Damn this late week tug.


Yes friends, it always takes a special combination of artist (South Africa’s Joe Daly) and publisher (Fantagraphics) to join hands, nod sagely, and take that grand step out onto the breach, toward that blinding light of renown: penises on the front cover of the book. Actually it’s only one penis here, and I must say it’s rather well hidden. In plain sight even! I didn’t even notice until I was completely done reading this book, gazing over the fairly luxuriant design - if only all publishers could provide such fine Easter eggs for the careful reader to uncover.

I mention this because it neatly summarizes the attitude of the book: good construction and not a lack of visual sophistication, coupled with a confident yet carefree attitude toward matters that some readers might find distasteful, distracting, uncomfortable, or possibly not worthy of note. After all, this b&w and color book (priced at $16.95) is 126 pages, 70 of which are devoted to a wordless color voyage into psychedelic questing, sexual landscapes, and semi-sci-fi spiritualism - you've got to believe that some readers are just going to shake their heads in dismay at what might appear to them as a hopeless waste of space. But hey: some readers think a goodly number of plot-heavy books are a waste of space too. If my description of Scrublands appeals to you, then there's a solid shot you'll grow to love this book, so attractive are its parts and so unique is its voice.

This is Daly's first collection of work to be released in the US, though it's not his debut; he's got a background in animation study, and has also produced a book titled The Red Monkey, a surreal adventure concerning a monkey-footed professional illustrator who wants to make comics but gets mixed up in a smuggling plot whilst scaling the buildings of Cape Town. There's a similar-sounding mix of realism (autobiography?) and fantasy coursing through Scrublands, which appears to be pasted together from stories created for several different sources. One piece, Trawling the Streets of Cape Town, appears to be straight-up autobio comics, as 'Monkey Joe' accompanies a pair of twins on a trip through the legislative capital's streets, reord stores, and used book outlets. Folks try to sell them ganja, eccentrics are observed, conversations are overheard, crises are encountered and averted ("...all I have left is this little lump of Réunionese volcanic rock, as dark and porous as desire itself..." "Fuck it, man. Let's get a beer, dude..."), and it's finally determined that what people truly need are drugs and comics. Daly has a good talent for capturing conversation, but it's his lovely, richly colored and shaded art that truly evokes the feel of a specific place.

It's good that Daly has such talent, as his more fantastic work is greatly empowered by it. Take the lovely wordless two-page The Convention, which consists of absolutely nothing other than creepy, sweaty men milling around Vegecon 2000, bearing outrageously phallic food items and sometimes wearing costumes in support of their favorite selections. Here it's entirely Daly's way with detail that powers the short, making it funnier than it has any right to be, given the simple premise. Not that everything is the same, concerning both style and subject matter - we also get two strips concerning Aqua Boy, who both can and cannot use his world of undersea adventure to escape the blunt pain and uncertainty that travels with his home life. It's also rendered in a smoother, rounded style, perfect for disarmingly vivid encounteres with strange underwater life, and setting off lines like "Thanks for teaching me about my special pubes, Mr. ghost fish!"

Actually, there's a lot of concern with birth and development in this book - many of the shorts feature scenes of characters encountering odd children, many of them either freshly born or ready to transform into something else. In one short, the apartment of recurring characters Kobosh & Steve (of Funny Book #2 fame) gives birth to a 'wallchild' - luckily, both men develop lactating breasts to feed the young fellow. In another, a pair of friends discover a street urchin's soul being sucked into a third companion's glowing aura, so they burn the child's husk to cinders out of some sense of duty, even if it means missing Oprah. Sure, some of the pop culture humor doesn't work at all (boy oh boy do Chuck Norris gags already feel painful... maybe Daly was ahead of the curve on these?), but more often Daly relies on his gifts for dialogue, good old funny pictures, and that bizarre set of personal symbols for much of his effect. Did I mention there's also a recurring 'sex with strange objects and creatures' motif, nicely complimenting all the birthing and growing?

All of this comes to a head in the aforementioned main feature, Prebaby. A tiny child-thing is ejected from a larger, floating lump of humanoid meat. It's pushed into a body of pale brown water and floats through a beet-red flesh-and-hair landscape of increasingly suggestive shapes, eventually drifting into a feminine mountain's vagina, getting supercharged by a glowing organism and becoming the prize in a tiny civilization's war with a scary bug and attaining some exploited place in the world. The visuals are utterly gorgeous, everything washed in red and brown, the characters kept simple and gently shaded, the layouts basic and the action heavy on movement and perspective, very much like storyboards for an animated film. It's unique among everything else in this book, and not only because it's long - there's suddenly very little overt humor, Daly pushing his unique iconography and visual chops right to the front, to fine effect.

Really, the whole effect here is fine. In many ways the book hearkens back to various 'underground' comics, in its rambling shorts that stop when they feel like stopping rather than conforming to any clean 'arc,' its ventures into visual dazzle and strange sexual imagery, and its uninhibited exploration of individual hang-ups and weird, sometimes vulgar humor. But this is no emulation - Daly is plainly a well-equipped talent to watch, one with his own voice and vision, and worth following on future journeys.