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Blab!Review - Blab!
Volume 12
by Monte Beauchamp (editor)
Fantagraphics Books, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Feb 17th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 7)

This 120-page collection of comic book art contains remarkable work. As a whole, it manages to convey a sense of claustrophobic neurosis. Even though many of the individual contributions do tell stories, these are completely overpowered by the artwork, and when one browses through the book, the diversity of styles and the density of details make it hard to read it from front to back in one sitting. It's far better suited to reading one short story at a time; so it's ideal for bathroom breaks.

What's more, much of the art is disturbing and disconcerting, hyper-ironic, saturated in cultural references, picturing a sick and mechanized world of sex and consumerism. Indeed, it reminds me of a great deal of art brut or "outsider art," the creative work of the "insane" or those who are not part of the fine-art tradition. There's a combination of amateurishness and obsessive attention to small detail on many pages here, suggesting an altered perception of reality, and an unusual dwelling on the dark side of life.

Let me give some examples. On the cover, the Clayton Brothers have a boy/man amputee in a wheelchair. He is smoking, and has a bird on his shoulder. Around his head is a yellow aura, giving the impression of a halo. In the sky behind him, there are floating circles in the air; in the foreground, a devilish bunny waves, holding a stick of dynamite. A little girl, in much smaller proportion than the other figures, is in the bottom right corner, holding out her hands either in religious ecstasy or as the blind reaching forward to avoid bumping into something. A skinny boy holding a giant match is in the background. A snake slithers under the wheelchair. It's a disturbing and puzzling combination, full of impenetrable symbolism. The same is true of their piece, "Ding Dong. Welcome to Tim House." (These works by the Clayton Brothers work are reminiscent of the artist Henri Darger.)

Jonathan Rosen has two contributions: "New Zodiac for Sentient Machines" and "Son of Obsessive Compulsive." Both are full of pictures of mechanized bodies or body parts, as if they were taken from a fantastic textbook of medical anatomy. They are bizarre images and remind me of the delusions of schizophrenics who feel their bodies are becoming machines or are being taken over by foreign agencies - there's a strong sense of alienation from self.

Laura Levine's "The Collyer Brothers" looks like it is painted on wood; it is dense with color and writing, with pieces of the New York Times in the background, telling an apparently true story. It could just as easily be classified as folk art as a comic. Peter Kuper's "Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend" is appropriately surreal and futuristic, full of modernist images, making a bewildering mixture that is very pleasing to the eyes.

I think it's the refusal of these pieces to yield a coherent interpretation that gives this collection unity, and in this combination of manic imagery and utterly private symbolism, it feels strongly rooted in madness. Even one of the most straightforward pieces, a collection of postcards from the beginning of the twentieth century by various artists featuring the figure of Krampus, is very dark. Krampus is a devilish figure of Austrian myth, who was supposed to come to people's homes the night before St. Nicholas visits; Krampus beats the bad children with hickory swishes so that St. Nick knows which students not to leave gifts for. Krampus is a hairy demon with horns whose long touch is always hanging out. Unfortunately in order to find this out, you have to do your own research, since there's no explanation in the text. Indeed, there's no information about any of the artists in this collection, which contributes to the sense of alienation provoked by reading it. I know I would have liked to know more about the artists, not just to help me understand, but to reduce the alienated discomfort I experienced on looking at the images.

So this powerful book is not for everyone, but the move of comic book art to overlap with outsider art certainly represents a significant transition that makes it all the more compelling.

Links:

Fantagraphic Books

Santa's Companions: Krampus

© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.


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