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Optic Nerve to Powerhouse Pepper

Optic Nerve #1
Adrian Tomine
Reviewed by Christopher Brayshaw, “Firing Line,” TCJ #178

Pitched about halfway between Richard Linklater’s films (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise) and Raymond Carver’s short stories, the first mass-market issue of Adrian Tomine’s previously self-published anthology series, Optic Nerve, is a pleasure to read. Of the five short stories in the book, three — “Sleepwalk,” “Long Distance,” and, “Drop” — are well-written, well-drawn pieces which immediately distinguish Tomine’s work from the self-indulgent excesses of his contemporaries Ed Brubaker and Jeff Levine. Tomine’s other stories, “Echo Avenue,” and, “Lunch Break,” are less successful, but these failures are nonetheless indicative of Tomine’s development as a cartoonist

At 11 pages, “Sleepwalker” is Tomine’s longest story to date, and my personal favorite of all of his work I’ve seen so far. Mark, a scruffy 24-year-old, is taken to dinner on his birthday by his ex-girlfriend Carrie, who he has obviously not gotten over. At the end of the evening, he tries to kiss her, but she pushes him away. “I don’t want to get into this again. I guess I shouldn’t have called… Get on with things, Mark. Don’t drag this out.” Driving home, Mark crashes his car into a pickup truck, and the story concludes with him slumped against his totaled car, waiting for a tow truck that may never arrive. “The street is completely empty, and I can just barely hear the occasional sound of other cars in the distance. I lean up against mine and close my eyes.”

“Sleepwalker” is a marvelous evocation of the way unrelated characters’ lives briefly touch each other, and of how people fail to explain themselves to others. Situational irony animates every aspect of the story. When an old friend, Kristin, runs into Mark and Carrie at a late-night coffee shop, she exclaims, “I can’t still believe you guys are still together and everything,” failing to realize that Mark and Carrie have, in fact, broken up long ago, and are now living “lonely, separate lives.” Similarly, when Mark tries to kiss Carrie at the end of the evening, he does so without the trembling hesitation he felt the first time he kissed her. But ironically, Carrie interprets his second attempt as a sign he has not really gotten over her, and has not really changed in the time since she left him.

Throughout “Sleepwalker,” Tomine’s art consciously exaggerates contrasts between light and dark. In some of the story’s finest sequences, characters dissolve into shadowy patchworks whose fragmentary appearances underscore their broken words and the inadequate accounts they give of themselves to others. Tomine’s panels are close-cropped and overwhelmingly claustrophobic; many, like the view of Mark’s tear-stained face above a steering wheel, suggest the influence of the E.C. artists Johnny Craig and Jack Kamen, who frequently deployed visual oppressiveness as a means of expressing characters’ damaged psychologies.

“Long Distance” extends Tomine’s fascination with the way people try, and fail, to connect. An unnamed woman’s boyfriend moves away for the summer, and begins pestering her to “talk dirty” to him over the phone. “The first time he asked, I laughed, and then he laughed, and I was sure he was joking. That was two weeks ago. Now he’s serious, and the tone of his voice is a mixture of desperation and threat.” Here, Tomine’s illustrations are like snapshots from the seriously dysfunctional relationship, which emphasize the characters’ geographical and emotional remove from each other, themes neatly encapsulated in the narrator’s realization, “I’m saying the words, but my mind is somewhere else, far away.”

Stories like, “Long Distance,” and “Drop,” are primarily successful because of Tomine’s wonderfully compressed writing, which, like the short stories of Raymond Carver, uses mundane settings and fragmentary language to reveal the instability of characters’ emotional states. Such writing is quietly revelatory in the sense that a Katherine Mansfield or Anton Chekhov story is; that is, obliquely. Too often, even supposedly “realistic” comics writing is revelatory in the opposite, Joycean sense, whereby revelation is conveyed through incongruous stylistic shifts or the deliberate accretion of visual detail. And in fact, Tomine’s writing is least successful when he strains after particular structural effects. For example, “Echo Ave.” is a Rear Window-style story about a couple who watch two fetishists having sex from their apartment window. But the fetishists’ behavior is reminiscent of parts of Dan Clowes’ “Like A Velvet Glove,” played straight, and the story’s conclusion, which insinuates a killing or some unspeakable perversion as part of the fetishists’ repertoire, seems contrived, and tacked on as an afterthought. Similarly, in “Lunch Break,” an elderly widow eats a brown-bag lunch in her dead husband’s car, remembering details of their lives together. This story is overtly sentimental and not terribly original; David Mazzuchelli and Ann Nocenti once published a similar story in Marvel Fanfare, which, while not well-written, was far more visually inventive than Tomine’s story. Also, “Lunch Break” is far from subtle; in particular, the shifts from past to present seem designed to inflect readers’ responses to the widow’s predicament, as if Tomine was unsure of how we would respond to her without emotional cues.

