Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comics Bulletin’s small press review column
Remember when you felt totally isolated from everything around you? Remember when your only joy came in escaping what then constituted your existence? Remember feeling like you had to encase yourself in some sort of armor in order to keep from exploding?
Josh Bayer remembers. His 80 page black and white release from Retrofit Comics titled Theth documents this.
Theth is a brutal read, where even its moments of humor are tinged with horror. It’s a psychotic bildungsroman of sorts; characters in this book only serve to torture, in some way, the young titular hero – Theth has few positive role models for behavior (though everyone keeps giving him advice) and he finds solace only in the world of comic books. Bayer’s loose art style and heavy inking mirrors the emotional tone of the book and adds further chaos to the read.
And yet there is something powerful at work here, as if Bayer is able to capture a purely visceral moment and subsequently communicate it directly to his audience. It’s as if there is no filter between the artist’s emotional sensibilities and your reaction to them. There is a rawness at work in Theth that is unlike any other comic I’ve read.
Bayer describes his book as:
“… the story of the winter of 1980. In the shadow of the days following John Lennon’s murder, a strange preteen, dressed inexplicably in a spacesuit, wanders the wastelands of suburban Ohio struggling with the nameless forces that surround him and the seemingly well meaning but ultimately sinister adults he encounters every day. He numbly navigates the universe around him and within him, obsessed with comicbook heroes like Mr. Incompleto, ROM, and Zero Sum, who seem to occupy a void only he is aware of. His name is Seth but everyone calls him THETH.”
Yet this description only details the surface of the narrative. The pleasure of reading Theth comes from how it connects, how it disturbs, and how it bridges. You find yourself rooting for Theth even though he does little that’s redemptive, shows hardly any strength of character, and is in some ways kind of a shit. Still, he is the consummate outsider, encased as he is in his spacesuit. His youth and ignorance, his innocence especially, make him a mirror from which your own insecurities are cast back. Theth is faceless, insomuch as he wears all of our faces.
Through Theth, Bayer conveys the pathos and poignancy of feeling unconnected and adrift in a world that makes little sense, which is populated by people who are cruel and self-serving. It’s a messy place to walk through and Theth is a messy comic.
And that’s what makes it so beautiful.
You can purchase Theth from Retrofit Comics here.
Flesh and Bone
In the late 1980s the Pixies reminded us that “Your bones got a little machine.” That machine is, of course, encased in flesh. Together, flesh and bone, we create meaning through our senses. We reach out. Touch. Caress. Love. Together, flesh and bone, we are procreant, fecund. We express our desire for others and for ourselves in the same act, using the same flesh, using the same bones. We connect, fluids exchange, life is affirmed as life is created.
This affirmation is fundamental. In fact, it has been designated a basic human need. We are driven to conjoin and sexuality surrounds this. For the artist Julia Gfrörer, though, this drive is also tinged with horror and mysticism. Gfrörer’s books are full of the intersection between desire and repulsion, bliss and woe, and in this intersection Gfrörer sees a ripe darkness that exists in the world that bears a strange fruit.
Gfrörer’s 2010 book Flesh and Bone from Sparkplug Comics takes this fruit and makes from it a delicious pie. It is a comic that is as ejaculatory as it is desperate. There is a hunger that drives it and it is rhythmic in its telling. The story revolves around a young man who craves death in order to be reunited with his dead lover, but he fears eternal damnation if he were to take his own life. So he turns to a witch to help him (as we all do at one point or another in our lives). But as this is a Gfrörer book, the impulses here are all layered through a carnality bred from desire. Love in Flesh and Bone is a sexual act, death is orgasmic in execution. The devil is serviced through our desires, yet this evil is euphoric and fervent, fructiferous and fertile. A man’s seed is planted. What grows from there is the stuff of Gfrörer’s art.
There is a lightness to Gfrörer’s line work that stands almost in juxtaposition to the darkness she fills her panels with. This chiaroscuro adds thematic density as it contributes emotionally to the tone. Gfrörer is a comic artist whose craft and ideas work conjointly. Her books offer her understanding of our desires, taking, as Lou Reed said, the blue mask down from our face and looking us in the eye. As much as we like to think of our acts of love as tender, they are inexorably savage, our desires unleashed in our reptile brains, the primacy of the primal. Though it is often portrayed as men’s work, true sexuality is ultimately the woman’s province. As men slap and flail with their cocks, women unleash and create. Gfrörer uses Flesh and Bone as a platform to remind us of this. The rudimentary spark that the man ejaculates becomes, through the magic of the female, something full, rich, and prophetic.
In a way, Julia Gfrörer’s Flesh and Bone is, once again using the vernacular of The Pixies, “talking to preachy-preach about kissy-kiss” – it also has something to say about what it is that defines our sexuality, our desires, and, in a way, the futility of love.
It’s also a graceful and elegant work of art.
You can purchase Flesh and Bone from Sparkplug Books here.
Aussie Comics Wunderkind Frank Candiloro keeps putting out books that plum the depths of Western Pop Culture, and his 42-page paean to 1950’s teenage horror films, Mail-Order Mutant! keeps the wheels turning and the rock rolling while putting the real in surreal.
Mail-Order Mutant! is as much a love letter to comics as it is to the genres of monster movies and teenage kick flicks foisted on a culture unnerved by the advent of a nuclear age, still reeling from the psychic havoc it exploded. Candiloro says about his book:
Mail-Order Mutant! is the story of Theo Gorgo, a young whippersnapper obsessed with horror and sci-fi comics and a member of the teenage gang The Gorgos, led by his older sister Tina.
Upon encountering a nuclear missile, Theo is caught in the explosion, and ends up with various powers and abilities, all based on things he read in the funny books. Now a nuclear misfit, Theo goes to his friends for help.
But The Gorgos have other plans for him.
As this is a Frank Candiloro comic, there are all kinds of wonks and whatnots within its pages. It cooks with the crackle of energy these sorts of stories can unleash, and Candiloro’s linear, black-and-white, German Expressionistic, wood-cut inspired cartooning keeps the backbeat clear, the rhythm jamming, and the whole thing blowing: GO! GO! GO!
Mail-Order Mutant! also contains, in 8 totally whacked wordless pages, one of the greatest drag race scenes I’ve ever seen in comics. It’s one of those things that almost leaves you breathless by the end of it, whether from its frenzied kineticism or its bat-shit craziness, though, I’m not really sure.
Also, suffusing this book there’s this look on Candiloro’s character’s faces that he has perfected: The Wide-Eyed Crooked Smile. It’s been showing up more and more in his comics of late and the look radiates a gleeful surprise – a nakedness of emotion – as if the world is truly a wonderful place and, when you realize this, your face can’t help but detonate with joy. It’s one of my favorite things that Candiloro does in his books.
Given the limitations of what Candiloro is trying to do with Mail-Order Mutant!, it still has, at its heart, a tenderness that carries the tale and takes it to that next level from exploitation to story-telling. While the characters are rendered using the broadest of strokes and the writing is, at times, stilted and uninspired, there is something approaching genius at work here. Whether it is his choice of narrator or the effusiveness of his art, Candiloro shows he’s got the chops to make it in this comic book game.
Thankfully, Frank Candiloro shows no sign of letting up on his creative gas, as books keep fruitfully flying out of his brain.
You can purchase Mail-Order Mutant! as well as all his other books directly from Frank Candiloro here.