Picture Show: Nymphonomena

Posted by on September 13th, 2010 at 5:00 AM

Rob reviews Nymphonomena, a themed anthology by Pat Barrett, Josh Kramer, Betsey Swardlick and Ben Horak.

Of the many anthologies to emerge from the Center for Cartoon Studies, Nymphonomena has emerged as one of the best, with only the highly ambitious third volume of Sundays anthology surpassing it.  No anthology surpasses Nymphonomena for sheer audacity and dedication to its theme, however.  The conceit of the book is simple: a tribute to a cult-classic, gender-bending 1970s musical film called Nymphonomena.  It’s about an alien sex goddess named Paradisa who comes from “outer space–to mate!”  She seduces a young farmboy named Tracy (inbetween eating cats), coercing him into allowing her to alter his genitals to match hers, all with a rocking and campy soundtrack informing the action.

Of course, there is no such movie; the four artists behind this comic not only made it up out of whole cloth, they even created “movie stills” and used them as interstitial material.  At no point does anyone break character, so to speak, as the artists dare the reader to try to figure out the authenticity of their claims.  This is a comic book about drawing inspiration from a colorful, campy source as a means of validating one’s own Otherness.  While it’s never stated, it’s obvious that The Rocky Horror Picture Show was an inspiration for this idea.  The film’s themes of gender-bending, sexual freedom and the courage to carve out one’s own identity in the face of a disapproving world have become overshadowed after years of Rocky Horror‘s status as a permanent midnight movie.  It’s almost as though the artists wanted to come up with a better cult movie: a crazier film that took more risks, was more explicit in its exploration of transexuality and that rocked harder.

The comic is also a comment on the kind of fanaticism that these films can engender, and each of the four artists tackles a different aspect of this inspiration.  Josh Kramer’s “I Come From Space To Mate” is about a man who slowly comes to terms with his own nature as a transgendered person over a period of time (thanks in part to the film’s example).  The way that confused sexual identity affected his/her ability to hold down a job and established relationship with his wife rang true, but Kramer doesn’t possess the chops (especially in terms of character design) to pull off his ambitions here.

Betsey Swardlick’s “Your Earth Cats Are Delicious” is the standout story of the anthology.  This story speaks to the way a piece of cult art can inspire someone to do something with their lives.  Swardlick’s line is rough but expressive, reminiscent here of Ariel Schrag.  This story follows an aimless young woman spending a summer watching ALF episodes (a show that drew “inspiration” from Nymphonomena the film) who is given a copy of the video by a proselytizing video store clerk.  When a Nymphonomena tribute band comes into town, her inspiration goes in a whole new direction.  Swardlick’s lettering deserves special mention here, as it’s every bit as expressive and decorative in key moments as her art.

Ben Horak’s “How Can You Love Someone What Comes From Space?” uses a pleasingly cartoony line to tell a story of obsessiveness honed to a psychotic edge.  It also carries a nice bit of continuity over from Swardlick’s story, as we learn how that particular video store clerk came to assume that job.  Pat Barrett’s “Let The Genital Mingling Commence” (the dialogue this quartet came up with for the film was truly inspired) is the slickest and most accomplished from a technical standpoint, and that slickness serves this story well.  It’s about the making of the film, the intermingling of sexism & racism, and the ways in which the free love culture of the 70s didn’t exactly eradicate either of these problems.  The book’s coda, a “true life” tale of the real inspiration the film’s writer and director experienced, is both hilarious and touching in his drug-inspired delusions of changing the world.  Even with some rough edges here and there, Nymphonomena‘s concept, cohesiveness, design and overall execution & care make this a truly fascinating collaboration.

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3 Responses to “Picture Show: Nymphonomena

  1. cfrakes says:

    I love this book. Here’s the only place I know of to buy it online:
    http://shop.patbarrett.com/

  2. joshkramer says:

    Thanks Rob and Colleen!
    You can buy the book from me (http://joshkramer.wordpress.com) or Pat, or come by MICE (http://www.masscomics.com/) on the 25th!

  3. […] news, you may have already noted* that a certain little comic called Nymphonomena has stormed the gates of The Comics Journal. Thanks, Rob […]