Tomine is a young creator, and my guess is that as he continues to write and draw Optic Nerve, his confidence in his own storytelling will preclude the need to sentimentalize and over-inflect his stories. “Drop,” “Long Distance,” and, in particular, “Sleepwalker” admirably demonstrate his creative strengths: A stripped-down art style emphasizing his characters’ psychological states; a sensitivity to spoken dialogue and to small visual details; and a well-developed sense of narrative ambiguity best seen in his longer stories. Drawn and Quarterly should be congratulated for publishing Tomine’s work, and I look forward to seeing more from him soon.

Optic Nerve
Adrian Tomine
Reviewed by Jordan Raphael, “Shit List,” TCJ #179

The cruelest joke of 1995 has to be that everyone and his/her mother is jumping on this little piker’s bandwagon, and for no reason that actually makes any sort of discernible sense, even by the skewed standards of contemporary comic book criticism.

Certainly, his mini-comics work was adequate, nothing great, mind you, and hardly something that should have heralded the enormous success — both critical and financial — his new series has experienced. Especially since Optic Nerve #1 sucked. Come on, people. Haven’t we seen a little too much of the hip, muted, fragmented, overly-short short stories that this moron is trying to pass off as fresh and original. And really: neo-realism? What the hell is that? If realism is a mode that effectively portrays the “real,” then does neo-realism portray the “real” more accurately or less? Someone explain, because Tomine does neither of these.

His characters are flat and dull, largely as a result of his tired and stilted dialogue, and he doesn’t say anything important. These ought to be key concerns of comics, a medium which is constantly looking to advance itself as a legitimate literary form. More reprehensible, though, are the story endings: ghastly, incomprehensible things that seem tacked on as either an afterthought or an attempt to be ambiguous — as if ambiguity itself were the sole ingredient in the recipe for a “good story.” It seems these days that too many creators are writing weird and ambiguous stories for the sake of writing weird and ambiguous stories, in the hopes that some bored intellectual will be able to fabricate a whole pattern of meaning and thematic content around the work. Tomine has fallen into exactly this trap.

He’s a young guy and dedicated, which is good, but he still needs time to grow. And time to learn that there’s more to creating comics than believing your own press and churning out stories you think will get you more of the same.

Out There #5
Alan Hunt
Reviewed by Greg Stump, “Hit List,” TCJ #193

Although Alan Hunt’s work has been cited over the past year or two as some of the better stuff around in the sphere of minicomics, I didn’t pay too much attention to it until I ran across a copy of Out There #5. While his previous books were often comprised of multiple, unconnected short pieces, “The Decoy” — the short story that takes up all of Out There #5 — represents a more ambitious, and more successful, undertaking. The artwork, pacing, and storytelling on display in his latest effort are at a level where Hunt seems poised to break out of minis in the very near future.

The premise of “The Decoy” is relatively simple; a passed-out drunk on the sidewalk outside of a row of fraternities provides a meeting ground for two strangers — one of whom stopped by to pilfer the poor sod’s wallet, while the other stopped by to help. What impressed me was not so much the story but the way it was told. Hunt has quickly and quietly amassed a repertoire of skills that quite a few of his contemporaries doing “real,” full-sized alternative comics lack. His dialogue is naturalistic without being boring. His layouts are simple and effective, but with enough variety that it avoids monotony. And Hunt displays keen visual awareness as well; his changes in perspective are so subtle and effective that they almost pass by unnoticed while moving the story along.

