DESPAIR VOL.3, the GUESTS:
BAUM, ESPEY, VALASCO, and SERDAR–KISSEL, INC.
I have gathered you all here today in service of the individuals just named and the cause to which we are all so dearly devoted, namely: J.T. Dockery's DESPAIR vol. 3, of which we are currently accepting advance orders to assist with printing costs until April 14, 2015.
Something of a tradition, I take time to spotlight my "special guests" in the volumes to serve both as introduction into the artists for the general reader and to pay homage to and elucidate in further scrutiny why, to my mind, I've selected the artists to join me on my Despair trip. Or "my" Despair trip. Or, let's get real gone: my "despair" trip, or even Despair "trip." Insert or remove quotation marks and adjust capitalization, dear reader, at your own discretion.
In fact, being that this is the final volume, I will underline that the series was always regarded from its inception to be a three volume work, not continuing on into an unspecified number of train stops with no end in sight of the tour. Indeed, I perceive this work to have a beginning, middle, and end. That is to say also:, I've had the guest artists in mind for each volume from the beginning for each volume before the USS Despair departed the bay. I was very lucky that almost everyone said "yes." I am grateful for that.
But, back to this, third and final volume. Let's discuss the special guests:
I: Jeremy Baum
When I relocated back to Kentucky from Vermont, I had been contacted while in flux of the move by Jeremy Baum for my address; he wanted to mail me some comics he had published. I provided him with my address soon to be, and when I arrived, a package from him was already waiting for me. While I was aware of his work to some degree via social media/the internet, it was cracking open this big brick of work that truly introduced me to his illustrated worlds. Hell of a way to kick off a residency in a new pad.
This enigmatic package did not include the timid explorations of an aspiring cartoonist. Rather, it was a flood of fully realized visions. It's hard to know where to place Mr. Baum. While one might label Baum's work "fantasy," it is more applicable in the archaic, visionary sense of the word than by genre. Baum's choice as an artist and story teller is often to place women at the forefront of his narratives, the lead protagonists navigating the miasma of his abstract, symbolic landscapes.
More than a comment on women or a comment on sexism, or defense against sexism as such, or a less lofty fetish for the female form, I regard Baum's use, again, in more archaic/symbolic light of the realization that is, old as dirt, both pre Roman and anti Roman which is as follows: women, or rather Woman and/or the feminine as conduit to wisdom to knowing, an embodiment of wisdom. "Think Sophia," I always say. "You always say that?" you might ask? I just did.
With Baum, I am reminded of the generation just previous of American comic book artists, like Rick Veitch and Stephen Bissette, folks who grew up on mainstream genre work including Silver Age super dupers, but also had their heads zapped by underground comix, on one hand, and who had horror and sci fi/fantasy genre comics in their bones as well. Just as they were able to look at the underground artists a few beats ahead of them in time who had made genre personal and, following, idiosyncratic, and political/personal yet stll genre, such as with an artist like Greg Irons, and transmutate those precedents further into work both personally profound and, oddly populist, such as with their joint tenure on Swamp Thing. Or then, speaking of, later as individuals, with Veitch charting dreams, making those archetypal landscapes his business moreso directly than any other American cartoonist, or, with Bissette, making of himself a time traveler, dinosaur bones in his bones connecting all the other cartoon art bones, which is another kind of incomparability.
There's no way around the words Metal Hurlant and/or Moebius and/or Jodorowsky's comic book collaborations with Moebius when thinking of Baum, and also another influence on the aforementioned Veitch and Bissette for that matter, but he's certainly no superficial imitator as is often the case when Moebius is invoked. To cop a phrase from Basho: Baum doesn't seek to follow in the footsteps of the artists/fantasists who came before him; instead, he seeks the things they sought. If we view all this fantasy and science fiction or archaeology of both self and history as escapism for escapism's sake, what Baum does in his comics is rather more complicated: a ballet of metaphor that confronts a reality complex. And with Baum, beyond influence, it's his own dance, his own choreography, his own particular, specific rituals.
Baum takes us right back, before all the figures just mentioned, to Wally Wood and his reaction to underground comix and indeed even publishing work from the so called underground, like Vaughn Bode and others, with his Witzend, striving to find a spot for personal genre work, meant for literate adults. Fantasists, but fantasists with a vision, and a point of view, not merely plying the trade of genre for a few cents on the word, a few bucks the page. Like any artist worth his or her salt, Baum, in the end, allows us to see worlds through his eyes.
