Dark early in Winter

*Holy shit, it was like a dream. I found this comics shop that I’d never known to exist, only about a half hour south from my palatial estate, a pretty small place, very little in the way of trades, but they had a solid 20-25 longbox strong dollar ‘bin’, and I’ve already spent a solid $30 and I’m ready to drop at least $20 more. It’s days like this that make me glad that I can derive joy from digging through stack after stack of comics for hours without getting bored; I got a whole lot of Renee French stuff, both of the one-shots she did for Dark Horse, “The Ninth Gland” and “Corny’s Fetish”, and two out of three issues of her early 90’s Fantagraphics series “Grit Bath” (all of which were eventually collected in the now also out-of-print Oni volume “Marbles in My Underpants“). I picked up Caliber’s entire six-issue “Moebius Comics” series from 1996, I got Grant Morrison’s “Doom Force” special (hilariously awesome stuff), and about 18 or so odd issues of the old Fantagraphics anthology “Zero Zero”. Such an amazing goddamned find! I AM TOO EXCITED ABOUT FINDING OLD COMICS FOR CHEAP!!!

The Mystery of Woolverine Woo-Bait

I had no clue that this thing, a 40-page pamphlet from Fantagraphics, was even coming out until I saw it sitting at the store, but I’m very glad I picked it up on impulse. It’s a reprint of painter Joe Coleman’s one and only full-length solo comics work, originally self-published in oversized format in 1982 (Fanta has shrunk the book down), with a related 1977 short from Kitchen Sink’s beloved “Bizarre Sex” anthology (issue #6) tacked on to the end, although the flow from one work to the next is extremely smooth, with Coleman perhaps envisioning his 1982 work as an extended prequel to the earlier short.

Coleman’s comics style can be seen by the contemporary reader as a particularly crazed hybrid of comix legend Kim Deitch, “Amy and Jordan” mastermind Mark Beyer, and “Mad Magazine” stalwart Tom Bunk, with the animated expressiveness of the first added to the decoration-crazy design sense of the second added to the grotesque cluttered humor of the third. I’m not attempting to evaluate influences here, just trying to give you a sense of what Coleman’s comics feel like across 40 pages. For the length of the main story, each page is treated as a single design unit, with panels arranged in attractive or odd formations, the space in between loaded with squiggles or symbols, often expressing the overall mood of the page, or adding their own atmospheric input to the reading. And while the designs calm down into more traditional grids for the latter short (which was created half a decade earlier, remember), Coleman’s busy panels of freaks and fluids maintain a devilish energy. The lettering must receive special notice; for some characters, nearly every word is rendered in a different font, each one crackling with expression and energy, even at the cost of instant clarity. The dialogue is quite good, with excellent integration of small bits of devised slang, and judicious barrages of verbal sing-song (“Now that the Senator’s enrollment in the Elysian Fields is complete my perception gills will bleed monuments again.”), coupled with nice bits of comedy (Rondo’s reaction to his first clone: “It’s pretty.”) Simply glancing through this book isn’t enough; you might initially deem it confused, cluttered, even sloppy. But there’s a lot of logic to this mess, and true beauty.

Editor Eric Reynolds, in a short essay included in the front, mentions the plot’s complexity and seeming disjointedness, but I found it to be a fairly straightforward (if whip-crack paced) narrative, though I’ll grant that Coleman’s use of symbol and background info will certainly reward re-readings. There’s this scientist, Frank, who works at the We Experiment For You (W.E.F.Y.) laboratory; he performs all sorts of unspeakable experiments, flaunting a total transgression of moral boundary. His friend, the powerful Senator Albert Muro, has just been decapitated by Frank’s brother Fred, who’s acting under the influence of strange forces and secretly plans to clone B-movie icon Rondo Hatton, who just happens to be wandering around, seemingly aware of far more than the rest of the characters (his presence is conveyed through photo clippings of the real Mr. Hatton). There’s also a local carnival freak show, the head of which pines after a lovely doll (literally a doll) named Suziebell. There’s an invading force of Martians. There’s homophobic tough-guy soldiers, an attack of Jewish zombies, blaxploitation cannibals, a forbidden secret affair involving Dr. Frank’s nurse, and some nice trash-culture homage (Tod Browning‘s “Freaks”, the “Mars Attacks!” card set, etc). The story has the sort of rolling tall-tale pace of a Kim Deitch yarn (setting the similarity beyond simple visuals), but a bit more jumpy, as if the storytelling simply can’t wait to let you know what happens next, and he sometimes gets ahead of himself, but not to the detriment of the story at large.

It’s a dense work thematically, but the overall feeling I got was one of constant combat, the struggle between strange and stranger forces, most of them wanting to control the poisoned world (the Senator’s politics, Frank’s unchecked science, Fred’s crazed religion), and some wanting only to tear it down. But the weird world has a way of equalizing things, even if only through destruction. It’s a very violent work, explicit on every level, packed with characters with delusions of control, but their environment only works against it; bleak stuff, but wildly entertainingly. A page of annotations in included in the back, defining some of Coleman’s invented slang terms, identifying some of the historical figures referenced, and even offering identification for some of the artist’s more obscure visual symbols. It’s a helpful resource, but it will only guide you gently to your own conclusion about the work.

I get the feeling that I’m not quite doing this book justice, since there’s a wealth of possible interpretations. It’s a marvel of unique feeling, Coleman’s feeling, and it stands as a rewarding work of entertainment, and I‘d greatly recommend it to parties who‘ve been piqued by the above evaluation.