Out There #5 is an engaging and enjoyable read. I found the ending to be a bit unsatisfying, but if Hunt keeps turning out this caliber of work — and improving at this rate — his audience will increase proportionally.

Palookaville #10
Reviewed By David Rust

Nostalgia inspires an awful lot of comics these days. In the mainstream, it usually takes the form of this month’s Kirby tribute or modernized updates of Golden and Silver Age characters as writers and artists expend their energy attempting to recreate the glories of the past. In the alternative corner of the industry, a handful of similarly past-obsessed cartoonists manage to create meaningful work that utilizes the superficial trappings of bygone eras to express a sense of disengagement with the present. In recent years, Chris Ware, Ben Katchor and Seth have all earned critical acclaim for work in this vein, and may even have collectively created a movement or subgenre.

Palookaville #10 marks a departure for Seth as he abandons autobiography in favor of straight fiction, but remains thematically consistent with the rest of the series. The issue presents us with Part One of “Clyde Fans,” Seth’s follow-up to his longest story and masterpiece-to-date, “It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken.” Seth, the “young fogey” protagonist, has been replaced by a more likely lamenter of the past: a lonely old man who talks about his younger years out loud to empty rooms. Like Seth, the old man surrounds himself with the detritus of his past, and is well aware that he is out of step with the times. One might assume this story occurs in the 1950s if the first page didn’t give the year as 1997.

In “It’s A Good Life...” Seth began allowing himself time and space to let his story unfold slowly. With “Clyde Fans,” he takes this even further. Not much happens in the opening chapter. The as yet nameless old man (Mr. Clyde, perhaps?) wakes up, goes through his morning toiletry routine, has breakfast, and wanders down from his upstairs living quarters to his defunct business’s storefront and offices. Along the way he recounts anecdotes from his career as a salesman for the Clyde Fans Company, reminisces about the glory days of radio, and laments his lack of interest in television and aptitude for the modern age. The plot so far is slight, but the work’s merit lies in its value as a character study. There are a few hints at what will come in future chapters — oblique references to his brother Simon’s past failures and his own — but where this story is headed is only a little clearer than it was initially.

“Clyde Fans” opens with three wordless pages, establishing time, location, and a slow, somnolent mood. A half-page panel depicts nighttime in the city, and successive panels give us different views of city buildings as the sun rises. As the morning passes, the point of view focuses on the Clyde Fans storefront and gradually closes in on a third story window with its blind slightly open. As we flip to page three, we find ourselves on the other side of that mysterious window to meet the old man, still fast asleep while a clock shows it is now early afternoon. The sun has risen over the buildings now and its light creeps into the dark bedroom, waking the man up. The old man rubs his eyes, gets up, opens the window, and begins to get dressed. In this third silent page, Seth reveals a great deal about this character. His late sleeping and slow rising indicates there is nothing he has to do on this day. As he dresses, he puts his pants and suspenders on over top of his pyjamas, substituting his pyjama top for a dress shirt. He is still caught up in old routines, but his lack of purpose and social interaction have led him to slovenly habits. On page four, the man launches suddenly into a lame salesman joke, jarring himself and the reader out of the comic’s initial lull. The silent sequence serves the same purpose in Part One as Part One seems to serve in the context of “Clyde Fans” as a whole: setting a mood and revealing character bits while giving scant clues as to where this story is taking us.

Visually, Seth is in peak form. A dull shade of blue has been added to the otherwise black-and-white New Yorker-style art, adding little but muted enough that it doesn’t detract either. Seth eschews the standard flashback technique of having his narrator speak in box captions while the pictures depict the events of the past. Rather, he accepts the self-imposed formal challenge to keep the visuals firmly in the present, and manages to make interesting potentially dull scenes of a man delivering a monologue. Seth’s eye for detail is manifest in silent panels focusing on the objects that litter the old man’s world: dentures in a glass of water, an abandoned half-full cup of coffee, clocks, fans, pictures on the wall. Seth has carefully planned out the geography of his setting, keeping background details consistent and clearly showing the path the old man travels as he moves through space. This consistency gives the story an authenticity and solidity rare in comics, where many artists use backgrounds sparingly or change them from panel to panel with little internal logic. This dwelling is all that is left of his protagonist’s world, and Seth succeeds remarkably at making it real.

