Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Comics Round Up #1

I've started my New Year's resolution early. That is, I've decided to alot a certain amount of money to purchasing books online from independent artists and publishers once a month. In essence, I'm replacing the old weekly/monthly trip to the comic shop habit with a new habit of buying new comics online directly from the sources. The impact here is that I will document my purchases with some humble reviews.

Doppelganger is the newest comic published through his own I Will Destroy You imprint by artist Tom Neely; he swipes an idea from a vintage Popeye comic book cover of the sailor punching up himself and in turn offers it on the black market of personal expression. When I say personal expression, I mean it quite literally as Neely nimbly manipulates the figure of Popeye into a self-portrait.

Neely himself might disagree that this version of Popeye is a self-portrait. Regardless, we are given here a character who is Popeye (and could just as easily be you, or Neely, or me or we, for that matter--I am here as you are here and we are all together) at war with himself. This is not a plot-driven exercise, but rather Neely riffing in the language of comics. His background as an animator shines through here; I felt after reading the book as if I had been offered a glimpse at old story boards from a Fleischer cartoon of a dimension alternate to our own (this also brings to mind Neely's previous effort Self-Indulgence). We might now start to suspect an ongoing concern for the doppelganger concept by the artist.

What strikes me is how masterfully Neely takes the character of Popeye as defined by artists Segar and Sagendorf and transforms the icon into a figure somehow all his own (which is not a balancing act simple to achieve). The fact that Neely does this without the reader having to pause to think about it is a testament to just how fine a cartoonist he really is. E.C. Segar and Bud Sagendorf are given credit by Neely in the book as inspiration for his art in Doppelganger. Segar, of course, created the Popeye comic strip, and Sagendorf was his apprentice (and was responsible for many of the later Popeye comic books).

And just as in Neely's 2007 graphic novel The Blot, I feel that we have been represented with a self-contained alternate world, a neighborhood that operates on its own particular rules (that world also pops up in the strips of Neely's Brilliantly Ham-Fisted). Houses are simplified into living symbolic structures, sentient beings sporting a crooked chimney and a singular window. Houses for Neely seem to be bland sad creatures that contain the echoes of the lives lived within their walls. As Popeye multiplies to the extent that there is a sea of himself/his-selves doing battle, beyond the fence of the battlefield is like a Greek chorus of homes chiming in with equal but opposite notions: hate/love, living/dead, light/darkness, time/space, good/evil.

The only "self-contained" character here, in contrast, is Olive Oyl. She acts as spectator for the struggles of Popeyes vs. Popeyes (which is really just one Popeye vs. himself) and the opposing sentiments of the houses. There's something ultimately very emotional, heart breaking in the final image of Olive weeping behind a fence that closes out Neely's exercise.

[This just in as of this writing...Neely today has announced a holiday special in which Doppelganger comes free with any order, or go for the stocking stuffer special and get several books for one low price...]

Another book I "picked up" in the past month is Chris C. Cilla's The Heavy Hand from Sparkplug Comics. Unlike Neely's mini-comic, The Heavy Hand is a full-fledged graphic novel, or at the very least novella, weighing in at 108 pages.

Following an introduction in which we have a faceless research scientist experimenting by dropping a microchip (or that's what I'm calling it, anyway) into his own coffee, then urinating on the original circuit board from where the chip was plucked, then capturing the urine run-off in the same coffee cup, Cilla sets us up with one sham rubbing up against another sham (or, maybe experiments rubbing up against other experiments?), at first perpetrated by our protagonist, Alvin.

Departing from Dirksburg, Alvin is saying goodbye to what we assume is his girlfriend, who only seems to be glad to be rid of him. However, that goodbye merely segues into Alvin making his farewells to another girlfriend, this time a naked woman who sports a duck's bill instead of lips. Or, more appropriately, her lips are a duck's bill. She doesn't seem too in love with our Alvin, not unlike the first lady. Then again, despite managing two ladies, Alvin doesn't behave too enthralled with them either.

Receiving a ride to meet this research scientist with whom Alvin is claiming to have a job, he is abandoned by this pizza restaurant employee at a service station which does not in fact sell gas. From here, he is given a ride from a member of a research team working in the opposite side of a system of caverns from the loner, Professor Berigan, by whom Alvin is to be employed. Or, is he?

Nothing really is what it seems to be in Cilla's world. That doesn't seem to be a big deal to the Alvin who doesn't manage honesty very well himself. The narrative is often interrupted by strange, surreal digressions (but the digressions feed back into the plot). Rendered in an, appropriately, heavy handed manner, mutations are squirming beneath (and sometimes erupting from) the surface of everything). A strange trickster-like character in a black mask oddly seems to know the score. Where is all this leading? A mundane apocalypse during a lunch break in Limberlost perhaps?

The world he creates contains characters who either wouldn't care to have these mysteries solved or who are so self-involved in studying the minutiae directly in front of them that they'd never pause to see the big picture. It all fits strangely; Cilla has a nose for absurdity, often a big cartoon nose at that, and the parade of humanity presented here moves to its own beat. The Heavy Hand reverberates; I've returned to it several times already, and I think anyone interested in a fully realized complex collection of cartoon art and/or a wild psychedelic romp would not be disappointed by Cilla's effort. I wasn't.

Full disclosure: Neely edited/published/curated the Bound & Gagged book/art show in which I was included. Chris C. Cilla provided the cover art for that anthology.



Transylvania Gentlemen said...

Not having seen the inside of the funnybook and just goin' by the cover, it seems possible to me that Neely has perversely invoked the style of third-generation Popeye scribbler George Wildman. Note the style of the Sagendorf cover that inspired "Doppelganger":

And then observe the looser, freer, freaky style of the Wild Wildman man:

- - JSH

Brownstein said...

I don't really see the Wildman influence in Neely's style. Wildman's lines more closely resemble Al Jaffee, particularly with the curlicue mouth and bulbous appendages. He's off-model to establish movement, and is whimsical for it. I think you're correct that Neely's style is kinetic in the Wildman vein, but I also think he exercises a more stringent line control that keeps the character on model in the way of Sagendorf within a more kinetic environment.

tom Neely said...

whoah- i'd never seen Wildman before (and i call myself a popeye fan- for shame!). i have to look for some of those.

J.T. Dockery said...

I feel like I wrote the review and then JSH and Brownstein took me to school.