In this article, we’ll be looking at three comics that deal with the life of the mind and the delights & terrors within. First up is Phillipe Dupuy’s HAUNTED, a book that’s part dream journal and part sketchbook. A loose narrative forms around the trope of our narrator (Dupuy) starting to job in the morning. In each of the “Run Movie” segments, Dupuy encounters an unusual creature that illuminates a particular aspect of his struggle as he’s jogging along. In the other stories, we meet a character who is also struggling with something. In his comic, I viewed his running as a metaphor for drawing, and drawing alone in particular. Accustomed as he was to working with a partner (Charles Berberian), I saw this comic as his commentary on working alone, and feeling the urge to scribble down his thoughts as quickly as possible.
There’s an almost feverish quality to his work here, as his usual elegant style is jettisoned in favor of quick, expressive sketchwork. The stories all have a grotesquely visceral quality to them, as the struggles portrayed are concrete, physical difficulties. For example, in “The Dog”, a dog whose leg is trapped gnaws it off, eats the leg, vomits it and walks until it can’t walk anymore. It dies and is frozen in the snow until a bird comes by and plucks an eye out of its corpse. This is the frequent inevitability and futility of life, where even a heroic struggle against all odds winds up for naught. At the same time, it was clear that this story was burning in Dupuy’s mind, and he had to draw it as quickly as possible to retain the power of his original thoughts.
One “Run Movie” segment features a dream where Dupuy helplessly watches a number of people in a city square act foolishly until disaster strikes. Not all the dreams are nightmarish–in one “Run Movie” segment, he stumbles upon an empty museum dedicated to his own future works, guarded by a friendly talking dog. After stumbling into a hole, he gets out of trouble with the dog’s help by running again. This was the clearest use of the metaphor of running-as-drawing in the book. Later, he meets a talking duck whom he helps out of a funk. The duck’s struggle is one of identity crisis–he used travel and the acquisition of material objects as the answer to his existential dread and found that solution lacking. By suggesting giving away the objects as gifts, Dupuy helped him lighten his load.
There’s a shaggy dog story about an artist told that he overdraws his portraits trying to figure out how “negative space” works by trying to drink the empty part of a glass of wine, have sex by touching the parts of the body that aren’t there, etc. Only by literally having nothing left in his life and having no materials to work with save a piece of paper evicting him from his flat is he able to finally understand how to paint empty space. Another story called “Forest Friends” features more anthropomorphic animals. This group is trying to deal with dog-like friend of theirs who lost an arm (a retelling of the first story in the book, perhaps?). This is a sort of warped companion piece to the slice-of-life stories Dupuy creates with Berberian in their Monsieur Jean stories, only much more visceral and a bit more desperate. Desperation also follows the story of a Mexican wrestler who encounters the one foe he cannot fight and a minotaur who is trapped in a labyrinth and can’t die or feel any kind of fulfillment.
The most nightmarish story concerns Dupuy himself. “The Rats” sees him renovating a house and accidentally swallowing a rat. Soon, rats fill up his entire body, unbeknownst to him until one night he vomits the scratchy, black blobs up one by one. Purged, he leaves them behind. This was another story, like “The Dog”, that had a frantic quality in its penciling. The idea seemed to have an obsessive quality that he couldn’t let go of until it was on the page and out of his system.
Perhaps the key to understanding the whole book is the “Run Movie” segment called “The Old Lady and the Turtle”. Meeting a blind woman, she forces him to close his eyes and they drift off to a number of locations. Dupuy obsesses over blindness and losing one’s hands in this book, because these are the things that would prevent him from drawing. Ultimately, she advises him to “Learn to lose yourself. You’ll stop wondering where you are. And you’ll never feel lost again…” This is how HAUNTED seems to function for Dupuy: as a vehicle for confronting his fears, confronting his nightmares and tackling them head-on where he’s at his strongest: on the comics page. He loses himself in these stories, allowing his line to stay loose, lively and scribbly, and winds up, in the last segment, coming to terms with his creations, his fears. This is a bold, remarkable book, especially for an artist who usually creates much more straight-ahead narratives.
