Friday, November 21, 2008

Graphic Lit: Bad meaning good

“My kid could draw that!”

No doubt you’ve heard that phrase spouted at a modern art gallery once or twice. Perhaps you’ve even uttered it yourself, along with a snarky, “That’s not art.”

We tend to have set-in-stone notions about what constitutes art, and can get riled up when confronted with something that doesn’t meet our expectations.

Comics fans in particular can be a conservative lot, trumpeting the ability to render a contorted, physically perfect human specimen above all else.

But does a high degree of artistic skill and craftsmanship automatically result in the ability to make great comics? After all, comics are as much about pacing, timing and narrative dexterity as they are being able to make pretty pictures.

Take the case of Rory Hayes, for example. Hayes was a member of the underground comics movement of the 1960s, though he tends to get relegated to the background, behind more well-known figures such as Robert Crumb.

Hayes is finally getting his due in “Where Demented Wented,” a collection of his work from Fantagraphics Books edited by Dan Nadel and Glenn Bray.

Part of the reason Hayes slipped under the radar was because he wasn’t as prolific as his compatriots. Nor did he have their artistic chops; his art, at least initially, comes off as amateurish and stiff. His early death, at the age of 34 in 1983, no doubt played a part as well.

But probably the biggest reason he never achieved much recognition was due to the intensity and stark horror of his unique vision. Here was an artist who gazed into the abyss and drew what he saw.

Hayes’ initial comics were gory homages to the EC horror comics of the 1950s, usually featuring knife-wielding teddy bears plotting horrible things.

The turning point seems to be his attempt to do a sex comic. Hayes used the opportunity to pour out every misogynist and misanthropic fear that welled inside him, resulting in the most unerotic (and just flat out grotesque) pornography in history.

From there on out, Hayes’ comics become more psychedelic and narratively disjointed, but also more gripping and fascinating. Panels blend into one another; stories end in abrupt violence, bodies mutate and transform, heralding the apocalypse.

There’s the strong sense of exorcism at work here, that Hayes was driven to put this material on paper, perhaps hoping that by giving his demons voice he could silence them.

That didn’t work. Hayes eventually died of a drug overdose, as the heart-breaking afterword by Hayes’ brother Geoffrey (also an artist), reminds us.

Hayes’ work is not easy to digest or what we tend to traditionally think of as accomplished. But it is visionary and compelling all the same. The guy knew what he was doing.

While some cartoonists make art out of the meager talents God gave them, others strive to deliberately be as sloppy and crude as possible.

That’s certainly the case with “Tokyo Zombie,” an uproarious, grotesque manga by Yusaku Hanakuma.

Hanakuma is a member of the “Heta-Uma” or “bad, but good” school. Popularized by Japanese artist King Terry, it’s a movement dedicated to drawing as primitively as possible, the better to keep any technical gloss from removing your work’s “soul.”

As you might guess from the title, “Tokyo Zombie” is a horror story, albeit with rotting tongue held firmly in cheek.

Fujio and Mitsuo are martial arts-addicted tough guys who suddenly find themselves having to kick-punch their way out of a zombie apocalypse brought on by industrial waste buried in a literal mountain of garbage.

Circumstances force the pair to separate. Fast forward a few years. Fujio finds himself battling zombies in an arena for the pleasure of the wealthy few who control. What are the odds a zombiefied Mitsuo could show up to battle his old friend? Apparently pretty good.

As gory and profoundly silly as “Zombie” is, it’s also a heap of fun, provided you don’t take these sorts of things too seriously. Indeed, hard to imagine a more proficient artist being able to mine as much gold with the material as Hanakuma does here. His art may seem sloppy and primitive at first glance, but it’s always assured.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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