When Words Collide: Revisiting MoCCA Fest 2012

Mon, May 7th, 2012 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
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THE PRESENT IS BLACK AND WHITE AND RED ALL OVER

To start: the widely-linked to post from the gang over at Secret Acres (and the comments that follow) pretty much captures the MoCCA Fest 2012 zeitgeist, so I won't recap my adventures at the Lexington Armory last weekend or the relatively relaxed-but-disappointed atmosphere at the best of the non-Brooklyn-Comics-and-Graphics-Festival small press shows in the city. Without Picturebox or Adhouse or Koyama Press or Ben Marra or Zack Soto or Frank Santoro or Michael DeForge the MoCCA Festival did have a distinctive emptiness -- it's hard to get excited about the art of comics without any or all of those folks in attendance -- but I certainly didn't leave the show empty-handed. I picked up a few things that I wouldn't have been able to get anytime soon, and though I didn't stumble across anything surprisingly fresh or now, I had enough books and comics to fill up my travel bag and subsequently spill out all over the floor of a Metro North train on the way home when I was making space for another passenger.

The guy who helped pick up my books on the train handed me my copy of Josh Simmons' "The Furry Trap" as if he were picking up a bloody rag, pinching it ever so tentatively with only his index finger and thumb. I doubt that he would have any idea what was inside the book he was passing over the seat to me, but had he known I suspect he would have put on some latex gloves before holding it with such repulsed tenderness. In an alternate universe, he opens up the book before handing it back, and his eyes explode with shock and dismay. Like a character out of a Tex Avery cartoon.

In the real world, he just handed it back with helpful disgust, probably because it had been on the dirty floor of a train, but maybe also because it had the word "furry" in the title and bloody footprints on the cover.

That was just one of many books I came home with after my weekend trip to New York City, where Television's Ryan Callahan and I ate several platters of meat at various spectacular restaurants and saw a late-night screening of "The Raid: Redemption" with an audience that cheered almost the whole way through and may or may not have thought that they were watching a Chinese movie for some reason.

I watched "Hugo" last week, before I left for my MoCCA trip, and that was the only thing I'd seen recently before our viewing of "The Raid." Let's make it official, for the records of the recent history of my movie-watching: Gareth Evans 1, Martin Scorsese 0.

But you don't care about that! This is Comic Book Resources, and it's comics you want and comics you will get! Or…at least me talking about the best of the bunch of comics I came home with from last weekend. So here goes: five comics from the bowels of MoCCA Fest 2012. The good ones.

"The Furry Trap," by Josh Simmons

Alternatively referred to by many as "The Book of the Show" or "that book by that guy you would probably like," this Fantagraphics Books' hardcover collection of Josh Simmons "Horror Stories 2004-2011" is more than worth the unknowingly-appropriate disgusted reaction from my fellow train passenger. This thing is a nightmarish monster. It's pretty great.

The horror stories of Josh Simmons are not gothic tragedies or violent slasher tales. They may have elements of those kinds of stories, but essentially what Simmons does so well -- without peer, honestly -- is smash together sweetness and nightmare. Innocence and the most vile corruption imaginable. The stories are unsettling, but Simmons takes it three steps further than many other creators in this vein and then pushes the events into exceedingly horrific territory and then shows how unsettled even the character are, when they realize the kind of worth they live in.

If there is joy in a Simmons story it is a gleefully evil joy. Of the sort you might see in a Johnny Ryan comic, except while the Ryan characters seem to constantly top each other with wickedness, Simmons pulls back to more vulnerable points of view, so we can feel the anxiety and terror that the victims of the stories feel as well.

As a visual stylist, Simmons shows his range in this collection, from the thick lines and bright, flat colors of "In a Land of Magic" (which looks like something out of Nickelodeon Magazine, until you see the brutal events that occur after the first few pages), to the Millionaire-esque linework of the unsuperheroic "Mark of the Bat," to the precision crafting of the demonic baby saga called "Demonwood."

Yeah, this stuff is really good, in surprisingly different ways from story to story. It's a reprint collection that feels like a wonderfully terrible, vibrantly new manifesto on what comics are capable of.

"Nurse Nurse," by Katie Skelly

None of the other comics I'm writing about this week can compete with the quality of "The Furry" trap, but Skelly's "Nurse Nurse," newly published by Sparkplug Books, was the first book I bought at MoCCA this year, and it was the first book I read that night when I got back to the apartment.

