Tom Neely’s Side Gigs

Posted by on November 6th, 2010 at 5:02 AM

Rob reviews Bound & Gagged, a collection of single-panel gags edited by Tom Neely; Henry & Glenn Forever, a collection of strips done by Neely and his Igloo Tornado art collective compatriots and distributed by Microcosm; and Doppelganger, a mini by Neely himself.

Tom Neely is best known as the artist behind the astonishing comic The Blot.  Those who follow his output carefully know that he’s released a handful of gorgeous minicomics while working on the follow-up to that book.  In the past year, he’s become really ambitious with regard to his side projects, which speaks to his love of collaboration.  One of those projects, Henry & Glenn Forever, started as a lark with the fellow members of his art studio Igloo Tornado but has since mutated into a huge word-of-mouth success.

In fact, the original mini has been expanded and is now being published by Microcosm.  It’s a comic whose high concept is so clever that it almost overshadows the actual content.  The book consists of a series of single-panel strips wherein hyper-masculine musicians Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig are lovers who live next door to satanists Hall & Oates.  It’s an affectionate send-up of the testosterone-soaked images of both singers by real fans, replete with lyrics-as-dialogue and all of the familiar iconography for both men.  It’s less a poke at them than it is a parody of romance comics, overly-sensitive emo indy comics, and self-obsessed diary strips.

The four members of the art collective (Neely, Scot Nobles, Levon Jihanian & Gin Stevens) go back and forth, with the jarring differences in their style providing a sort of dissonance that keeps the reader off-balance.  The styles range between Neely’s crisp, Floyd Gottfredson-inspired figures to the repetitive use of Danzig/Rollins headshots delivering a quip.  The best things in the book are Neely’s strips (he owns these caricatures like he’s been drawing them all his life) and the handwritten diary excerpts.  They are hilariously overwrought bits of delusional self-examination, punctuated by the sort of emotional codependence endemic to the sorts of relationships depicted in such stories.  Neely’s strips are darker, funnier and more on point than the other strips in the book, which sometimes waver into nonsensical drawings (like R&D wanting to be unicorns). Those distractions don’t hurt the book, which is ultimately a disposable but highly entertaining trifle that touched a cultural nerve.

The Neely-edited anthology Bound & Gagged is a far more accomplished and ambitious work, as 33 different cartoonists were asked to submit single-panel gag strips.  The twist here is that most of the invited cartoonists had never done comics in this format before, and the majority of them weren’t even close to being humorists.  Indeed, a number of the cartoonists in this volume are better know for being in the comics-as-poetry and Immersive comics camps.  Artists like Juliacks, Austin English and Jason Overby are all known for the oblique nature of their work, acting in such a way that’s the antithesis of punchline-oriented gag work.  Their strips are interesting to look at and function as a sort of metacommentary on New Yorker-style gag work, but aren’t in any way actually funny.

This is not to say these strips were a failure, per se, only that Neely was bold enough to vary his choices as an editor so as to challenge the reader’s preconceptions of what a gag strip is.  Dylan Williams and Anders Nilsen both did single-panel strips that evoked dread and malaise, respectively.  A number of the cartoonists fit into the category of body horror, including Neely, the ever-disturbing Josh Simmons, Eamon Espey, Chris Wright and Michael DeForge.  These strips have a visceral quality that upends the reader’s expectation of a punchline or subverts the text of a punchline with a disturbing image (like a typically grisly and strange Espey image with the caption “Time To Make The Donuts”).

The most effective strips in the book, not surprisingly, are those by actual humorists.  Jesse Reklaw, Kaz Strzepek, Andrice Arp and especially David King all contributed some amazing strips.  The high production values of this comic, with several color pages, were an important part of what made the strips by Reklaw & Strzepek in particular stand out.  Reklaw played around with his usual style in trying out several different types of New Yorker-type approaches.  Strzepek turned his usual fantasy tropes into knowing jokes about fantasy comics; he’s certainly found a new cartooning niche with these strips.  Arp (Reklaw’s girlfriend) dips into Reklaw’s playbook with her own funny dream comics, while King’s bleak Hi & Lois parody gave me the biggest chuckle in the book.

Perhaps the best combination of downbeat and funny were Levon Jihanian’s ominous Family Circus parodies, which employed shadowy figures doomed to the life of the damned and rejection by Mommy.  All told, this is a beautifully-curated anthology with a clever premise that features cartoonists who raised their game.  I’d love to see a sequel, perhaps one with a slightly different focus.

Doppelganger is an existential horror take on Popeye by way of 676 Apparitions of Killoffer. EC Segar (Popeye’s creator) is a crucial touchstone for Neely’s work to begin with, so the uncanny style mimicry seen here is no surprise.  Neely took the idea of identical Popeyes battling each other from an old issue of his comic and turned it into a visceral examination of the ways in which are own id can lead to self-negating behavior.  In particular, this comic is about opposites and dual natures and the ways in which these aspects of our personality, if left unresolved, can fester and mutate.  In other words: what if Popeye had a dark night of the soul?  What makes this comic work so well is its playfulness and the sheer visual assault on each page.  Neely clearly loves drawing these characters and their kinetic qualities are right in his wheelhouse, as any reading of The Blot would reveal.

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