by Derek Royal
One of the overlooked gems in comics publishing is Uncivilized Books. Founded several years ago by Tom Kaczynski, it began as an means to self publish Kaczynski’s own work, morphed into a “boutique mini-comics publishing outfit” (Kaczynski’s own words), and has now evolved into a trade publisher of some of comics’ most noted independent creators, e.g., David B., Dash Shaw, Joann Sfar, Gabrielle Bell, Zak Sally, Kevin Huizenga, and Tom Kaczynski himself. And although its catalog of hardbound titles is growing, Uncivilized Books is still heavily invested in the mini-comic format. One of its most recent releases, Derek Van Gieson’s Eel Mansions #2, is a quintessential instance of the publisher’s mission. The storyline is offbeat, its art can be protean, the tone is quirky, and as fragmented and as disjointed as the narrative might be, it’s nonetheless engaging and demands your attention.
The first issue of Eel Mansion — and I’m not certain what the title refers to, other than to underscore the mini-comic’s absurdity, a good enough reason if any — was published last November, and in it we got a setup of the main storyline…or storylines. There are several things going on in Eel Mansion, and it’s impossible to know yet if these narrative threads will converge, or even if they need to. Amistead Fuller, a retired Air Force officer, Wuppeteer (think demented Muppets), and Satanist gets an unexpected visit from a past fellow cultist, General Neu, about the whereabouts of Amistead’s missing family. He also encounters two shadowy government figures who warn him to curb his secret society activities. One of those government agents, Chee Chee, carries his classified documents to a local dive, Snowflake’s Bar, reads up on secret cults, and then encounters two indie comics artists, Janet Patterson and Frank Kratznick. Frank is the creator of the not-for-young-eyes comic Tales of Abstraction House, and Janet (who loves her liquor) draws Doomin…in many ways, Tove Jansson on acid. We later see them at a comic convention trying to sell their wares. Also, two other characters, Phil and Wilma, hide out at the Arrow Motel, where Wilma is apparently poisoned with mayonnaise, the Orson Mayo with Honey brand. There are also wisecracking record store guys, booze monsters, and a pair called the Negative Orphans who…well, I’m not sure what they do. All of this happens in the first issue, and tellingly enough, the events in issue #1 become clearer when you read the recap at the beginning of this most recent installment. Needless to say, confusion and chaos are the grist for Van Gieson’s stories.
Issue #2 picks up where the first left off. But “picking up” assumes a kind of narrative cohesion that Eel Mansions resists. Wilma wakes up from her near-death experience and meets Clyde Ganolaz, a pipe-smoking bear/dog thing whose blood is used to replenish hers after Phil manages to remove all of the mayonnaise from Wilma’s body. Janet is interviewed by a French journalist/critic who accuses her of abandoning her socially relevent comics for immature funny animal stories, only to be rescued by Frank, who takes her to an Ewok-themed bar and grill called Nub Nub’s for her birthday. Amistead is invited to join a new cult, the Serpent Circle Six, but when he arrives and learns that General Neu has sold the secret organization’s image to the energy drink company, Radical Ex-Treme, he summons a demon from Hell to wipe out the cult. However, he learns from the demon where his missing wife and kids might be. Meanwhile, Chee Chee reads Frank’s Tales of Abstraction House, and two deranged scientists, the Brothers Lemanski, attempt to turn a cat into a verbose, upright, sardine-eating dog.
If all of this sounds too wacky to be understood, you’re only half right. This comic isn’t meant to be linear, nor does it inspire to cohesion. In fact, part of the success of Eel Mansion is in its fragmentation. It’s as if Van Gieson is asking us to let go of narrative sense-making, to temporarily suspend those cognitive devices that puts things together, and just enjoy the ride. The connections will come later — maybe — after we’ve had time to take in the strangeness of the images…and at times, they are like something out of a nightmare. In the meantime, we are supposed to have fun with the various storylines, interspersed with musically inspired interludes (monsters dancing to Jan and Lorraine’s “Number 33”), scenes from Janet’s Doomin comics, and the cubist-inspired story, “Dr. Tong’s Cabinet of Souls,” from Frank’s Tales of Abstraction House. In fact, what makes Eel Mansion so engaging is the way that Van Gieson transitions his narrative based on character perspective. The Doomin segments occur during Janet’s conversation with the pompous French critic, and we see Frank’s Tales of Abstraction House pieces immediately after Janet opens her copy of the comic book, seeing what she sees. Just like Janet, we turn to page 32 of our comic (Janet opens her copy of Frank’s comic book in the last panels of page 31) which begins the Tales of Abstraction House section. Van Gieson’s shifts in focalization are not just perceptual, but also highly psychological.
What becomes clear more than anything in Eel Mansion is the fun that Van Gieson is apparently having in telling his story. Readers might get frustrated if they try to ferret out any deep meaning from this comic — much like the French critic becomes aggravated with Janet’s funny animal comics — and the writer apparently anticipates this. “I’m having a good time writing and drawing Eel Mansion,” Van Gieson seems to be saying, so the least we can do is to approach his comics in a similar fashion. In his 1884 essay, “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James argues that we must take creators on their own intended terms, that “[w]e must grant the artist his subject, his idea, what the French call his donnée; our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.” I wouldn’t guess that the criticism of the great nineteenth-century novelist has often been applied to Derek Van Gieson’s art, but it seems to me an appropriate link to make. Eel Mansion is at its best when being narratively irreverent, and we should give serious thought to this kind of playfulness.
Discover not only Derek Van Gieson’s work, but other great comics coming out of Uncivilized Books: