Ignatz Update 3: Grotesque #4

Posted by on February 23rd, 2011 at 5:17 AM

Rob reviews the fourth and final issue of Sergio Ponchionne’s Grotesque, a joint Fantagraphics-Coconino Press production.

Sergio Ponchionne’s conclusion to Grotesque returned to the mind-bending storytelling of the first issue, tying together loose story threads in a manner that treated those threads as tangible objects.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, Ponchionne’s line is very “American”: thick and rubbery, influenced in equal parts by classic cartooning of the 1920s (like many of the Ignatz artists) and the American underground and alternative traditions.  There are echoes of R.Crumb, Elzie Segar, Charles Burns and Kim Deitch in his work, creating a lush, bizarre world that he doesn’t quite allow the reader to get lost in.  Indeed, if the past two issues (the “Cryptic City” story) felt a bit more conventional than the more expansive first issue, the finale not only fully fleshed out the first issue’s themes, it gave the last two issues a new context.

The series has been about the machinations of a permanently sneering, godlike figure named Mr. O’Blique.  He’s a disquieting figure in part because of the rhomboid shape of his head and the way it sits on his body at an impossible angle. After the adventures his emissary Professor Hackensack experienced in the past two issues, O’Blique offered him a peek behind the curtain: the chance to see the Meaning of Life.  Hackensack, a figure who looks not unlike Crumb’s Mr. Natural, demurred, preferring his lifelong pursuit of mysteries and secrets to an easy answer.  O’Blique is a figure that embodies the intimate relationship between fantasy and reality, one whose mere presence inspires that search for meaning and mystery–a spark for each man’s own narrative but also a figure who tempts people to escape from reality.  For him, these narratives of humans delight him, as the three seekers in the first issue get their stories finished (in a highly abbreviated fashion) when O’Blique takes their books off the shelf.

Those endings were not happy ones.  An intrepid explorer winds up on a desolate plain, seeking the void for the meaning of life.  A man haunted by the thoughts of the fictional characters he loves wound up living with them, only to discover that his creations were starting to disappear.  A man who had withdrawn from the world only to recover finds himself relapsing.  All are seeking an answer, a meaning, trying to muddle through that process.  For each, O’Blique played tempter and practical joker, and always got his way using one method or another.  Hackensack resisted temptation, but wasn’t quite savvy enough to realize when he was being led by the nose for an especially wicked practical joke.  Being led back through Cryptic City (featuring a sudden switch from black & white to a light brown wash), he’s led to a hole where he accidentally learns what he didn’t want to know: The Explanation.

It’s not clear if O’Blique did this as a favor to him or not (because the reader doesn’t see what’s in the hole), but it was clearly a punchline to the elaborate joke that Hackensack was in O’blique’s eyes.  He essentially left Hackensack, and the reader, in the same position: having had a cosmic joke played on them without much regard to what will happen to them next.  He revealed knowledge to Hackensack knowing it would bring the same kind of abrupt end to his narrative (and the series) that withholding knowledge from the other three characters did.  He hints at what the secret is, however, when he talks about his admiration for man’s attempt to draw meaning and explore the “great mystery”…which includes “the grotesque immensity that encompasses it”.  That “immensity” could be either the infinite or the void–or both.  It’s grotesque because it’s too awful to look in its face, to comprehend its scale.  Fantasy is a way of deluding one into thinking that there is such a thing as a personal narrative with particular meanings; it’s a survival technique but one that’s doomed to always fail, one way or another.  It’s a way for us to look away from the void.  O’Blique is less a sinister figure than a mischievous one who understands this and treats it as a trick to play on others–especially the reader.  It’s a trick that all of us one day will have pulled on us.

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