Whatever Baum is doing and who he sees as his own antecedents, he's working a mtyhopoeic visual language that's as old as the also aforementioned dirt, a confluence of influences that places him on the vanguard of the contemporary, and his visionary qualities are not static, not retrograde, and, following: point towards a future or futures or even the future.
If it all seems so much hyperbole for me to place Baum in this/these tradition/s and divining his future/s, at least we can guess that I'm not so very all alone, as the faculty and staff of Fantagraphics must have come to some similar conclusion/s in regards to both Baum's seriousness and his potential viability in the context of genre/genre busting, as his debut graphic novel Dorfler is set to be released by them this summer. A major comics event in this, or any other, time.
II: Eamon Espey
Eamon Espey is a singular force in comics as a serious art form one must reckon with, or if not reckon with, in which case, one might consider stepping down from regarding contemporary comics as a form, and admit to oneself that one is interested more in something else, like junk soap opera or anecdotal memoir. I'm not telling you, dear reader, how to live your life and/or how to be a fully aware human being.
I am however telling you, dear reader, that Espey approaches the comics form as a kind of alchemist in ink and paper, delineating with those tools the raw elements, not with modern scientific methodology, but a kind of intuitive/raw proto method, more akin to Blake than post modern superficiality/vanity and cynicism in art or science, or rather art/science, as if he's rebuilding comics language into a world view from the ground up, not just in comics language but incorporating many archetypal human visual devices stretching from now back to antiquity. In a much different result than Baum, he is arriving at his own conclusion/s by remixing reality with historical visual cues via his own nervous system. Again like Baum, his magic is to allow us to see the world as he sees it.
If we place under our viewfinder the most recent, and most mature, single collection of Espey's, Songs of the Abyss, we can see clearly that what Espey is in touch with the modern, in fact: more in accordance with recent genetic discovery, the fundamental absence of diversity implicit in the being of humans, than he is with the language of cultural studies in the trademark of current academic mores. The truth at the heart of his art and symbolism is that we are and have always been one culture merely divided by the umbilical cord of region of one's birth and the resultant varying dialects; time in addition to place, all of humanity saying the same things, regardless of our ability to translate each other from one territory to the next. Espey expresses himself with one dialect, and it is a summary dialect.
Like Carl Jung before him, who stated, "To give birth to the ancients in a new time is creation," Espey seems to intuit that the myths of humanity are THE myth. The distinctions human beings make between races, like racism itself, is largely human vanity; not the reality of oppression but the fundamental futility at the core, the vanity for anyone to ever become a racist. From the fragmentation of a stained glass window in Middle Ages Europe designed to translate biblical messages visually to the illiterate, to the symbolism of pre Christian Celts, to the symbolism of the pre European conquest Americas, as we go back and further back with Espey through human history and story telling, as Espey reconfigures all these elements of image as information into one new element; we see when/if we have the eyes to see through him what is not, largely, a comforting vision: that the past is not dead, to echo Faulkner, it's not even past. And if what the past is, instead of was, is prologue, then we are headed for violence, doom, self destruction, cultural implosion, the present an improvisation along the continuing melodies not a departure from melodies past. This revelation is a distress single, an error message. Songs from the abyss, indeed, even the abyss of time; Espey does not comfort.
Cultural appropriation in contemporary parlance denotes exploitation of the disadvantaged by the privileged, a version in the arts of exploiting natural resources not just minerals and goods and cheap labor but also creative forms of expression of culture for export back into itself by a privileged culture from the source of the unprivileged culture, without recompense. Espey doesn't do that. He gives us ourselves, or Our Self/s, back to us.
I was on the cusp of writing that the Songs of the Abyss are not lullabies, then I realized my own mistake of imprecise words leading to unawareness. His songs/Songs are in fact lullabies as well as ballads as well as dirges as well as screams. His book, as does his mature work in general, sings to us in our slumber that if we were die before we wake, while we may pray the Lord our soul to take, total implosion will carry no culture nor soul into a future that is no future but rather the loss of it all.
We can choose to ignore both the wisdom and the folly of the ancients and, either way, small minded theories and labels fade, if not indeed erupt in flame in one's own hands, and ones own hands holding the small words may catch flame next. In Abyss, Eamon quotes the Cheyenne "Death Song": "Nothing lives long/Only the earth and the mountains." The earth and mountains don't need "us". If we are to survive to thrive to evolve for the better as a species via the "gift" of human intellect, as the closing verse in the end notes/appendix/guide of the book states after asking the question of "where does the spirit live?":
in a grain of sand
outside of time
waiting to come alive.
