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by Dylan Horrocks
Black Eye Books
1030 St-Alexandre, Suite 203, Montreal, QC H2Z 1P3
e-mail at www.blackeye.com/books
$20, 300 pp.
The comics avantgarde has tried for years to convince the reading public that comic books are a legitimate form of literature. It's a hard sell; myopic editors, squeamish publishers, bean-counting distributors, a clueless arts press ("Bang! Pow! Comics Aren't Just For Kids Anymore!") and an indifferent audience in both the comics and non-comics reading spheres have all conspired to keep anything unrelated to Batman or Dilbert relegated to the "alternative" comics ghetto.
Comic books, of course, are considered children's entertainments at best. Few adults would want to be seen thumbing through a funnybook at Starbucks lest they be tarred as mom's-basement-dwelling geeks. What's worse is that, if comic books are simply products for kids, comics creators are regarded as no more than skilled craftsmen with little stock in or claim to their work. And even the most progressive young cartoonists likely learn the vocabulary of comics from fairly "low-brow" sources. MAD, superheroes and R. Crumb are fine inspirations, but their overwhelming influences can be hard to escape, assuming it even occurs to an artist to try to escape them.
These internal and external shortchangings of the medium have resulted in an "industry" populated by creators -- mainstream and otherwise -- who love comics, but realize on some level that the genre could be much more than it is if it were only given a chance.
Dylan Horrocks' graphic novel Hicksville expresses these ambiguous feelings perfectly. It is at once a celebration of the richness of the comics artform, a skewering of the corporate dog-and-pony show that claims comics as its property, and a lament for the great art that might have been made in a more receptive climate.
In Hicksville, Comics World magazine reporter Leonard Batts is writing a biography of Dick Burger, the hottest, richest and most powerful man in comics due to the success of his Captain Tomorrow books. Batts' research takes him to Burger's flyspeck hometown of Hicksville, in the backwaters of New Zealand. He quickly learns that mentioning Burger there is a good way of getting the cold shoulder from the locals.
What the natives are willing to talk about is comics. Everyone in Hicksville is a comics expert, always ready to hold forth on anything from obscure Finnish undergrounds to Jack Kirby. The local lending library stocks priceless rarities like Action Comics #1, free for the borrowing. But the nearby lighthouse hides even more fantastic treasures. In the catacombs beneath are stored the comics that never were, the unpublished masterpieces of hundreds of cartoonists and other artists.
"The official history of comics is a history of frustration," says the lighthouse keeper, "of unrealized potential." Gesturing to the stacks of books, he adds, this is "the way it should have been."
Frustration and sadness run throughout Hicksville, but Horrocks makes this little town and its odd population so alive and real that even the idea of its existence is comforting and encouraging. Thank goodness Hicksville isn't secreted away in a basement somewhere, and that comics have come at least far enough that books like this can surface to be enjoyed by all.— Sean Bieri
Poop w/ Flies
edited and designed
by Rick Casteel
Cream Corn Publishing
P.O. Box 478,
Ashland, OR 97520
e-mail at www.creamcorn.com
$12.95, 120 pp.
A smiling housefly kicks back relaxin' with a huge turd stogie between his lips: "Doesn't get any better than this," says the caption. Then, in a panel called "Crap Heist," a desperado fly holding two bags of loot and a gat orders a bank teller fly to "Give me all the shit." In one sleeping fly's nightmare, a scary monster poo opens wide its gaping jaws. On another page, hordes of buzzing customers rush to Sam's night spot for "meatloaf." These and 48 other cartoon visions of excremental ecstasy -- starring the insects we love to slam into guts on the windowpane -- make up this elegant paperback collection of fetid humor. Scatophiles take note! But though it may not be for everyone, Poop relates to what's literally on everyone's mind: from anal retentives who won't give "it" up -- to their kissing cousins, the collectors of various and sundry crap -- to bullshitters, shitheads, shitfaced fools, little shits and fart smellers of all persuasions. Poop is a scream, a caca-jokester's dream, a perfect-bound Freudian regression in the flesh. Many of the drawings are too complex to describe and some are just too gross, but this lovely little festival of feces is one unique, hysterical document for both the scatalogically challenged and the fecally inspired. Really folks, I wouldn't shit you. —George Tysh
The Little Man: Short Strips 1980-1995
by Chester Brown
Drawn & Quarterly
$14.95, 172 pp.
Any collection of comics that begins with a strip titled "The Toilet Paper Revolt" and ends with a strip dubbed "My Mom Was a Schizophrenic" has wild and wicked potential before the spine is even cracked. Toronto comics artist Chester Brown -- whose ongoing project, Underwater, is well worth seeking out -- in charting the progression of his own art, far exceeds the mere titillation of the titles and invites us into his oddly familiar, parallel world. The short strips that populate the pages between our introduction to Lilliputian toilet paper rolls exterminating humankind, and Brown's intimate, philosophical and personal exploration of society's relationship to mental "illness" are outrageous, surreal, hushed, mystical and, often, funny as hell. In these pages, Brown grows through runs at surrealist, recombinant, found text and imagery (the strip "Mars"), works out on the kinks of Canadian pornography laws ("Anti-Censorship Propaganda"), includes Jack Chick-like strips ("The Bottomless Pit" and the astounding "The Twin"), and shows readers an imagination and intellect so wide as to make for a fascinating chase through page after page. Brown doesn't waste a stroke or word in his sometimes spare, evocative, often intensely intimate tales as he eventually works his way toward the autobiographical style that comprises The Little Man's final third. This is Brown's most addictive work, particularly if you read the book cover to cover. The last page comes as a tease into the meticulous notes he has drafted to explain, give context to and rationalize the preceding works -- an appropriate ending to this introduction to an artist whose work feels as revelatory as an after-performance discussion. —Chris Handyside