Palookaville #10 is excellent work but is somehow unsatisfying. It offers only a taste of a well-crafted story, an introduction rather than a first chapter. Seth is in the process of creating his next graphic novel/trade paperback and if this issue is any indication, it will be an excellent one. But that doesn’t mean it serializes well. Patient readers can be excused if they pass up these issues and wait for the inevitable collection. Alas, Seth is such an outstanding cartoonist that such patience is beyond this reader.

Patty Cake #4
Scott Roberts
Reviewed by James Kochalka, “Hit List,” TCJ #184

It seems like so many “alternative” comics are overwhelmingly negative and cynical — books like Hate, No Hope, Schizo, Lowlife, and on and on and on. Yes, I suppose the world itself seems pretty negative most of the time, but if you take a moment to look for something positive you will find it, and you will smile.

Which brings us to Patty Cake by Scott Roberts. Patty Cake is a relentlessly, unashamedly, good natured comic book about a sweet little girl doing sweet little girl things. Drawing pictures, taking a bath, teaching her stupid little friend Irving how to do math, and crying over a dead bird are the meat of Patty’s adventures. Yet it does have some bite to it. The “Hey Mom, will you wipe me” type of humor isn’t exactly Hallmark. The cartooning is great. Whole pages come alive; the panels buckle and twist, space warps and bends around the action, and the characters themselves wiggle and pop into almost Ren & Stimpy-like contortions. Patty’s father looks like a Rooster juiced up on testosterone.

It may not be an honestly accurate view of childhood (none of that no-one-likes-me Charlie Brown loneliness stuff here) but someone has to counteract the huge tide of negativity in other comics. It seems almost radical to take such an optimistic view of the world. Patty Cake is a sweet treat, and I’ve got a sweet tooth anyway.

Powerhouse Pepper
Basil Wolverton
Reviewed by Larry Rodman, “Comics Library,” TCJ #178

Basil Wolverton’s artwork is one of the reasons that serious comics junkies have always felt an obsessive, addictive, possibly sacramental affection for the medium… and also one of the reasons that people who aren’t into comics aren’t.

Like many other cartoonists who affect the reader on a visceral level, Wolverton was formally untrained. Categories seem to have sprung up around him — “spaghetti and meatball school of art,” for example — so great is the temptation to pin him down in some way. There is a wealth of opportunity to view his career in retrospect, with reprint comic books solely devoted to him, and occasionally ’50s monster stories in oddball Marvel titles. Once in a while, the farsighted Fantagraphics Books will issue a whomping prestige soft-cover art book, or the Barflize postcard set, happily consolidating work which deserves to stay in print. Their new book is Basil Wolverton’s Powerhouse Pepper.

Wolverton was capable of drawing anything, but he was an affront to the academy. He said, “I realize my art isn’t any good,” and “My style, if it is a style, developed like one’s handwriting, which can sometimes be unintelligible to others.” These self-effacing comments are those of an artist who stood apart. Way apart.

He appreciated early newspaper comic strip art, either painstakingly illustrative or goofy in style. In the mid- to late-’20s, he was drawing humorous stuff featuring linework not significantly different from big foot cartoonists like E.C. Segar or Sidney Smith. His fanciful, relatively more naturalistic drawings began to emerge in the same period. Gradually, he developed alternating screwball cartoon and pulp science fiction modes, until they intersected in a sort of Rube Goldberg meets Virgil Finlay fashion.

In Wolverton’s drawing, bold contour lines carve out form. The compositions are nailed to the page, allowing a springboard for images which pop out. The meticulous application of shading and crosshatching evince a will to make the drawing real. This technique is all the more effective to delineate his surpassingly wild content.

