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Under-the-radar comics, Part 2 – Make the weirdness stop!

by  in Comic News Comment
Under-the-radar comics, Part 2 – Make the weirdness stop!

This is the second of my three-part (or possibly four?) end-of-the-year series of comics from the last few months you may have missed in your rush to buy Justice League of America or Civil War #5 as you ignored Nextwave (yes, I blame you!).  The books today share a common theme: they’re really weird.  This may appeal to you, however.  So let’s check them out!

First out of the chute: Bosnian Flat Dog by Max Andersson and Lars Sjunnesson.  Published by Fantagraphics Books at a cost to you of 13 dollars and 95 cents.

This is an odd book that doesn’t really work as a narrative piece, but that’s okay, because that’s not what it’s going for.  I suppose I should go over the narrative just for the fun of it, but it’s beside the point.

Anyway, Max and Lars, along with their friend Helena, attend an alternative comics convention in 1999 in, of all places, Slovenia.  While they sit around, Lars gets a phone call from a man called Stefan Skledar, who claims Lars owes him damages because Lars used his likeness in a comic years before without his permission.  Instead of suing, he says he’ll sell him the rights to his war diaries, containing potentially incendiary political information!  That night, the trio goes to meet Skledar, but he doesn’t show; instead, they are attacked by crazy women driving an ice cream truck who shoot grenade shells filled with ice cream at them.  They find the diary, however, and decide to track Skledar by going to Sarajevo, where the shell was made.  As they drive, they read part of the diary, in which Skledar writes of his job inspecting apartments for a house-renovating company.  In one such apartment whose tenants “have been removed,” he finds a refrigerator.  As he moves it out, he meets Mira, who helps him move.  They look inside the refrigerator and find the frozen corpse of Josip Tito.  Neither Skledar, who says when he looks inside, “There’s no beer bottles but quite a few bottles of Slivovica … and Tito,” nor Mira, who asks for a clarification: “Josip Tito?” seem terribly surprised.  Nor does a soldier later in the book.  Mira wants to sell him, because it will be worth a fortune.  As they drive through Croatia, their refrigerator is breaking down, and then a patrol stops them.  The soldier opens the book and Tito flies out, driving them off.  In gratitude (the gang was stealing their appliances), the townspeople give them a new freezer.  Back in the present, our trio heads into Bosnia and eventually makes it to Sarajevo – where everyone is selling decorated grenade shells, so they can’t find where theirs was made.  They hang out at a bar and meet Mira, who’s tending bar.  She thinks Lars looks like Skledar, and that’s how they meet.  She tells them that she and Skledar made it Sarajevo as the car broke down and war broke out.  They stayed together for three years but when the siege ended he took off, taking Tito with him.  She takes them back to her apartment, which is undamaged except for the hole where the bathroom wall should be.  She tells them to cover themselves up while they’re in the tub, because many men in the area have been abducted by the “Srebrenica women,” whose husbands are dead and who are badly traumatized as a result.  They read some more of the diary, in which we learn that the electricity keeps going out, so Skledar keeps buying ice cream to keep Tito frozen.  By 1995, he’s desperate for ice cream.  Then he sees that one of Tito’s legs is missing.  Mira gave it away because it was nearly rotten.  Skledar doesn’t sleep in case Mira gives away more body parts, and then one day he leaves with Tito.  The next day the travelers find out about Bosnian flat dogs, which are, well, flat dogs.  It’s a domestic breed of dog, which appeared “through mutation after the war as a result of severe traffic conditions.”  Now they’re all over the place.  It turns out Max had a dream in which animals much like the flat dogs appeared, and he used them in a comic.  They go to a rally in a park, where a woman is selling ice cream in grenade shells.  Before they can talk to her, she disappears.  That night, Lars takes a bath and is abducted by the widows of Srebrenica.  While the women watch the Eurovision Song Contest on television, Max goes out disguised as a widow and falls into a deep tunnel.

