Extreme confessionalism is nothing new in comics. But even after decades of reading about everything from R. Crumb’s sexual fetishes to Joe Matt’s toilet technique, occasionally something comes along that’s so direct, embarrassing, or raw it feels like a revelation.
The French cartoonist Patrice Killoffer, who goes professionally by just his last name, offers a painful example in the most recent issue of Fantagraphics’s Mome anthology (Vol. 12). Using a bit of childhood comedy as an introduction — a pair of scratchy-as-hell wool underpants he was forced to wear by his mother — Killoffer’s anecdote takes a turn toward the pathological before long, as he describes an unusual ritual he had as a kid for delaying bowel movements. In just a half-dozen pages, though, the psycho-scatology turns horrifying courtesy of a mother who has no patience for young Patrice’s unfortunate habits. Despite the story’s detour into child abuse, Killoffer manages to wring something like a grim visual punchline out of its final panel.
Killoffer’s strange visual approach to his mother’s mental illness, in which her face fractures into multiple overlapping perspectives, looks a touch like Cubism but is emotionally more resonant with the scarring work of Francis Bacon. A recent catalog of the painter’s work, Bacon (Skira), demonstrates both this connection — particularly in the obliterated faces of Bacon’s self-portraits and a calmer but eerie image of Lucian Freud — and his influence on such comic artists as Sue Coe, who surely saw his 1954 “Figure With Meat” before penning her own agitprop condemnations of carnivores.
Less brutal than Killoffer’s story but surprising in its own way, My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Pantheon) is the first book-length work by young illustrator-cartoonist David Heatley. Tackling his emotional development analytically, Heatley breaks the book into five thematic chunks — Sex, Race, Mom, Dad, and Kin — and digs deep. The first two sections feature long stories in which Heatley attempts to assemble an overall picture by methodically listing what appear to be first every sexual high (and low) point in his life and then every black person he has known. Individual episodes can be as short as a few inch-tall panels, but they add up to narratives that are strangely more compelling for shoving all off-topic content into the margins. Heatley’s intentionally childlike drawing style may make him look like a less stylized Charlie Brown, but this is seriously grown-up stuff.
A wonderful project came to a close of sorts last month when Fantagraphics released Krazy & Ignatz 1943-1944, reprinting the final years of color Sunday strips featuring George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. The company has promised more Kat before long, with volumes that will jump back in time to reprint earlier strips previously collected by the long-defunct publisher Eclipse. They’re also gathering the latest five publications together as one huge volume, as they did with the first five, in a $95 hardback tome available just in time for Christmas.
In the meantime, though, fans of old newspaper strips can keep busy with Comic Arf (Fantagraphics), the latest collection in which Craig Yoe waxes scholarly on obsessions both famous and obscure. The star of this volume may be Milt Gross, whose Draw Your Own Conclusions series serves as a venue for posthumous collaborations with contemporary artists, but I’m quite taken with a small feature on Gardner Rea, a line-drawing virtuoso whose single-panel gags often employ bold compositions in which vast white spaces balance busy clutter.
The Rea strips collected in Arf, for all their wit and whimsy, are solidly professional and offer few hints about their maker’s personality, much less his embarrassing secrets. Thank God not every artist has to wear childhood traumas on his or her sleeve, even if some of those who do find fascinating material buried there. •