Spinning realistic human memoirs using cute animals as stand-ins is hardly a new idea to the comics world — if you’ve never heard of Maus, odds are you’ve still seen it done a half-dozen other places — but the conceit feels fresh in Skyscrapers of the Midwest (AdHouse Books), a strange little creation from Joshua W. Cotter. That’s not solely because the animals in question (chubby bipedal cats whose eyes are disturbingly pupil-free) occasionally transform into giant robots, but that trick doesn’t hurt.
The robots often serve as wish-fulfillment fantasies for a nerdy kid who daydreams his way out of schoolyard humiliation, but they take on weirder flavors throughout the book, acting out scenes of heartland alienation and getting juxtaposed with other elements surreal enough to make hairs stand up on the reader’s arm. In a boy’s mind’s eye, for instance, Mom’s migraine headaches become a locust infestation, in which a single fist-sized insect descends on her skull and appears to suck out her soul.
Other cheerful interludes include “We Are Already Dead,” a single-page parable in which numbing daily rituals are enacted by a skeleton who doesn’t seem to know he’s not alive, and a “funny pages” section in which the unfunny single-panel clichés of the Sunday newspaper get reworked to evoke the spiritually deadening routine of enforced churchgoing.
A skyscraper plays a more oblique role in Ex Machina (Wildstorm), a grown-up superhero series, the first 11 issues of which have just been collected as a graphic novel. Here, a hero called “The Great Machine” goes from borderline-inept crimefighter to credible civil servant by interacting with real-world history. We learn through dialogue and sketchy flashbacks that, a few years before the book’s action begins, the Machine was able to save one of the World Trade Center towers from the attacks of September 11.
In the aftermath, the Machine gave up his costume and was elected mayor of NYC, which for readers means that Ex Machina is only partly a story of superpowers. More often, its pages read like a semi-comic City Hall soap opera, with political headaches like gay marriage and race-baiting art exhibitions competing with life-and-death intrigue. Writer Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man) may wear his education on his sleeve, with dialogue that tries a little too hard to make you notice it’s not like other funnybook discourse, but his integration of culture wars with genre material works pretty beautifully.
Where Machina moves cape-and-mask fodder into the real-ish world, a reissue of forgotten ’60s strips takes real life through fantastical doors some readers would much rather keep shut: The Demented Wented (Fantagraphics) compiles the disturbing output of Rory Hayes, a contributor to Underground mags like Arcade and Bijou Funnies who died in 1983.
Hayes’s “private language of forms and symbols” was rediscovered by editor Dan Nadel in the Art Out of Time anthology, and here Nadel (with co-editor Glenn Bray) turns the focus on him exclusively, going beyond Out of Time’s scary but intriguing hallucinations starring teddy bears (whose oppressive geometries and skewed perspective anticipate the ’80s and ’90s work of Raw contributor Mark Beyer) to include a big chunk of work so nightmarishly pornographic it might make R. Crumb recoil.
You won’t need Demented’s biographical essay to guess that Hayes ingested a lot of chemicals — he died of an overdose, in fact — but that introduction (which reveals that Crumb was, in fact, a fan) might help frightened readers understand what admirers see in the work of an artist who would define “Outsider Art” if he hadn’t been hooked up with enough insiders to get published alongside stars-to-be like Crumb, Bill Griffith, and Art Spiegelman. •