             

Still with me?  Cool.  The ladies go out to a bar to watch the rest of the Eurovision Song Contest, and when Sweden wins (presumably because the contestants sang ABBA songs!!!!!), a woman invites them back to the embassy to celebrate.  Underground, Max has discovered a cavern in which various American soldiers are being held captive by the evil ice cream ladies.  A train comes to pick them up, and when it arrives, Lars is driving it.  He takes them to a laboratory, where the soldiers are genetically modified.  They are strapped to a table next to a table on which Tito’s leg is strapped.  Tito’s genes are transmitted to them to make them “manlier and more attractive.”  Lars has been through the process, but it didn’t take because he looked so much like Tito in the first place.  Max, meanwhile, knows what’s going on because he dressed like a Srebrenica widow: “By putting myself in the situation … and identifying with them, I have come to understand them.  That’s what it means to be an artist.”  The soldier they have strapped to the table asks what they want, and Max says, “What they want is irrelevant.  They do what they have to do in accordance with their character.”  When the soldier says there has to be meaning, Lars tells him, “No, it’s not like that in real life,” and Max says, “This is a means for them to deal with their experiences.  We have no right to intervene in that process.  On the contrary, we are obliged to help them realize their inherent possibilities.”  Helena and Mira, meanwhile, follow a Bosnian flat dog into the ventilation system of the embassy, where they discover more pieces of Skledar’s diary.  They follow the pieces like a trail through the tunnels, but realize that Skledar was leaving them behind as a way to get out.  Now they’re lost, and Helena says they have no choice but to read on.  Skledar, also lost in the tunnels, wrote about the flat dogs, who chew up pieces of paper in the tunnel and spit it out, using the mush as building materials for their nests.  Mira finds more diary entries embedded in the walls, and she finds out that Skledar is just going in circles, and he’s starting to become a bit paranoid.  Finally he reaches the end of the tunnel, but there’s just a vast darkness beyond the opening.  Mira and Helena find the last few pieces of the diary, but they show only pictures and are in no kind of order.  The women assemble them to try to figure out what Skledar did – if he jumped onto a train passing underneath, thereby effecting an escape from the maze, or if he fell in front of the train and was killed.  Mira is upset because she believed Skledar is dead and she was the cause, and she puts her cigarette out on the wall, which is made of paper.  The hole that is burned in side opens onto the lab where Max and Lars and the Srebrenica widows are performing their experiments.  They bring a factory owner to the table, who tells them he used to run an ice cream factory outside of Sarajevo.  Max and the widows leave to check it out, and Lars remains with the owner, who tells him he used to put drugs in the ice cream as part of the war effort, to weaken the population so they would be easier to defeat.  But only one person bought all the ice cream, at a quicker rate than they could produce it, and used it for something other than eating.  Skledar saved Sarajevo with his obsessive desire to keep Tito frozen.  Mira and Helena, meanwhile, jump out of the tunnel, and Helena ends up on the train while Mira lands on the side of the tracks.  She finds Tito’s leg and takes it back.  Then she wanders deep into the tunnels again, until, on the last page of the book, she finds the tunnel described by Skledar in his diary.  Tito’s corpse is still there, and she looks up at him longingly.

                 

What the hell, right?  Yeah, that’s what I thought.  What, indeed, the hell?  There isn’t a whole heck of a lot that makes sense in this book, but then I thought that there probably isn’t a whole heck of a lot in this book that’s supposed to make sense.  So I reconsidered.  In the middle of the book, right after Max falls into the underground, is a brief caesura in which the two authors discuss what has happened so far.  They recap what has happened in the book, and then Lars says, “Sometimes I wonder if we ever made that journey.”  After a silent panel, Max replies, “Damn.  What if the whole journey is just something we’ve imagined.”  Lars points out that memories are subjective, and Mas says, “I’ve noticed that upon drawing something I’ve experienced, the memory imprints disappear and are replaced in my head by my own drawings.  My attempts at depicting reality eventually become the only thing that’s truly real.”  A filmmaker interrupts them and says he’s trying to make a film about how they work together and if they could go through it all again.  Of course they can’t, so they continue their recap.  One of the funnier parts of the book is when they go off on a tangent about the Eurovision Song Contest.  Lars asks, “Can Serbia enter the Eurovision Song Contest now that they extradited Milosevic to the Hague?”  Max says, “I guess.”  The next page contains the rest of the joke:

