Cartoonist: Benjamin MarraPublisher: Fantagraphics
KEITH SILVA: There are comics and there is Benjamin Marra’s Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror).
Think of an off-brand Regan-era actioner too big for Kurt Thomas and too small for Michael Dudikoff. Imagine it’s directed by the non-union Panamanian equivalent of Joseph Zito. Now add to this make-believe midnight movie with its sure-to-be-astronomical body count, novelty deaths, leaden one-liners, and ka-rah-tee with the most hardcore pan-sexual sex like … ever. Whatever such a movie would look like comes close to what’s in the pages of Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror).
The story goes George W. Bush orders the formation of a top secret team of Foreign Service agents as a big ol’ ‘Merican FUCK YOU!!! after 9/11. These ‘Terror Assualtors’ hold licenses to kill and one mission: defeat terror (4EVA). One agent, codename: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) takes this mission to the EXTREME because … why do you hate America so much?
Perhaps, big, dumb, and full of cum acts as a better description of this comic. Such critical shorthand gets at its inherent crudeness, but lacks the satirical charm, artfulness, and subtlety of something so indulgently indulgent and so blatantly blatant. Marra wants to honor the silly extremes of 80s action movies and hardcore porn and dumb it way down so it becomes whatever the reader wants to see: political parody, sexual satire, or so mundane and so geeky as to question the fundamental show-and-tell binary of comics.
So dumb. So smart.
Marra’s fellow Fantagraphics stablemate and friend Dash Shaw often talks about the “dumbness” of a line. It’s a philosophical approach to cartooning that attempts to inform the reader through a lack of affect. Shaw says, “so much of illustrative drawing is about showing you what something is and simultaneously telling you how to think or feel about that thing. What the dumb line does, I think, is completely remove that from the equation. Everything is drawn with the same even-ness, or thickness, or lack of nuance … and finally you’re allowed to think for yourself! Finally there’s room for conflicting thoughts and feelings.”
The world of Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) is nothing but a collection of cubes in the guise of buildings, everything looks like a facade. Dumb. Cars look like tissue boxes with wheels and the difference between a desk, a video camera, a pack of cigarettes, and a bed is slight. The design of the characters maintains Marra’s distinct hip pinball machine art as drawn by underground comix legends like Art Spiegelman or Bryan Talbot. But the character’s movements are stiff and stolid as if Marra has never seen how human bodies move except in the pictograms of Airline safety cards. Dumb. The exception is when his characters take off their clothes: Marra’s men have six pack abs, long veiny hardons, and bulging scrotums that look like they’re smuggling cue balls in there. The women retain a constant 36-25-40 body shape with nipples that look like they could cut clear through adamantium. Even in the throes of the zesty enterprise of sex, the motion remains stiff, but the sex is “hawt” regardless of who’s zooming who. Even at his nadir of his career Steven Seagal was never asked to fuck a dude while jerking him off and crash land a jumbo jet (well, at least half of one) at the same time. Dumb.
It’s hard on the reader to take anything in Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) with any scrap of seriousness. Harder still is to avoid reading into the extreme situations of terrorism: hijacking, an invasion of the US and the war on drugs. It’s satire, sure, but what’s Marra’s point? With his blond hair, aviator sunglasses, John McClane-badassery and John Holmes’s sexual prowess, special agent O.M.W.O.T. is one cool customer. Isn’t he also a walking piss-take of American jingoism, fear-mongering and ignorance, not to mention a big cock in every way. If this comic fell out of the sky into the Afghan badlands or the mountains of Changang like some Coca-Cola bottle would it be taken as truth? Of America’s depravity and lack of morals? Is this the real ‘dumbness’ of this comic? Or should readers sit back in their red ‘Make America Great Again’ hats, tuck into a cheeseburger, chase it with a Budweiser with a tube of lube within arm’s reach and just enjoy the thrill of it all?
DANIEL ELKIN: You’re asking leading questions again, Silva, pushing prosecutorial procedures out the emergency exit as this Airbus A380 is stuck circling the skies gobbling up fuel in order to make an emergency landing in the parking lot of some abandoned manufacturing plant in Detroit.
These are hard times. Don’t make me go tit-for-tat. I don’t have that kind of stamina and my one-liners are divided into two.