III: Liv Valasco
Of the visualists, Liz Valasco is the youngest, and insofar as I am aware, the femalest of this trinity of artists. While all three of these artists I consider friends/fellow travelers, not just in the abstract but in the nuts and bolts facts of living life in flux at comics festivals and crossing paths be it Bethesda, Baltimore, Pittsburgh , Minneapolis and/or parts unknown, I've had opportunity, unlike Baum and Espey whose work I know best by proxy via publication and sometimes getting to rub elbows within person for short stretches, to regard Valasco's process and works via closer and more prolonged proximity by virtue of hanging out with her for several different longer stretches over the course of a couple of years in Columbus, Ohio, her residence in that fine Ohio town concurrent with the "second home" status with me of Cbus via our mutual friend and Columbus resident, Caitlin McGurk, my friend prior to her move, which she made for work a few years ago at the Billy Ireland Museum at OSU.
I have the sense that I know Valasco best as an artist by the privilege of looking at her largely unpublished sketchbook pages in person. Liz has gifts at daily observation, surreal/zany humor, I mean real funny, and a lightness of touch in her linework and story telling that can jarringly turn dark. And when I say dark, I mean real dark, as if the lightness was only ever there to deceive the viewer that he or she was not in fact being led into darkness the whole time, like the insect that suddenly realizes the plant upon which it has been contentedly grazing is in fact the gaping maw of the proverbial Venus flytrap. And even that can yet still be funny, granted one is not the actual insect sitting on the flytrap.
Her sketchbooks naturally reveal this, as do her published comics to date. The absurd Adventures of Moon Pie is as charming as it is unsettling. The Seeker seems to be a slice of life, but the slice turns on a dime to the foreboding, to ambiguity. I'm interested in everything she does. She has the capacity, and that is self evident; if she maintains the discipline and dedication, in particular, to the craft of comics in the next few years, Criswell predicts she will become, even more than she is at the present, a heavy hitter of contemporary indie/art focused comics. Or even, for that matter, could produce something utterly commercial or expand away from comics into other forms; she's an artist, regardless.
Either way, I like to see my artist friends ascend, and she is on her way. Dig her now before you are forced to see me smugly give you that, "I told you so" look.
IV: A Quaternity
I've said several times to my artists in Despair that I operate a kind of "psychic editorial policy." Select the artists, give them the theme of despair/Despair, and otherwise lay back and read unless they ask questions and/or for direction. There's something about getting a diverse set of artists and giving them all a task that yields connections, synchronicity, if all involved have all their pistons firing. The results have, to my perception, worked out in perfectly anticipated and perfectly unsuspected ways: the pieces have all fit.
With this latest and lastest volume, I've said to all guests that if we had sat down together in one physical location and had a meeting at a table to hash out the flow from one piece to another and had a shared, physical map to direct us, we couldn't have come out with more seemingly forethought results. We did this all wordlessly, by natural occurrence.
I: Baum's pin up, single full page image opens us up to a suited astronaut of some exotic variety, holding the hand of some fellow primate, not suited, both regarding some modern/ancient stone sculpture that invokes some obscure symbolic moon based consciousness.
II: That leads the viewer next to Espey's single page as divided into four panels, but with a central, circular piece that in turn divides itself into four more sections, again with a yet another circle at the center within the center. Within this organizing of reality, symbolic creatures operate: the Christian cross juxtaposed with Unidentified Flying Objects, and yet there seems to be a relatively mundane facade of a house, or an apartment building, at the crux/flux of it all.
III: Which then takes us to Valasco's unique two page comic which begings with an image of a courtyard, vaguely ominous in its banality which takes us to an image of descending deeper into the basement of one of the buildings from the said courtyard until we see a woman, on hands and knees, seemingly preparing to enter a small entrance into what we might perceive as the subbasement of all basements.
IV: In turning of the page, we then see a single house from the outside, and then the "camera" takes us inside that house, apparently, to see the image of a sleeping woman, then awakened by nightmare. That is the start of my collaboration with Croatian born German woman of letters, Nikolina Serdar–Kissel. The tale that spins from those next four pages, then leads us into the body of the rest of my own work for Despair 3.
If the nature of the first two volumes was rather masculine in energy to my discernment, even including the work of my female guests previous, whether its the invocation of the moon, with both Baum and Espey, the image of such always associated in world religion/art as embodying the quintessence of the female/the feminine, or Valasco's subbasement set up or the journey into the landscape of Nikolina's female protagonist, or my own use of the image of Asherah, both for the cover, and in the outro strip with Bill Duck before the back cover and Bill's "translation" of the rotas/sator square, I would postulate that Despair vol. 3 is the most feminine, and, hopefully therefore, most "wise" of the three volumes. At least, hopefully: may it be so.