           

This ends the interlude, and we return to the main “story.”  But what does it all mean?  Well, it’s far more of an experience about creating art and what we bring to our art than it is any kind of story.  Max and Lars discuss this often, and we see that this journey they take is far more about what it means to be an artist than it is about anything else.  The weird alchemy of creation is really what’s on parade here, from Max remaking himself as a Srebrenica widow and therefore understanding them to Lars helping create new versions of Tito.  Through it all is the thread of Skledar’s diary, which becomes a self-referential text that creates the tunnels around him even as he doubles back through them.  They become a guide and a prison for Mira and Helena, and eventually a salvation.  The moment that the two women find the last entry is fascinating, as well, because it implies that every text, and therefore every decision we make, is completely mutable.  The fact that we never find out what happens to Skledar means that his final entry, where we see simple pictures instead of words, has freed him from the pages of the narrative.  He has broken free, and is no longer part of the tale.  Or is he?

                            

The horror of war is also rather eloquently expressed in this book, although nobody dies and the only warlike occurence is early on, when Max, Lars, and Helena are attacked by the ice cream ladies.  This horror is the complete fun-house atmosphere that exists in Bosnia, where nothing makes any kind of sense.  Instead of complaining that nothing makes any kind of sense, Max and Lars have created this absolutely surreal landscape, where flat dogs roam the streets and nobody seems to have any idea what’s going on.  The woman who invites Mira and Helena back to the embassy speaks proudly of all of Sweden’s accomplishments in the city, despite the fact that it still looks like a war zone.  The soldiers underground have disappeared and nobody seems all that concerned about it.  Tito zombie prostitutes escape from one of the ice cream trucks and flee into the night.  Instead of showing us war as it “actually is,” which is always a difficult proposition, Max and Lars have tried to give us the unsettling feeling of being at war through these bizarre anomalies to the norm.

           

Tito looms large throughout the book, as well, which is interesting.  I don’t know much about him, but I know that he defied the Soviet Union and kept a firm grip on the various ethnic groups that made up Yugoslavia, and only after his death did the country fall into chaos.  His presence is interesting, because he is treated as a hero throughout, and perhaps it speaks to a sort of nostalgia for the days when, even though there was a dictator in charge, at least your neighbors weren’t trying to kill you.  The idea that Tito is some kind of frozen Messiah is wacky, but fits in with the tone of the book.  The final page, with Mira staring up at his still-frozen corpse, makes us wonder if the people of the Balkans would welcome back their dictator, if only for the order it would bring to their random lives.  Maybe.  I don’t live in the Balkans, so I can’t say for sure.

                                  

Bosnian Flat Dog is definitely not for everyone.  I’m not even sure it’s for me.  It’s a tough book to read and enjoy, because it’s definitely not “normal.”  I’ve read it three times now, and I think I enjoy it more each time, because it’s a wry look at what makes an artist, and how we react to the strangeness of the world.  But it’s totally bizarre.  I’ll give it that.

If you’re interested, you can buy it here.

Next up is Content, issue #2: “Kaleidoscope,” which is written and drawn by Gia-Bao Tran and self-published.  It can be yours for a mere 5 dollars!

I wasn’t sure what to call Content, because it’s technically an “ongoing,” I guess (the first issue came out a while ago, and I’m still waiting for it after it was re-offered), but each issue is a completely self-contained story, so there’s no reason to read any others.  It’s a different size than regular comics, so I’m calling it a graphic novel (or, I guess, novella, since it’s kind of slim).

