The Comforts of Terror: Curio Cabinet

Posted by on January 28th, 2011 at 12:01 AM

Curio Cabinet; by John Brodowski; Secret Acres; $15.00, 244 pp.; ISBN: 978-0979960970

All images ©2010 John Brodowski

The key strip in the unrelentingly delightful and eccentric book Curio Cabinet is the first extended one, entitled “Hunter.”  In it, the “Rock and Roll Maniac Quiz” silently taken by a boy and either his father or much older brother ends with this question: “What outrageous act would you perform to prove to the world you are a rock and roll maniac?”  Curio Cabinet contains a series of stories where quiet moments quickly become outrageous and horrific in a way that is frequently ecstatic, and outrageous moments unexpectedly become calm and contemplative.  The stories have a certain serious weight to them, no matter how absurd or weird they become, thanks to Brodowski’s dense, uninked penciling style.  A certain kind of naturalism is created wherein the reader quickly accepts what’s happening on the page, no matter if it’s a man in a squirrel suit joining nature, a dinosaur being summoned by a bagpipe player or an anthropomorphic axe attempting to commit suicide.

A shorthand way of describing this comic is that it’s very metal. “Metal” in the very best junior-high school sense of the word, where a world of fantasies and possibilities have arisen that have a certain jagged edge to them, representative of the teenager’s simple view of the world as either awesome or deserving of scorn and/or revenge.  It’s metal in the occasional id-born brutality of those fantasies.  It’s metal in its sweep, and in its and unapologetic and unironic embrace of the epic, the over-the-top and the operatic.  The genius of this book is the way that Brodkowski employs restraint in his narrative and patience in his pacing.  He doesn’t bother to spell out what’s happening in these fantasy narratives, forcing the reader to simply accept what’s on the page and roll with it.  This is not to say that his storytelling is unclear; indeed, the deliberate nature of that pacing makes his stories quite easy to follow in terms of structure.  Each story has its own internal logic, no matter how screwy it may be.  His control over his line is so exact yet expressive that one never questions what one is looking at, but rather why it’s happening.

There’s a running narrative in the book called “Cus Mommy Said So” starring a figure that looks much like Jason from the Friday the 13th movies.  When he wanders around a forest, finds a campfire, goes to a lake, etc. in each one-page episode, the reader expects some kind of horrific slasher-pic violence to erupt.  Instead, these are the contemplative mood pieces in the book, where the young man is left to ponder the awful fate of his mother at the hands of a teenage girl (decapitation by machete).  Indeed, the fate of his mother is a sort of twisted version of the events of the first Friday the 13th movie, only this time the gentle “Jason” decides to take his own life in a story called “Death Magic Doom.” Brodowski subverts reader expectations with the initial gentleness of these strips, surprises the reader with that particularly visceral bit of violence, and then subverts expectations again with the end.  Brodowski’s clever move is for “Jason” to never encounter another person, reducing him to a sad and lonely existence.

Brodowski works with either slightly grotesque but naturalistic figures doing strange things or else weird, anthropomorphic characters engaged in emotionally charged situations.  Brodowski never forgets the odd physical qualities of those anthropomorphic characters and mines extra humor out of them, like the suicidal axe accidentally killing someone and winding up in a police toolshed or a musical note speaking in song.  His most deeply affecting stories are the ones where something weird happens to normal people.  “Holy Diver” (there’s an explicit metal reference) features a picnicking couple wherein the man is spirited away by a giant wolf-headed eagle and taken to a cave in a sky volcano where he must face demons.  It’s “metal” in the sense that I mentioned earlier in that it has all the manic energy of a teenage Judas Priest fan drawing it in fifth period, eager to show it to his friends.

“Miner’s Refrain” and “Kindred Spirits” are the most heartfelt stories in the book.  The former is about the unrelentingly miserable daily life of a miner who is eventually rewarded with a beachside afterlife, while the latter is about the aforementioned squirrel-suited man who slowly but surely abandons his own family in the most matter-of-fact and workmanlike manner possible.  His loss of connection to his family is strangely sad, but his connection to nature is oddly sweet, even if he is acting like a lunatic.  These stories also speak to the tension in this book between suburb and forest and the very thin line that separates them; it’s the same line that separates civilization from the savagery of nature.  In particular, it’s about the ways in which we fantasize about that line and either crossing it ourselves or else having something cross over into our world with horrific results.

Like the other books Secret Acres publishes, Curio Cabinet is the result of a cartoonist with a vision that doesn’t neatly conform to underground, genre or typical alt-comics sensibilities.  Curio Cabinet is informed by pop culture detritus in terms of its form and inspiration, but Brodowski takes that juvenilia and creates something strange, beautiful and memorable.  It’s a comic that must be approached on its own terms, because while the images and stories can be teased for meaning with a little effort, Brodowski not only doesn’t spell it out, he understands that spelling it out would destroy the effect he’s going for: that sense of full immersion in fantasy, following it to its furthest ends.

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