What’s considered new and innovative in comics in the US is relatively old news.
Barrel of Monkeys is the first English translation of a collection from the French collaborative duo, Florent Ruppert and Jerome Mulot. Originally released by L’Association in 2006 (Panier de Singe), the book also marks a first for new publishing endeavour by Brooklyn based comics polymath Bill Kartalopoulos, titled Rebus Books.
Barrel of Monkeys is not a book that I recommend for the lighthearted viewer. The enjoyment and occasional laugh out loud I gained while reading it also made me sick to my stomach. The violent, slapstick comedy is an admittance of the darker contours of human behavior. Crude transgressions committed between it’s covers include bestiality, abusive parenting, colonialism, and suspected suicides. This is disturbing story-telling at its best. The kind that will slap you around in a dangerous back alleyway that lacks the safety of ethics or morality and will abandon you on the pavement, disoriented and wounded, yet utterly loyal.
Ruppert and Mulot have carefully composed a fragile yet brutally playful world. Characters’ bodies are easily cut-up, maimed or discarded depending on the ruthlessness of the punchline. Their collaboration is seamless and it’s virtually impossible to decipher where Mulot begins and Ruppert ends. Their drawing style is both gestural and scratchy but devoid of the extraneous. Characters’ faces are abstracted, sometimes depicted as a single V, disallowing the viewer empathy and forcing them to rely on external emotional cues such as body language.
The story’s two protagonists are mean jerks – voyeuristic portraitists – that double as schematic surrogates for their authors. They turn their camera loose on a variety of distasteful situations including a late night bestiality party at the zoo (the highlight being an elephant), an S&M sword swallowers conference, and a masquerade for the maimed and disfigured. The running gag being the photographic finish of something horrible that’s happened to the person(s) getting their picture taken. The lack of close-ups or dramatic shifts in the story is telling of Ruppert and Mulot’s interest in playing with the formal aspects of traditional cartooning rather than imitating the cinematic. In the case of The Portraitists, this resonates on a similar level as an airplane safety diagram, maintaining an oddly cool, clinical posture in the midst of awful tragedy.
While topics touched in the book are probably unpalatable to most, the page layouts are complexly dazzling. Phenakistoscopes and other visual tricks become integral strategies for storytelling (and they WILL melt your mind). Animations and printouts of which can be found on Ruppert and Mulot’s website.** I advise readers to view the animal sex acts at their own discretion with the warning that they are downright obscene and nasty. They are great drawings though, and me being able to think that probably satisfies Ruppert and Mulot’s insistence that we are all capable of something downright terrible at some point or another.
The Grand Staircase: Kramers Ergot 7. Buenaventura Press 2008*
(Unfortunately, reading this comic online is a disgrace to how good it is to scale)
This is a trailer for one of Ruppert and Mulot’s newest releases, La Grande Odalisque.
Art thefts! Hijinks! Motorcycles! Female Leads! Comic book trailers masquerading as animation! I want this in English! Someone alert Rebus Books STAT!
Barrel of Monkeys
Rebus Books 2013
6.5 x 9.5” b&w softcover
* Special thanks to Anders Nilsen for photographing pages from the massive beast that is Kramers Ergot 7 and for general affirmation
** At the time of writing this blog – Ruppert and Mulot’s website is mysteriously down. I will keep checking back in and update this post when it’s back online. Guess those bestiality pics will have to wait.
As the new comics writer for Bad at Sports, I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit debating how to contextualize comics as an art form for the audience of a contemporary arts blog. Writing about comics from an arts perspective is a relatively new development for a medium that has been around since the 1830s. Historically, comics have been meanwhiled into the margins of art and institutional processes of cultural validation. In a not so distant past, it would be unheard of for the managing editor of an arts publication like B@S to devote an entire column to comics criticism (or for the editor herself to be the creator of a superhero comic featuring a lady lead). Comics were certainly not something made in art school or written about in the canons of art history. Declaring to family members that you wanted to tell stories with words and pictures was cause for embarrassment and heartbreak. But things are shifting. When I told my dad in 2009 that I wanted to use my life to make comic books, it was met with a sigh of relief, “Oh good, we thought you were going to be a painter.”
For the purposes of this blog, and as a cartoonist myself, debates about the validity of comics as a medium bore me. This is not to say that as comics become more enveloped in academia or part of the art economy that artists shouldn’t be paying attention. There is a lot of smart and critical media being published that speak to this, such as an essay by cartoonist, Caitlin Cass published last month on Inkt Art. For me, comics were validated as a suitable baseline beat for self-expression the first time I found my dad’s stack of pulp comics in his closet, or the first time I checked out a comic book from the public library, or the first time I created a mini-comic as an art student in 2009. The list continues ad infinitum.
Meanwhile… was originally (and continues to be) an interview series and critical exploration which I began with fellow cartoonist, Krystal DiFronzo. We were tired of comics criticism or attempts at canonization that were not indicative of the dense and diverse artistic communities that we, as creators, are apart of. This column is an extension of that project. Each month I will be highlighting and providing captions to an array of artists and thinkers who take comics and narrative creation as a given for navigating their world(s).
To kick off this series (and to tide readers over until next month) I would like to underscore comics/things available on the web for leisurely perusal. ENJOY!
1. Aidan Koch’s gorgeous book, The Blonde Woman, was created with assistance from a Xeric Grant and was originally released online via The Study Group Magazine website. I recommend reading it all in one sitting if possible.
2. The New York Times recently published a mini-comic by C.F. called Face It.
3. Cartoonist, Brian Chippendale made an animated music video out of flip-books he drew as a kid. There’s a dragon and eyeball bombs in it – need I say more? Black Pus – 1000 Years