Museum Piece: Al Burian Goes To Hell

Posted by on November 20th, 2010 at 5:54 AM

Rob reviews the bootlegged reprint of Al Burian Goes To Hell, by Al Burian (Migraine, distributed by Microcosm).

My first reading of Al Burian Goes To Hell left me a bit confused.  It was noted as being an undergrad’s thesis project, but there are comments throughout the comic noting how surprising it was that this was allowed.  Seinfeld and The Simpsons are referred to as new and cutting-edge humor.   The story is a self-reflexive autobiographical account of the artist’s descent into hell ala Dante’s Inferno, an odd thing for a young cartoonist to do given Gary Panter’s epic Jimbo’s Inferno.  It all felt crude and more than a little derivative until an internet search revealed that the artist, Al Burian, drew this seventeen years ago; and it was reprinted without his knowledge or permission.  Burian went on to become a famous zinester, columnist for Punk Planet and musician.  What’s odd is that the press materials for this comic note that this is a widely-bootlegged comic–but not that this edition in itself is a bootleg.

Finding this out made the contents more interesting in retrospect.  In 1993, submitting a comic to complete a fine arts thesis was still unusual.  The aforementioned sitcoms were cutting-edge humor.  The Panter book wouldn’t come out for another four years.  The crude work in the book reflects a young and untrained artist muddling his way through an idea too ambitious for him to really get his head around.  That said, there’s a lot to recommend to this work.  Burian’s self-awareness of how pathetic his self-obsessive mopey whining is (considering his privileged life) is refreshing.  The conceit of laying the template of The Inferno over his life (and potential life-to-come) is a clever one, and Burian milks a lot of laughs out of connecting his smart-ass comics with Dante’s original poetry.

Burian’s general malaise (and then guilt for feeling malaise) gets the best of his attempts at crafting some sort of narrative, something that he clearly felt ambiguous about to begin with.  The extended comparisons of hell to working in a cubicle, the spectacle of Burian getting kicked out of a grocery store for eating out of bulk bins, etc. felt heavy-handed.  The fantasy sequences of talking to Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley and Virgil (with Burian kicking him to the curb) were the funniest and most effective in the book, but it felt like Burian either got bored doing them or else ran out of funny ideas.  His default mode is self-loathing to the point of paralysis; even suicide is far too active an option to really pursue.  Inserting his art teachers into the mix as a way of not letting himself off the hook (by way of discussing the assignment itself) was the ultimate act of self-nullification.  His half-hearted attempts at deflecting their critiques reflected his own confusion at just what he was trying to accomplish.

That conflict in itself was a telling one: the desire to create a multi-layered narrative rife with meaning and symbolism (much like Dante) vs the zinester/cartoonist’s urge to simply draw for one’s own amusement.  Going through this process revealed not that he wasn’t capable of the former, but rather that he was simply more interested in the latter.  His subsequent career in personal zines and comics speaks to him learning his lesson about what kind of artist he wanted to become. It also speaks to the ways in which creating these sorts of zines was a form of therapy and release, while his adaptation of Dante seemed to become a burden.  The fact that he went all the way with this narrative, with no real template to work from, is an impressive feat.  The overall effect is that of a very good first draft of a potentially great work.  Unfortunately, that’s all the reader is left with.  This is certainly not fair to the artist, who never wanted this to get out in the first place.

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