It was a fantastic day for artful, intelligent comics when the New York Review of Books added comics to its publishing line. The focus so far is on making obscure graphic novels available again, and the March 22 release of Mark Beyer’s riotous Agony sets an interesting tone for the line.
Beyer’s work, which is about the size of a Big Little Book — a reference for all you old, old people in the audience like me — is a creature of the NYC art scene that has returned from the grave, a Raw one-shot from 1987 that both typifies the art comics of that era and also transcends them with its frantic, over-the-top presentation of the adventures of Amy and Jordan.
Though aimed at the downtown set, anyone with a dark sense of humor could have enjoyed this back in the day, with tones that certainly aligned with, say, the work of Pee Wee Herman, Dan Clowes’ Lloyd Llewellyn, the Bakshi/Kricfalusi version of Mighty Mouse, and other warped hipster humor of the time. Amy and Jordan are thrown into a series of absolute calamities at breakneck pace — horrible job situations and attacks from murderers. Limbs are lost and risks are taken, miracles happen in the transition from one panel to the next, and it all unwinds with the glee of a kid who pulls the wings off flies.
Agony is hilarious and, most surprisingly, still fresh in comparison to current indie comics.
What follows from the publisher in April couldn’t be more opposite toned from Agony. Peplum by French cartoonist Blutch is, according to the introduction by the book’s translator Edward Gauvin, an attempted sequel to the 1st Century Roman fiction Satyricon by Gaius Petronius, though it could just as well be considered a remix of the original story, with elements from Shakespeare and opera and other sources.
I’ve certainly never read the Satyricon, and have actually never seen the Fellini film (I ashamed to say), but I have feeling that a certain portion of the audience who reads this is going to experience it as cold as I did. Even without any knowledge of the previous work, Peplum is a remarkably beautiful and harsh book.
The story shifts, but in essence, it follows a course beginning with the assassination of Julius Caesar that ends with the travels and travails of a roaming imposter in Roman times, a young man who steals the identity of a noble warrior who had been cast out, and seizes the weird treasure of a woman encased in ice as his own.
There are adventures involving pirates and a strange tribe of women and more, but they never unfold in a simple action sense, and Blutch’s small epic becomes the story of the difference between stealing a reputation, a station, and earning it, and the way desire controls us, though not always in the way we think. Blutch’s language is rich, and his art dense, sometimes with a woodcut quality, sometimes like dark gashes in the drawing board, capturing this dark Roman world of dangers and dirt in a soulful though harsh way.
NYRB Comics will round out the start of its publishing schedule with Almost Completely Baxter: New And Selected Blurtings. This isn’t a reissue of an earlier Glen Baxter book, nor completely a new work, but a hybrid of earlier and more recent work with the goal of bringing old fans and those to come up to date.
Baxter specializes in absurd, sometimes surreal, one panel gags, with art often in the style of old British comics and magazines offering up an upper class, very white vision of the world, and captions that play on that nostalgia, even as it disfigures it with dry wit.
Once you see Baxter’s style, it’s not something you ever forget. It’s not exactly retro. More his illustrations seem like work from the era it apes, previously uncovered, but with a droll copy editor adding his own captions. The last third of the book focuses on beautiful color work, which takes the retro quality out of the work, but adds further eccentricity to the realization of the subject matter, which doesn’t seem possible.
NYRB is off to a strong start with these three diverse offerings, filling in a gap by unearthing some important, but no longer available. These are works from the past that go a long way to make plain that comics for grown-ups are not a new phenomenon at all. It just took much of the world some time to catch up with what already exists.
John Seven is a journalist and children’s book writer living in North Adams, Massachusetts. His books include ‘A Rule Is To Break: A Child’s Guide To Anarchy,’ ‘Happy Punks 1-2-3,’ ‘Frankie Liked To Sing,’ and others. Find out about all his things at johnseven.me.