But hard times deserve hard commentary and slick Swiftian satire, right? And it appears O.M.W.O.T. fits the bill of fare here in this pre-apocalyptic hash house serving, as it does, crude crudités, moist meatballs, and a thick apple pie with a slab of cheddar stuck in it like a caseiculture hammer. There’s a jukebox in the back corner stocked with the entire discography of both Ted Nugent and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Every waitress is named Blanche and they all have an ax to grind about Syrian refugees.
Sweet gibbering gobstopper, it sure does take a thick stomach full of hot bile to macerate what Marra is cooking, doesn’t it? But we breed them big here in America. I mean, it unquestionably takes a capacious, dumb mouth to ingurgitate and bloviate simultaneously. Thank goodness we have a 24 hour news cycle to provide us with role models in that game.
Now I’m hungry. I think I need a ham sandwich.
Finally full of meat, I’m starting to second guess my chuck wagon metaphor. Maybe, instead, O.M.W.O.T is all about big hands? You know, the ones we use to grab our cocks and our guns and our cash at the same time as we throat punch perceived threats, jam thumbs in the eyes of those less fortunate, cover the mouths of those who disagree, and give the finger to the calm voice of reason? The ones that hold flimsy signs scrawled with misspelled hate in front of federal buildings? The ones that violently pull the lever on the voting machine to cast ballots out of blind frustration and against self-interest?
Benjamin Marra creates a book for the reptilian brain that explodes from within and without, whose shock waves push you back into your couch covered in Funyun(™) crumbs and Coors. It throws you out in the cold without your jacket because you have something to say. It complains about how inconvenient it is desperate, voiceless people have blocked your way to the mall with their protests. It whines about how much your city smells like urine in the summer because all those dirty children are living in tents under the overpass.
Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) is crude and over-the-top. It’s rude and uncomfortable. It’s thoroughly inappropriate and bat-shit bonkers. And it is of and for our times. Or at least until the Iowa Caucus.
SILVA: So, it’s all politics then or at least political satire and that’s it? One big cock-and-bull-story about America’s (current?) obsession with vengeance and eye-for-eye diplomacy in post-9/11 Dick-Cheney- America? Thanks Obama!
Marra is better, smarter (and dumber) than you are giving him credit for and so are the publishers of American independent comics! And yes, Elkin, even a West coast lefty like you with your liberal leanin’s and not so nonchalant references to sandwich fixin’s must be able to see through the superficial scrim of political satire here? Call this Elkin-baiting, but your refusal to engage this comic on any other level than as political satire reads like some mealy-mouthed millennial … yes, millennial ... agog at the senseless violence and gratuitous sex, yet mindful (desperately so) of the instant credibility that having Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) on their bookshelves brings them while they’re drinking Headys with their fellow douchebag friends, all of whom lack the intestinal fortitude to make a fucking point or decision and stand by it. You’re a gotdamn American Jew, Elkin. Good Christ, you were raised in Texas! And you’re nearly forty-nine, act like it!
Let me put it in a way a leather-patches-on-the-elbows-intellectual-counterculturalist like you understands: go further. Get on Furthur, tell Neal the ball the jack and thrill us with your acumen of how Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) functions as, you know, a comic. Critique, my friend, critique.
Sing of Marra’s use of dialogue in this political football you want to punt around. Why does nearly every line describe its corresponding elements in the panel? Example: when O.M.W.O.T shoots the guns out of the hands of an assailant, said assailant says, “What? “You shot the guns out of my hands,” this panel of the disarmed assailant accompanies two “ptang” sound effects, one for each gun, don’t you know. Or when a bedroom door explodes into the room, O.M.W.O.T says, “The door exploded inward,” a big “Boom!” complements the action, natch. Or how about when our hero visits an “internet company” in “the business district, Des Moines,” in the disguise of an investor no less, he ends up having a conference room quickie with the company’s Vice President and says, “I’m just spraying your ass with semen.” The Vice-President responds, “Can you see my body shaking as I orgasm?” There are wavy lines around both the ass shaking and semen spraying to bolster the image in the panel of … well you get the picture. And why is such racy and redundant dialogue sans any exclamation points whatsoever? Why so serious?
So sell your weak tea political insights somewhere else, Elkin, we’re all stocked up here.
ELKIN: Everything is about politics, Silva. Even sandwiches.
Satire is as satire does, brother, and if it happens to be your sacred cow that is being skewered, you’re the bigger man by doubling down on your order of keeeeebobs. Marra is comic booking here so hamfistedly because that’s the only way to hold on to something so juicy. We live in knee-bent, post-ironic times that demand this type of ridiculously excessive creating in order for you to “get it,” brother.