Josh Simmons’ JESSICA FARM is an equally personal narrative project, though it’s told very differently. This story is literally Simmons’ life’s work, as he plans to draw a page a month for 42 years, until he’s amassed a 96-page volume every 8 years. The story, about a young woman named Jessica and her sometimes dreamy, sometimes nightmarish series of encounters in her spooky house, feels like both stream-of-consciousness and a coherent narrative. Each page feels like its own entity, as Jessica awakes to a magical Christmas morning only to encounter the looming specter of her sinister father. As she showers, she’s serenaded by a miniature band, and then is dragged between the walls of the house to see a number of creatures that she’s ignored and who are living in squalor. This book is all about the power–both positive and negative–of imagination and fantasy. Creatures that she dreamed up but stopped thinking about have a life of their own, but a pathetic one.
As the story proceeds, Jessica listens to a concert, goes to the top of a tower with her fantasy friends (where she reveals that she’s worried about her father beating her) and breaks the heart of “the captain”, a ridiculous sexual fantasy character who starts weeping when she reveals that she doesn’t want to be with him all the time. Visually, Simmons excels at depicting both the glee and horror that Jessica experiences. He’s a master at crosshatching shadows that loom over a page, and his rubbery penciling style is ideal at depicting the kind of cartoony action featured here.Simmons keeps the story moving at a dizzying rate–Jessica goes back to her room to see her monkey friend murdered, is attacked by a bizarre creature, winds up in her benevolent grandparents’ house, and is charged to go on a quest to “the barn” with a naked stud named Mr Sugarcock. That duo breathlessly manages to dodge her father and get to the barn to deliver a message to the mysterious, wolflike “Smiths”. We leave this volume as Jessica prepares to talk to Papa Smith.
JESSICA FARM is cartooning in its purest form. It reads like the kind of comics a kid would come up with in the way it flows, but with all the skill and concerns of a mature artist. This is Simmons’ kitchen sink of comics, as he manages to throw in all of his storytelling concerns: sex (especially deviant sexuality), adventure, fantasy, horror, terror and absurdity. The fusion of genre and underground sensibilities has always marked Simmons’ best work, and JESSICA FARM is the ultimate expression of this urge.
Leah Hayes’ FUNERAL OF THE HEART presents her own darkly comedic vision in this short story collection. This doesn’t really function as a comic per se, but is a synthesis of story, lettering and image on the page that combine to create an oppressive atmosphere. It’s all done on scratchboard, a medium that is inherently creepy and dark. The illustrations are stark and spare, with Hayes’ eccentric lettering style adding as much to the effect as the illustrations. “The Bathroom” is a story about how guilt consumed a couple and manifested itself in the form of a room that they discovered and wound up as their grave. “Whoreson” is both the sweetest and saddest story in the collection, detailing the life of a man covered in fur who goes on to become a famous writer & teacher and later is accidentally killed by his own child. “The Change” is another heart-breaker, about a man who nearly loses his love and the way it hardens him. “The Needle” is about two young women who suspect sinister motives from a nurse who attended her care when she was dying. “The Hair” is the most upbeat story in the book, about two twin girls who were born connected by their hair. One twin decides that she wants to be separated and leaves in the dead of night, a decision that breaks the heart of her sister. How they reconcile is both heartwarming and slightly unnerving.
In general, that’s not a bad way to describe Hayes’ work. It’s not exactly horrific in the way a scratchboard Thomas Ott story would be, but it’s unnerving and disturbing. At the same time, it also has a strangely endearing quality. Her features have the feel of bedtime stories for adults, creepy fairy tales where happy endings are a rarity. They are perhaps not as personal as the stories in HAUNTED or as stream-of-consciousness as JESSICA FARM, but they are certainly as revealing in their own way.