by Shea Hennum
Blobby Boys, Alex Schubert, and Fata Morgana, Jon Vermilyea (Koyama Press)
In Blobby Boys, cartoonist Alex Schubert creatively combines sharp, geometric shapes with organic, obtuse form to completely bypass the established visual vocabulary. That’s not to say that his cartooning is hard to read; quite the opposite, in fact. But he does have a unique way of rendering and representing objects that appear wholly unlike the way others do.
For example, as VICE Comics Editor Nick Gazin mentions in the book’s introduction, in “Cyber Surfer” the one-page strip that opens the book (and was originally produced for VICE), Schubert draws one man punching the brain out of another. But the artist renders the brain as a puffy cloud of pink goop, emboldened with a heavy-black outline. Inside the cloud are symbols, “$” and “#.” The action is clear to read: you’re not confused about who did what and how to whom. But the way that it is depicted is so unlike how other cartoonists draw that identical action. And there’s something intrinsically interesting and fun about watching a creator give the finger to a well-trod path. It’s not often that we get to see someone try something genuinely new, even if what they’re trying is just a different and new visual shorthand for everyday objects.
What’s more, that visual shorthand’s interaction with the textual and narrative components create a palpable dissonance; the smooth ligne claire aesthetic rubs up against his rough humor. That’s not to say that Schubert’s humor is crude, immature, or even unfunny, but it’s not the broad style of American comedy. It’s very much a niche comedic voice, one whose jokes are obtuse and maybe not for everyone. Schubert’s jokes have more in common with the irritatingly-termed ant-comedy, which is a style of humor in which the jokes comes from an inversion of an expected punchline, or even just substituting the surprising for the mundane. There’s an uncomplicated aspect to Schubert’s jokes where they show up, say their piece, and refuse to self-congratulate and linger about
Similarly, the structure of Blobby Boys lacks the populist linearity found in nearly all Western narratives. It’s slipshod, favoring silliness and jokes over character arcs, drama, or story. That’s more observation than criticism as Schubert gives the book an oscillating ebb and flow that keeps you from getting locked into any recognizable pattern. It feels really organic, which is a nice change of pace from the technical-precision-as-style style that Alan Moore has helped convince the mainstream is the way to tell stories.
It would be disingenuous to praise the enormity of Schubert’s vision or the impressive substance and depth of Blobby Boys, but that’s because Blobby Boys proves that a comic can be good — really good, in fact — without having those false aspirations to pretense. Schubert goes in the opposite direction to really expose his punk attitudes, delivering a funny — and more importantly fun — collection of episodic vignettes that work. They’re not complicated, they’re not complex, they’re not aspiring to masterpiece status, but they actually function, which is something that most comics that come out any given week simply cannot do.
Jon Vermilyea’s Fata Morgana is a comic that plays with a set of tools that not many cartoonists use, and it immediately reminded me of Imiri Sakabashira’s The Box Man. The entire book is wordless, moved along in its way by a man, searching, slinking across the page in a straight path through the comics equivalent of a remarkably-long tracking shot. It begins with a boy in bed and cuts to him coming out of a house. The implication is that he’s asleep, dreaming, and this is the start of his dream. What follows is a bright — its colors sharp and eye-catching like a Crumb comic made only with Bic highlighters — surrealistic adventure through adolescence. It’s kind of like a fluorescent, dripping, oozing Little Nemo In Slumberland.
Its story is very simple, the very definition of straightforward and linear. The child we are introduced to on page one travels through his subconscious, which looks like The Never Ending Story and Labyrinth had a love-child with a black light poster from a head shop. Like Sakabashira before him, Vermilyea eschews traditional comic language and each scene in Fata Morgana is a double-page spread. This provides Vermilyea with the space necessary to make the image breathe, packing each scene with florid, dense detail that finding the child becomes almost like a game of “Where’s Waldo?” by the time he’s riding this Toriyama-esque dragon.
Vermilyea has a unique style that you can’t find anywhere else in comics, and his use of color is mesmerizing and perplexing. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for their use beyond aesthetics, but it lends itself so well to that reason that I’m not sure I can count that against Vermilyea.
But, while Vermilyea’s art is visually arresting and demands immediate attention, the narrative component is more subtle. The story of this comic, or what there is of it, is straightforward and simple (not simplistic, mind you). There’s no conflict, no tension, and for Westerners, indoctrinated to expect a handful of things from something before we can call it a story, that’s going to seem off for some us. It also runs on “dream logic,” so while it is linear, the gutter between images is stupendously large and, as such, is easy to get lost in. You may not know how Vermilyea gets from A to B.
But art demands to be experienced on its own term, and there’s scant evidence that Vermilyea intended it to be experienced as a normal comic, logically progressing through a series of typical narrative elements. And, though some of the background imagery may say otherwise, Vermilyea approaches a simple journey with the same bright, youthful, and fun-loving big eyes and perpetual smile that his unnamed protagonist does. Each page is a meeting, a virgin experience, approached and appreciated for something magical that can never be repeated.
Vermilyea depicts a dreamworld that looks like a nightmare, but it is rummaged through like an optimist thrown headfirst into a garbage dump and determined to turn the heap of trash into the sun-beamed wonderland that he imagines in his head. He’s not shocked or scared or driven aback by the grotesque and monstrous contents of his brain. He welcomes it, invites it closer, literally rides it into his next encounter.
There’s an attitude at play in the way the boy interacts with the things inside his own head, an attitude that runs counter to the expectations that have been conditioned into people. And this, more than anything else in Fata Morgana, is what will scare people the most.
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