                   

As you can probably tell by the title of the post, this is an odd little book.  It begins in Phoenix (and Tran does a nice job with the exterior landscape), as a woman in an office sends an e-mail to her son, who lives in Brooklyn.  She is celebrating her 29th year in the United States after leaving Vietnam.  This is one of the things that immediately bugged me about the book.  She keeps writing about the American evacuation of South Vietnam as having taken place in 1977.  It took place in 1975.  It’s not a typo, either – it keeps happening.  Now, this is a minor nitpick, I guess, because it’s not all that important, but stuff like that bothers me.  But let’s move on.  The “kaleidoscope” of the title refers to the fact that the book shifts its focus throughout, giving us little snapshots of people’s lives that almost but don’t quite intersect.  Therefore, the son who gets the e-mail, Vang, has to leave before reading it, and while he’s on the subway he spots a girl, whom he can’t quite meet because of the subway traffic, and then the girl gets off and meets her brother, who is on his way to Paris from Phoenix.  There’s an overly long sequence where the brother’s cell phone comes to life, escapes, and finds another cell phone to have sex with, which leads to all sorts of trouble (and no, I’m not making it up – the cell phones have a vibrant subculture, apparently), and then we see more slices of life from various participants in Paris, Saigon, and Phoenix.  And then it ends.

                     

There’s not much I can say about Content.  I don’t get it, I know that much.  I’ve tried to figure out some meaning behind it, but I can’t.  Tran’s art is very nice to look at, and the section in the subway, in which he shows us the difficulty of getting through the mass of humanity by having Vang try to push aside word balloons, is very clever.  I’ve tried to figure out the connections between the people beyond the fact that two of them are brother and sister.  In the beginning, a girl who works in the same office as the Vietnamese woman, June, mentions she has a lot on her mind, and later in the book she might be pregnant or she might have a tumor, but I don’t know.  It’s far too vague a book, and because we’re with the characters far too shortly, we can’t really get a sense of them and figure out if we should care or not.

                  

This kind of panning action from one random person to another can be done, and done well.  I have a feeling this book is trying to tell me something and I’m too dim to know what it is.  I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be reflecting on the isolation that people in modern societies feel, or if we’re supposed to contrast the flight from Vietnam in the beginning to the return of a character to Saigon later.  I just don’t know.  And that’s a shame, because it’s a nice book to look at and I’d love to support this kind of work.  But I just don’t like it all that much.

If you’re interested in checking it out (I know my review is negative, but you might!), visit Tran’s web site, linked to above.

The final book in this trinity of weirdness is Vatican City, Las Vegas, written by Fred Rex and illustrated by Terry Wolfinger.  It’s published by ICCC Media and will cost you 14 dollars and 95 cents.

This is perhaps the weirdest book I’ve read in a long time, and given that I’ve just reviewed two books with a frozen corpse of Josip Tito and cell phones having sex, that’s saying something!  It’s a really tough book to figure, because the whole thing is an allegory and a satire, and like all good satires, it never “breaks character,” so you’re always getting scenes that are loaded with extra meaning, which slows the narrative down.  Rex and Wolfinger load the book with broad stereotypes, who show up in the book, have their say, and move on.  The narrator is Thomas Carlyle – not just someone named Thomas Carlyle, but the actual Thomas Carlyle, somehow transported to the “present” and living in Las Vegas.  He’s a drunk and a lech, as he continually tries to get into the pants – so to speak – of Mona Mour, “Vatican Lounge cocktail nun and moonlighting dancer,” who wears a veil and a really short skirt.  As he drinks himself into oblivion, Carlyle moves through this weird, nightmare Las Vegas, meeting all the principals.

