Since he first started uploading his short, garish, hideously funny “Truth Zone” comics to Tumblr (the series that would establish the world of Megg, Mogg and Owl that we see today), Simon Hanselmann’s career has been a tribute to the benefits of comics’ marginalization of an artform, an exploration of the lawlessness of form and content one can revel in when no one else is paying attention. By moving askance of one-page gags and adding a more traditional narrative component to his work with Megg & Mogg in Amsterdam, Hanselmann reveals that he is creating in this volume not just a selection of vulgar jokes with weird pacing but something resembling a burnout odyssey, a voyage into the insidiously funny layers of addiction and depression that only someone who is truly out of fucks to give could have the ambition to pursue.
The setup of these comics is almost like that of a traditional sitcom: there’s Megg, a depressed witch who coasts through life on a low tide of ennui; Mogg, her cat familiar/boyfriend; and Owl, an aspiring yuppie whose sensible, boring lifestyle is consistently brutalized in the waves of chaos his roommates bring to their lives. There’s also Werewolf Jones, the next door neighbor and neighborhood drug dealer who is perpetually out of his mind on meth and/or ketamine, frequently bringing his barbarically hyper children Diesel and Jaxon in tow. The social ecosystem they create is one that can best be described as a disgusting but oddly easygoing sea of bedlam that exists outside of polite society, only ever interacting with it in fits of violent, absurd confrontation.
Indeed, the beauty of these comics lies in their fundamental lack of respect for common decency or even normative comedic structure. Most stories in this collection resemble surreal variety show skits more than anything else; many of them have no discernible ending or punchline and a good number of them would get your station taken off the air if they were included as parts of TV programs instead of comics. There’s a comic about Megg trying to alleviate her depression after undergoing something called a “winter abortion” that is apparently a routine procedure for her but which is not explained or illuminated in the slightest; there’s a joke about Owl having lost his towels only to find them plopped in a corner, covered in anal fluids after Megg used a strapon to fuck her female friend atop them; there’s a comic about all the money Werewolf Jones makes from webcamming his children on a “by kids, for kids” porn site based out of Japan(!!). There’s a joke that ends with the image of Owl’s beak being shattered and crumbling off of his face, which is a visual that has to be one of the most inexpressibly upsetting things I’ve ever seen in a comic book.
Reading these comics once a week on VICE or as they appeared on Hanselmann’s blog was simple fun as an occasional shot of weird, mean comedy, but sitting through an entire collection of them in one sitting is a thoroughly draining and dissassociative experience. Glimpsing into these characters’ worlds is like living in someone else’s nightmare, endless and inescapable and taken to unpredictable flights into psychedelia. Hanselmann leaves ample room to show off his talents as an illustrator and designer with these comics, particularly in one hallucinatory sequence that ends with Mogg’s head being transformed into a CD player that spouts Wu-Tang Clan lyrics. There’s a deadpan absolutism to much of the dialogue that grounds this horrible, hilarious place in a reality that is, if not ours, far too real for someone out there to be at all comfortable experiencing.
And it can’t be overstated how much Hanselmann’s illustration has to do with this uniquely devilish atmosphere. Be it Werewolf Jones’ spurts of feverish rage, Megg’s unflappable disenchantment, or Owl’s perpetual grimace of hurt and dismay, there is an uncanny level of emotion conveyed by a deceptively dry style that relies on a storybook adherence to simple shapes and angles. Some of the framing and perspective feels almost Kubrick-esque in its specificity; I’m thinking of one very small panel in particular of Megg in a hotel room during a drug trip: we see over her shoulder the looming doors and corners of her room, her outstretched arms communicating an unguarded panic as the space closes in on her. Tightly gridded, Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam is frequently an exercise in dreamlike claustrophobia that adds a special twist of the knife to jokes that are already incredibly sharp: the reader, as amused as they may be, can feel as though there is nowhere to run as a sequence approaches its close.
If there’s one complaint I have, it’s that Hanselmann’s brand of caustic humor can sometimes hew a little too close to outright bullying. Owl’s ceaseless abuse within his social circle runs the risk of becoming as tired as Family Guy’s “Meg jokes” if they aren’t reined in or altered after a time; one story, which targets a group of harmless new agers, feels more like a vicious airing of grievances against a genre of person than a proper satire or takedown. Read in bulk, this style of comedy can be as spiritually exhausting as any gruesome war or horror story.
Nonetheless, with this collection Hanselmann has established a voice that is part Adult Swim absurdity, part noise rock cacophony, all strange and cruel and hilarious psychedelic despair. To say that Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam will not be for everyone is a dire understatement; most will likely find it acutely repulsive. But for the strong willed of you out there, I urge you to experience these vile little gems of comedy on their own terms, and thank God while you’re at it that there’s still an artform out there that allows things like this to exist.