Perhaps your genteel, old-school, pinky-raised, musty, East coast, well-to-do sensibilities prohibit you from rolling in the mud to better understand the swine, Silva, but there’s a world out there that is grokking everything from a place of fear and unease, ganking up the herpetological synapses, and fight-or-flighting all of its reactionary decisions.
Just look at the latest gun sale statistics. I’ll show you the life of the mind.
But you’re right, let’s not limit ourselves to just politics as it will only leave us insatiate. For you, I’ll put on my brown corduroy smoking jacket, pour myself a thick snifter full of a tawny aperitif, and reflexively stroke my goatee (not a euphemism). You want critique? I’ll give you critique.
Perhaps, and I think this is where you want to go, O.M.W.O.T. is also a comic book about comic books, reveling as it does in hypersexuality, coursing with a banal attitude towards gratuitous violence, and turning on bonkers plot points all while keeping its character development flat and one-dimensional.
You know, for kids!
I’ll admit to having taste when it comes to my comics. I prefer the books I choose to work in the gray areas between clear cut good and evil morality, featuring characters that embrace and examine the dilemmas they face without punching them in the throat. My snobbery even extends to fashion choices. The moment a character decides that the best way to deal with obstacles or predicaments is to put on a cape, I quickly lose interest.
But I get it. I get the appeal of superhero books in the same way I understand why the fairgrounds are packed when the monster trucks come to town, or why a 10 second video of someone getting hit in the balls with a hammer goes viral. Simple is easy and we like to take it easy. There is a clean pleasure in loosening our load and lightening up while we still can. Given the choice between a Twinkie™ and kale, we’ll err on the side of the sweet. But such a steady diet does destroy, so they say. Or, in the case of someone like Dan White for example, it makes us mean and homicidal.
I’m going to be the bold one in this conversation and say that corporate comic book publishers are the Hostess Snack Cake factories of the entertainment industrial complex, producing sweet treats that are good to eat but which eventually will make you fat, lazy, and stupid. We all know it, yet we keep on buying them in armloads.
(“Bullshit! We do NOT make B pictures here at Capitol.”)
Marra is deliberately playing to the expectation game with O.M.W.O.T. -- there’s a preconceived notion of what comics “are” -- that’s what this dialogue describing “its corresponding image and sound effect” kerfuffle is fluffing. That’s what every twist and turn of his style, layout, and pacing is pinging off of. There is a deliberateness to the dumbness; it’s in service of excacerbating our mastebatory urge to gorge ourselves on that which will soften us.
Sometimes you gotta shine the light in people’s eyes in order to get them to see.
So call O.M.W.O.T. political satire or social satire or even some kind of Wallace Beery wrestling picture, but it’s critique all the way through in both style and substance and every breakdown I make of this book is only going to have me dancing to that boogaloo and shing-a-ling, pal.
Show me how I’m wrong and I’ll buy you a truckload of Ding Dongs™ and Ho Hos™.
SILVA: Wrong? No. What we are both circling around here, like two alley cats with too much damn education, is familiar ground: risk. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Risk. Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) is not safe for work, it’s not safe for Starbucks™ and it’s certainly not something you want to leave lying around the house for your partner to find unless you consider comics foreplay in which case this fits the bill.
A playful streak runs through Marra’s work like Route 66 cuts across the fable of America. Seriously, this is a cartoonist who did a U.S. Agent story for the teacher-has-left-the-classroom-indie-cartoonists-run -Marvel Comics jam, Strange Tales. Marra’s comics are always a kick. And as is always the case with great art they are as subversive as fuck. The joy -- or dumbness to circle back around to the beginning -- with a comic like this is how the reader chooses to engage with it. Read at one level it’s a bonkers story with gobs and gobs of gratuitous sex and violence. Read another way it turns into a parody of the most vapid 80s action movies and hardcore porn. Or it’s a political/social satire and on and on. And yes, for nerds like me, it’s a statement on how too many comics are grossly overwritten and pay zero respect to the motherfucking point of Comics in the first place.
Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) is a John 3:16 kind of comic. Marra loves comics and so he sent O.M.W.O.T. Here’s hoping we don’t fuck it up. Seriously, what could happen?
Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T (One Man War On Terror) is available from Fantagraphics. For all other dumb Marra stuff visit www.benjaminmarra.com.
Daniel Elkin is Your Chicken Enemy. And there's always @DanielElkin for more dumb ideas about sandwiches, leftwing political drivel and comics.