5.10.2011

Black Eye Only Funny South of the Border

Black Eye #1: Graphic Transmissions To Cause Ocular Hypertension (Rotland Press): Editor Ryan Standfest follows up last year’s robust Funny (not funny) with a continued exploration of black humor, both its function and its historical context. The $14.95 anthology contains pieces by such luminaries in the field as Danny Hellman, Paul Hornschemeier, Ivan Brunetti, Lilli Carre, Jon Vermilyea, Michael Kupperman, Tom Neely, R. Sikoryak, Jeet Heer, and Brecht Evens, just to name a few notables and personal favorites.

Ryan Standfest emailed me with the generous offer of a review copy around the time that an interesting travel anecdote, nah, let’s call it what it is, a censorship story, was making the rounds on the web. The story has since been picked up by The Beat, The Comics Reporter, and the mighty CBLDF, as several self-respecting blogs write about it, and many creators have been all a-Twitter. It’s somewhat heartening to learn that Canadian Customs officials acted professionally and without brinksmanship when they seized copies of the book from Tom Neely, as he attempted to courier them to TCAF this past weekend. If nothing else, at least the people involved made the best out of a bad situation. They claimed that the material was “obscene,” and it’s not likely that it will be returned once it’s been properly reviewed by relevant authorities.

I’ve read the book, and while there are a few isolated panels, we’re talking less than 1% of the book here in terms of sheer page count, which sure do contain some images of fairly bloody violence and nudity, I don’t feel like it’s anything you wouldn’t see in a hard-edged R-rated movie. It also helps the case, in my mind, that the book is helmed under the guise of parody and satire, and the supposedly objectionable images are standing shoulder to shoulder with several scholarly essays. I wonder if the Canadian importation policies take into account the pervasive nature of the “offensive” content, the authorial intent of the pieces, or the surrounding context of the material? While the lawyers and academics can chew on these debate-worthy topics, let’s charge ahead and actually review the damn thing, which is something I’ve yet to see amid the deserved public outcry.

Standfest’s introduction lets you know exactly what you’re getting into with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. It’s almost as if some part of his brain anticipated backlash because he casually mentions that you shouldn’t take offense at the content, the creators are, after all, only responding to the culture of “death camp tourism” they reside in. In short, deep down you know you want it, so please don’t insult anyone by feigning shock. The pieces themselves are quite varied, ranging from still images filled with irony (a man sinking in his canoe and wishing he’d bought canoe insurance, but who knew?!), to a May desktop calendar chronicling potential life threatening injuries and noting the inherent risk in the world – so don’t be overly concerned, to faux period ads for beauty creams, correspondence courses, your very own Spear of Destiny, or animal groinologues (“elephant clit” or “camel box” or, well, “beaver beaver”), all done in such earnest that they’re rendered funny because the tropes all by themselves, with no affectation, are so outdated, to real honest to goodness comic strips. Yes, the strips. Like Onsmith’s single panels for example, which, I guess, are the panels in question that stopped Canadian officials in their tracks and triggered them to enforce their policies. Yes, there is a shocking level of honesty with which these two pages, all two of them, converge sex and violence. I don’t know what I can say other than that. I liked the pieces. I wasn’t offended. They rightfully function with the level of irony and dark humor the book purports to discuss. I thought, if anything, they actually poked fun and satirized the type of individual who would so callously dismiss this type of violence or depravity. Yeah, context is everything. I think it’s also worth noting that Onsmith’s strips are part of the very few which actually depict anything graphic. The vast majority of the pieces merely suggest it visually or describe it with words.

Moving along, I enjoyed the thick inky lines of David Paleo, who also handles Nazis later in the anthology with sharp aplomb. Roland Topor, who most people will recognize from his involvement with the film Fantastic Planet, offers up the coup entitled 100 Good Reasons to Kill Myself Right Now. In Memory of Brecht Evens’ Wife sees the titular creator (responsible for the recent critical darling Night Animals) touch on love and loss, the only “funny” thing about it being the depth of its emotional swing. In just two pages, he’s able to contribute perhaps the most beautiful prose and haunting imagery in the entire book. Ivan Brunetti’s sporadic shorts all operate with subversive intent, perhaps the most emblematic being the Popeye shot which completely subverts the familiarity of the character with a domestic abuse riff. Tom Neely delivers as he always does, sublimely melding his love of Gottfredson era Disney with the disturbing; here it’s the infamous Van Gogh ear story. The Guedin Brothers jointly entertain with styles that bounce from an almost Lynd Ward woodcut aesthetic and a South American kineticism reminiscent of the bulbous and dangerous art of Rafael Grampa. Martin Rowson examines the lost art of clown comedy in a piece that a certain Arkham Asylum inmate would appreciate, in a visual style on par with someone like Steve Parkhouse, who I last saw working with Joe Casey on The Milkman Murders. There’s the audacity of food rationing in FEMA Funnies, and Robert Goodin’s take on The Zombie Apocalypse, which slyly reduces it to nothing serious, just the dutiful sensibility of video game style killing.