But this line of thought merely summons up a poor police composite drawing of our suspect. How in God’s name did an artist of humble origin leap into the fore — as young Bay Wolverton did — from 1929 to the beginning of his mature work on Spacehawk and Powerhouse Pepper in 1940-42 consecutively? As Wolverton told Graphic Story Magazine in 1970, referring to his early work, “If this display shows nothing else, it indicates ambition.” In those early years, Wolverton was a staff cartoonist for The Portland News, he barely missed out in his bid for comic strip syndication several times, and in 1936 he tried out for the Disney Studios during their cattle call for a Snow White animator. He kept busy on the regional vaudeville circuit and in radio broadcasting. Wolverton was, in short, a Renaissance madman.

It is likely that Wolverton’s grey matter was stimulated by the funkiness of the popular culture of his time. In the wake of World War I, society took on a decadent, irredeemably weird bent. Somewhere, perhaps within range of his antennae, Surrealism was subverting the art world. Circus freaks were still known to roam entertainment venues where burlesque was in its dotage. We know he liked early slapstick cinema. (Also — decades before the institution of the Comics Code Authority — The Film Production Code of 1934 sought to purge motion pictures and animation of an unregulated deviant, risqué tone; and so a full range of questionable images were available to be implanted at the movies.) Whatever the impetus, Basil Wolverton produced work that was strange in his time and is still jolting as we approach the millennium.

Wolverton’s life work is pretty well documented within comic art circles. By far the most often reported episode is his winning entry in Life magazine’s spread on the “Lena the Hyena” competition. Beyond the obvious charms and attributes of Mr. Wolverton’s Lena, the semiotics of the contest itself help demonstrate his special gift. (For anyone unfamiliar with the object of the contest, I quote Life, October 28, 1946: “The contest was started by Al Capp who in his comic strip, Li’l Abner, introduced the world’s ugliest woman, Lena the Hyena of Lower Slobbovia. Lena was so horrible that Capp shrewdly refused to show her face, ran a blank space… Readers deluged city editors of newspapers all across the country with hundreds of pictures too horrible to print, thousands of others which were repulsive, but printable.”) Much can be learned by observing some of the other published entries. They are lavishly gross, oozing and disturbing, a credit to the sickness of their respective artists… Yet… seen today, they are as moldy relics. Time and taste will often short-change old stuff of its original power. It’s rare to see an example, like Wolverton’s Lena, which has retained — perhaps has even intensified — its impact. The putrescent, fungal breath which fried grandpa’s hair still billows toward you.

This was a historic media event, beyond anything that the pumped-up comics industry of today can offer. Lena in Life was, at once, both an utterly vulgar display (tame by Wolverton’s standards), and a legitimizing one. Consider the association with competition judges Salvador Dali, Frank Sinatra and Boris Karloff, and with exposure in a super-mainstream magazine. How many funny book artists could claim that such a concentration of cultural icons had judged him and found him worthy?

Publicity over Lena caused an upswing in demand for Wolverton’s work, with ad agencies and in Hollywood, but he viewed the sudden commotion as a blip in his career. He had been in national publications for nine years already, batting the stuff out at the rate of about a page a day. A rugged individualist, he produced his own ready to print comics features. “There’s nothing like doing a thing yourself if you want it done right, no matter how badly you might do it.”

Wolverton’s favorite creation, the one that he would most want anthropologists from the future to unearth, was Powerhouse Pepper.

Powerhouse Pepper is a bald-pated pugilist with a pituitary problem, and he lives his life out alliteratively herein. During his interview with Wolverton for Graphic Story Magazine #14 (Reprinted in Fantagraphics Books, Wolvertoons: The Art of Basil Wolverton) Dick Voll mentions Harvey Kurtzman’s distinction between satire and, as Kurtzman put it, “dumb humor.” That is “the humor that titillates the senses and plays around with clever juxtaposition and usage of words,” a pretty good description of Wolverton’s sense of humor. Though his Powerhouse strips and their ilk — the companion character strips Super-sonic Sammy and Berserk Clerk McJerk — would seem to be antithetical to the intellectualism that Kurtzman expected of satire, the argument can be made that Wolverton was really aiming at a higher mark altogether. Whereas the maestro of MAD satirized specific phenomena, such as advertisements, I venture to say that Wolverton was satirizing empirical reality itself. The flouting of natural law is typical of superhero stories, certainly, but these strips are a shining example of the instability of even fictional principles.

