vagrant takes the Tick down a peg or ten.

The deepest cut happens when the man asks the Tick: ''Didn't you escape from an insane asylum a coupla weeks back?'' The Tick thinks: ''My mind reels and spins at the speed of light as I search for the perfect response … the perfect alibi for the past two weeks.'' After an ''ah,'' ''eh'' and a few other mono-syllabic noises, the Tick answers: ''No,'' another clue Edlund gets it. Comic books are time-less. There's no clock and no calendar when it comes to sequential art, so try to keep up. 

The Tick is nigh-invulnerable which means he is not invulnerable. So should he fall off a roof and then through a concrete sidewalk or get hit by an on-coming subway train, he'll survive, but he's going to feel it. Like Quixote, the greatest danger to the Tick is the Tick as he shows when he is easily defeated by a common drinking straw and his own ego. Tick sidekick, Arthur, is nigh-noticeable in this issue. He doesn't interact with the titular Tick, but he can be seen flying around in the background while Tick dispatches with some nigh-Frank-Miller-looking-ninjas.  Arthur's nigh-appearance means Edlund has plans for Tick, more adventures and more chances to hole up at Hopper's after a long night of fighting crime or almost.

Ticks are common where I grew up in Massachusetts. They live in wood piles and hide in tall grass. I like to think Edlund knew about the nigh-invulnerableness of ticks when he came up with the character and I marvel at fervid and fecund imagination that filled in the rest of the details. The Tick is no superhero and he is certainly not a roach. What Tick is is a good idea for superhero. He's makes comics comic -- an anodyne to the super serious superheroes, a hero for every and all ages. Not the superhero you need, but the superhero you want.