Bob Levin contributes the first essay, on the writing of Michael O’Donoghue. While it’s true, we get knee deep into a discussion of 12 foot lizard rape, the utility of scantily clad women, and heroines being spanked, raped, and having their pubic hairs plucked out by renegade gypsies, it’s all telling and no showing. I’m still not offended. Along with Frank Springer’s aping of Steve Ditko’s style, the essay actually makes the point that these creators were engaged in comic mockery of the sexism, Cold War espionage, backyard cookouts, and bowling alley men’s club shenanigans of their day. Their unordered scripts and unrelenting pencils were so over-the-top that they sought to satirize the perils of the early 1960’s. This piece ends with a wise connection that shows the impact these guys had on the rise of underground comics.

Ryan Standfest writes an essay about the EC Comics convergence of humor and horror under the hand of Al Feldstein in the creation of Panic, which was the counterpart to MAD Magazine. Tom Neely illustrates the title page for the piece, and the duo make a very potent team. Standfest highlights the paranoia born of 1950’s culture and its impact to the publishing world. It seems the true enemy was the unseen enemy within, with sometimes irrational fears revealing people’s own insecurities. EC seemed to use an unsentimental sense of humor, with emotional detachment, and no respect for authority. Nothing was sacred, as the creators proved that horror, titillation, and gore were just as valid forms of escapism as humor or superheroics. In a story regarding a failed attempted prosecution, we see the emergence of the faux distinction between high culture and low culture, the drama having nothing to do with obscenity, but more of a class issue. It makes for an eerie parallel to the border crossing incident and I found myself muttering, “have we learned nothing about censorship in the last 60 years?” Standfest actually interviews Feldstein too, including a great footnote regarding a pro-censorship writer who went on to write tomes associated with domestic terrorist Tim McVeigh, itself bitter irony about any policy’s effectiveness in terms of just who it protects from what specifically.

Jeet Heer tackles the legacy of S. Clay Wilson and the clash of abstract impressionist notes with Pop Art. It proves that once reviled, now revered, artists are really a contemporary art hallmark that’s inclusive of the comics medium. It’s a cyclical paradigm shift, where once avant-garde artists must wait for the rest of society and their sensibilities to catch up. There’s a Steve Ditko essay that would make Rob Imes (Editor of the long-running Ditkomania Fanzine) very proud, with its discussion of this enigmatic and iconoclast creator and his Objectivist worldview.

Perhaps the biggest mystery to me is not whether the anthology crosses the boundaries of utterly subjective good taste, but just who the hell are “Rotwang Stumpholden” and “Steadman Flyfast?!” I’m guessing these are pseudonyms of Ryan Standfest, and if that’s the case, I can certainly sympathize with a fellow traveler blessed with a weird name that everyone must continually butcher. The creator(s) of Little Head Injuries and the 8-panel quarter page strips that are sprinkled throughout the work are among my favorites. They’re rampant with irony and a distinct line style that I love, just watch those oglers get sniped! You’ll know it when you see it. Man, I could use an entire book of just these pieces.

Black Eye certainly isn’t as linear or structured as its Funny (not funny) predecessor, but it’s just as potent and effective. It seems to me that in this volume, Standfest truly took on the role of Editor/Contributor more than the curatorial role that he occupied in Funny (not funny), and I think the work is more sophisticated because of it. Rather than being a guide, or the MC as he must have been in a publication that began life in a gallery setting, here he is merely an instigator, merely a gatekeeper who invites the reader in to absorb the disparate pieces for themselves and create their own timeline, their own lineage, their own mental connections, and sense of order. In the face of such an unbridled assumption that an intelligent audience will take away a rich, educational, and entertaining experience about a vital piece of artistic tapestry, it’s only natural that others might take away a more puerile intent, thinking that the creators are hitting hot button issues and using sex or violence merely for the sake of itself. What a shame. Grade A.

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