In the story A Galoot in Pursuit of Buried Loot, we see what a Max Fleischer Popeye cartoon, complete with a Bluto-like creep and a mermaid, would be like with Basil at the helm. An Encounter at the Counter, in which an outnumbered Powerhouse bests antagonists at the diner, reveals that Wolverton’s exuberant, blatant drawings can easily carry a story unencumbered by dialogue.

The plots are situational riffs, and don’t really bear literal summarizing. The formula undergoes endless variation: a bully disturbs the peace through greed and arrogance. Powerhouse Pepper fights back, withstanding awful abuse, which he is oblivious to, and saves the day. Digressions, like Bill Elder-style chicken fat, clutter the page. Puns and horrific gag character names like Old Dad Sadbrad litter the proceedings. The speed of the patter and visuals indicates the work of a veteran baggy pants vaudevillian, dancing frantically to avoid getting the hook.

While these stories can’t be said to be non-linear, their logic doesn’t serve to ground events, but instead to defy expectations. The first impression we get of Powerhouse Pepper is the joke premise on the cover — the key to his character — that he is so naive and uncorrupted that the piles of treasure he turns over on the beach are nothing to him while he searches in vain for a single clam. Or that having been shot at point blank in the cowboy story The Bank Book With the Blank Look, doesn’t blow his day… It’s the hole that the bullet makes in his sweater which steams him and provokes his attack.

Powerhouse Pepper is a “natural man,” the kind found in tall tales and folklore, like Paul Bunyan or John Henry, the steel drivin’ man. He is not perceived as being out of the ordinary to his peers, except for the ability to be at one with the elements when justice demands. Illustrating that absolute power need not corrupt at all, he is “all muscles and no mind.” Even though this conception is self-evident and solid to the core, the mutant nature of Basil Wolverton’s mystique hints that something more is going on. Can Powerhouse Pepper be operating on more than one level? Though I get the sense that Wolverton was a harried professional with little time for intentional subliminal elaborations, he dipped his pen in the ink of collective unconsciousness so often that people saw a Freudian aspect to his material. His forms have an organic, bulbous elasticity, and his adventures are set in an exaggerated dream landscape. In the Dick Voll interview, Wolverton recounted a psychiatrist’s perception that, “… [his] material wasn’t fit to publish [as it was] rife with sex suggestions and symbols.” Powerhouse Pepper’s appearance, with his bald dome, thickly sinewed bod and no neck (or is it, lack of chin?) begs the question. Do we — us guys anyway — relate to Powerhouse Pepper as a hero because he’s essentially depicted as a phallus loosed upon the world, doing good works? Well, if so, no more so than the central figure of any superhero saga. There is a fundamental appeal to images of benign male power which the genre cannot help but tap into, whether it is approached with a sense of humor or in deadly seriousness.

In the early ’50s, Powerhouse Pepper stories were featured in Joker, a pocket magazine — a publication as diametrically opposed in quality to Life magazine as possible. Wolverton’s art was cheerfully displayed alongside pin-ups and hack gag panels; the kind which Mark Newgarden lampoons. Everything has a harmless, lightweight feel to it. Under a beach babe on the back cover, there is an uncredited one liner, marginalia which might easily have been Basil’s (the man who once sang a song he called, “Why Should I Wait for the Cheese to Age When There’s Moulding Around the Ceiling Now?”). It could be his personal philosophy. “The happiest people today are the contortionists who perform on the vaudeville circuit. No trouble for them to make ends meet.”

Basil Wolverton was among the cornerstone artists of comics. His originality and visionary excesses inspire primal awe. His renegade progeny carry on, cracking through the pavement and showing the mealy bugs and mulch underneath. Aside from that stuff though, the run of Powerhouse Pepper, free of socially redeeming features, significance, and any trace of irony, is a superior example of what humor comics were about during the golden era of lowbrow entertainment. This period, not so long ago, is by contemporary standards virtually beyond the human power of recall. It is vital that someone be involved in keeping such work available. We need it more than its native audience did, if only to show us how to laugh at ourselves.

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