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 Lâ€™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 Mulots 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)
Barrel of Monkeys
Rebus Books 2013
6.5 x 9.5â€ b&w softcover
* Special thanks to Anders Nilsen for photographing pages from the massive beast that is Kramers Ergot 7 and for general affirmation
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 speaks 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 time-based storytelling 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
In the spirit of the holidays, I thought I’d post something a little on the playful side: a comic I recently revised while thinking about the relationship between text and narrative, how we propagate myths as a society and (even) how drawing can be a kind of dramatic reenactment.
Neil Brideau: I think over the past few generations comics have really come into their own. Â They’re being accepted more by the larger cultural world, and I think that helps cartoonists break out of their shells a little bit. Â Most ofÂ CAKE’s exhibitors are in their late twenties and early thirties, and I feel like this generation is a lot more social than their immediate predecessors. Â There’s this stereotype of the alternative comics artist toiling away in their studio not getting any financial or critical compensation for what they love, and feeling sorry for themselves. Â But I see our peers really celebrating their creative process and the creative process of others. Not that there aren’t a lot of nights spent alone in a room inking pages of comics very few people will read. Â I think Chicago too, in general is really welcoming of DIY and small-run creativity. Whether it’s the Night Market, or the CIMM Fest, or the Chicago Zine Fest, or Printers Ball, or house shows that DIYCHI is putting together, Chicago seems to be an incubator for lo-fi production and celebration of that production. Â I think cartoonists in Chicago react to that energy, and are more social and community-oriented animals.
This week we are trying something new. Truth be told, we were planning on trying something new at the beginning of January but due to various mishaps we are two months late. The snappy-est title we could come up with “Great Stuff.” What that really is a subtitle for is “Great Stuff that was found in our offices regardless of how it got there.” So we begin “Great Stuff” with Kate Beaton’s “Hark! A Vagrant.”
Last fall Beaton’s new comic anthology â€œHark! A Vagrantâ€ was published by Drawn and Quarterly, and is truly delightful. it arrived our offices and quietly sat in a pile of things that needed to be read for several months, never really hinting at the ridiculous good times to be had within but one quiet afternoon I picked it up and could not put it down. Beaton’s a veteran cartoonist whose work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, the National Post and the New Yorker. Beaton is a kind of spiritual kin to Bad at Sports. Her work draws heavily on her degree in history and her broad knowledge of literature, and then couples those intellectual impulses with an absurd sense of humor which would makeÂ Monty PythonÂ proud andÂ had me laughing out loud over and Â neglecting phone calls. In fact, I’ve come back to it and reread it twice since my first reading. If you are a fan of art, literature, Canada, history, and being an intellectual well making fun of intellectuals this shit will tear you up.
The high points for me include jokes about the “Great Gatsby,” the BrontÃ« sisters, St. Francis, and Canadian stereotypes. the back covers cartoon is a special treat for those of us who’ve devoted our lives to things that are often difficult to empathize with.
You can find more delight with Kate Beaton here.