                     

The players are a ragged bunch, from the conglomerate Jones & Jones, which runs the city, to the Vatican City pope, Salvatore Medici XII, who is the casino manager, to Salvatore’s corrupt and fat son and harpy wife, to Adam Smith and Karl Marx, opposite ends of the financial spectrum, to Soo Soo, the midget mime clown who follows Carlyle around, to Satan, and to the janitor, Jesus, our hero (pronounced, of course, Hay-Zeus, because he’s Hispanic).  Pope Salvatore has a plan to regain control of the city from Jones & Jones by using the Godhead, which is kind of like a communion wafer that looks like the Great Seal of the United States, to lure people into the casino.  They will spend all they have, then sell their souls to Satan, who lives in the basement, and go into debt to the casino, and Salvatore will own them.  Carlyle hooks up with Soo Soo, who speaks only to his reflection in a mirror, which, of course, talks back, and they enter the casino together.  It becomes, for Carlyle, a twisted Grail Quest (for everyone, too, but he’s the main character), as he tries to regain his Virgin Mary, Mona Mour, and bring her the Grail, which will sustain him.  Of course, the Grail is filled with whiskey, but that’s just the way it is.  Muslim terrorists blow up the casino above, but everyone descends to the basement, where Satan lurks, and the characters sell their souls to get a chance at the Godhead.  Jesus shows up and attempts to destroy the wicked in the heart of the city, but it all ends rather badly for Jesus and Thomas Carlyle.  I suppose it had to, didn’t it?

              

This is as savage a satire as you’re likely to see in comics.  No one is spared, and there’s something in here to offend pretty much everyone.  Rex and Wolfinger skewer the obvious suspects – religion and big business – but they also rip both capitalism and communism, celebrity, writers, Jews, Muslims, and black people.  The characters are complete stereotypes, which isn’t a bad thing in such a broad satire as this.  The creators are interested in showing the utter depravity of man, and so they use deliberate stereotypes to make their points.  It’s somewhat of an unpleasant book, with grown men suckling on their mother’s breasts, violence against every sort of person, and the aforementioned stereotyping, which makes us cringe when, for instance, when a “super-revolutionary proto-Afro expatriate to the free Liberian homeland” becomes “X Nubian X, celebrity Afro-preneur in modern media blackface.”  He calls himself “Mista Yo Jangles” and speaks in pseudo-“hip” slang, which makes the stereotype even sillier yet somewhat effective.  Rex and Wolfinger even trash their “hero,” Jesus, who never speaks in the story and turns out to be an undercover vice cop who has no compunction about solving problems with his gun.  Thomas Carlyle becomes a pathetic Messiah figure for a world that rejects any notion of salvation.  In a world of no hope, even the author, who creates new worlds, can’t reform himself or his surroundings.  There is no room for it in the rush to sell our souls for one last chance at riches.

                     

This is a really weird book.  I’m not sure how I feel about it.  It’s fascinating to look at, as Wolfinger does a fantastic job bringing this depraved world to life.  Rex is a bit heavy-handed as a writer, telling us waaaaaay too much as we move through the story.  I suppose that since it’s an allegory, he feels the need to over-explain, because maybe we’ll miss the point, but that’s not a good way to tell a story.  He has to have more trust in the audience, even though, with today’s ridiculously over-sensitive world, the presence of a black man in blackface, Muslim suicide bombers, avaricious Jews, a gay Satan, a vicious Catholic priest, and a stripper nun might piss some people off.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this book pissed people off, because it never lets up.  Rex is making a point, and although the point might be heavy-handed (greed turns everyone into monsters), he is willing to go farther than you usually see to make that point.  I have to admire him for that.  And that’s not the only point he’s making, as the book is full of funny little scenes that take shots at other parts of popular culture, but for the most part, he stays mercilessly on target.

                

I’m not sure if I can really recommend the book.  It’s certainly interesting, and for fifteen bucks, it’s packed with content.  It’s unpleasant, I can say that much, but it is strangely compelling.  It might simply confirm what you already suspect about humanity, so maybe you can skip it.  If you’re in the mood to read something that bashes almost every segment of society, this might be for you!  You can buy it here.

So those are some more under-the-radar comics.  Beware – I’m not joking when I say they’re weird!  Of course, maybe I’m just not weird enough!!!! 

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