A handful of books about the work and life of superhero legend Jack Kirby have been released in recent years, but few hold as much interest to me as a new tome about an artist working in his shadow. The long overdue Daniel Johnston (Rizzoli) will be an eye-opener to anyone who only knows the Texan’s off-kilter pop music. It’s an introduction to a secret cartoon universe in which Captain America fights villains more profound than those found in Marvel Comics.
Cap isn’t the only hero who pops up in the primitive, nightmarish drawings Johnston has been distributing to friends for years — Batman and the Hulk appear in this volume, though far less frequently — but his continued presence and the role he plays in the drawings makes him a clear touchstone for the artist: an unambiguous and unrelenting champion in the fight against everything — hydra-like duck beasts, headless female torsos, the devil himself — that come to confuse or threaten him.
The fascinating way Johnston — whose episodes of mental illness have become well-known indie-pop lore, and whose unusually strict religious upbringing still casts a shadow across his psyche — exposes his inner life through cartoony characters would put him in good company among more conventional art-comics authors. But when I’ve interviewed him in the past, the only funnybook ambitions he’d own up to were fantasies of writing straightforward superhero tales. In the absence of that (Marvel, give the guy a call!), practically none of his publicly seen artwork carries a narrative beyond a single frame, however action-packed and dense with meaning that one page might be. A wholly different comics figure, Harvey Pekar, contributes one of the essays here that attempt to explain Johnston’s art or make it more accessible, but the readers most likely to understand it are those of us who spent at least some of our childhoods, lonely or angst-ridden, finding deep solace in four-color adventures others dismissed as pop-culture trash.
Few readers would interpret the strangeness of Ron Regé Jr.’s comics as signs of mental illness. (Serious drug use, maybe.) But like Johnston, he creates a world unto itself. While Johnston appropriates familiar figures for uniquely personal use, Regé’s imagery is indisputably his own and can’t be identified through the shorthand of influence-citation. The busy-ness of his compositions, in which characters’ heads are almost always surrounded with those radiating lines other cartoonists reserve for especially heightened emotion, can be off-putting, as can more trivial elements, such as the elaborate way he letters dialogue.
(His chaotic, hallucinogen-friendly style might invite you to view it as trumping its subject, as with the illustrator/painter/design-philosopher Friedensreich Hundertwasser, whose insistence on the meaning behind all that decoration is freshly explored in The Yet Unknown Hundertwasser.)
Readers who’ve never known quite what to make of Regé might welcome Against Pain (Drawn and Quarterly), which compiles 20 years of output into an appealingly solid but not overwhelming package. Inside they’ll find not only expressionist tweaks on everyday life and emotional states, but unusually direct joke-based stories like the 2002 “Hopi vs. Happy,” in which an ethnographic researcher gets put in his place by a “primitive” musician. I’m not sure I’ll be seeking out Regé’s work for pure pleasure, but the collection chips away at the resistance his style provokes in me.
Regé’s work marries an inscrutable style to often easily grasped content. The opposite goes on in Pohádky (Drawn and Quarterly), a gorgeous little book you’d hardly lump in with comics if not for its publisher — and the fact that its collection of illustrations clearly adds up to something, even if it’s something opaque to American readers. The book, a collaboration between Pat Shewchuk and Marek Colek, consists of dozens of rich, single-page illustrations that are separated both by close-up figurative details and by pages occupied by abstract graphic motifs — punctuations and ornate decorations that seem, possibly, to have some bearing on the ongoing narrative. Drawing on Czech folk tales and old Ukrainian arts, the wordless book delivers a lot of pleasure even for readers reluctant to investigate its literal meaning. Who knows: Maybe in Eastern Europe, the book’s characters are as familiar as Johnston’s Captain America and Charlie Brown. •