Skelly has been serializing "Nurse Nurse" as lo-fi minicomics for a while now, but this bound collection acts as a comprehensive look at Skelly's development as an artist and storyteller over the past couple of years. Her bold, clean-line style doesn't fully come into focus until about halfway through the collection, but Skelly's dream-like narrative voice is present from the beginning.

"Nurse Nurse," as a collection, reads like an improvised comic -- like a warm-up for something bigger -- but it's consistently delightful. It spotlights the adventures of Gemma, space-nurse and her sometimes baffling adventures through the galaxy. Gemma herself is a hero with a more-than-capable skillset, but she never seems to know quite what's going on around her. She's caught up in strange events beyond her control. Doctor Lucien -- the probably-Captain-Harlock-inspired character -- acts as her most interesting foil, and he even seems to play a role, near the end of the collection, as a kind of authorial voice. There are metafictional layers to this story by the time its finished, where Skelly seems to be speaking about manipulating her characters, experimenting with them, as an artist.

Or maybe that's just her way out, as the story collected here reaches the end of the volume, a long way from wrapping-up all the potential loose ends.

But "Nurse Nurse" isn't about tightly-plotted narrative mechanisms. It's about an artist playing around with character and setting and events, creating a story out of the dreamstuff that inspires her, and we get to watch it happen on the page.

"Bowman 2016," by Pat Aulisio

Continuing from Retrofit's "Bowman" #1, this Hic & Hoc minicomic follows up on the punk-inflected space exploits of Dave Bowman (from "2001: A Space Odyssey) via the obsessively scratchy pen-and-ink work of Pat Aulisio. Aulisio's Bowman Cycle, which he promises to continue for the foreseeable future, is a mix of Jack Kirby and Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick presented in the rawest of forms.

Aulisio's style is whatever the opposite of clean-line would be: rugged and rough, with seemingly dashed-off squiggles that conspire to create manic imagery from page to page. It's not completely distant from the work of Gary Panter, but Aulisio's work is even more unrefined than Panter at his most raw. Ausilio's pages look like they've been attacked in a fever dream, with ink carved into every nook.

Surrounding this frenetic artwork, a story emerges. A heroic quest in an absurdist landscape, with Dave Bowman assembling his skull-and-shoulderpads armor to battle the unknown alongside his distended-Garfield companion. Space Gods appear by the end, as they are wont to do. And things get bloody. Or, rather, inky.

"Future Shock" #1, by Josh Burggraf and Friends

Pat Aulisio's Bowman Cycle pops up again in this full-color anthology published by writer/artist Josh Burggraf. In here, we get a few pages of "Moon Watcher" in purple and teal, with a familiar ape and a familiar monolith and a bit of bone.

But as much as I like Aulisio's work, that's not the best part of "Future Shock," a comic that bills itself as an "Astro-Psyche-Out Sci-Fi Anthology."

No, the best is the ever-shifting style of Burggraf himself, who draws several of the stories in this collection and writes other ones. "The Electric Unconscious" stands out as his most visually striking, a neon noir story that's like "Alphaville" as imagined by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Burggraf's skills don't quite live up to the promise inspired by my little description there, but he's willing to push his visuals to their limit and he has compiled an excellent package of comics in this slim volume.

The anthology ends with "Hazard Pay," written by Burggraf and drawn by Victor Kerlow, prison-break-in-space short story that wears the connection between American art comics and European genre comics on its virtual sleeve. It's but a tease of what else might come from these creators, but even as a mere taste, it's quite satisfying.

I'm certainly interested in seeing what Burggraf and his pals come up with next.

"Lincoln Washington Free Man," by Benjamin Marra

Even though Marra was on the west coast shilling his work instead of on the east coast with us where he belonged, his friends at Mammal Magazine stacked most of the Traditional Comics offerings on their table, including his newest release about an ex-slave fighting against racism.

When Ben Marra turns his attention to the subtleties of historical fiction and the post-Civil War oppression of minorities, you get one result: sex and violence, and lots of it. More of the latter than the former, of course.

Luckily, as revealed in his inside-the-back-cover bio, Marra is an "academic," and as he reveals, "History accuracy is very important to [him.] [He] used to work in newspapers, so…"

Such meticulous attention to historical veracity allows us to experience the verisimilitude of Lincoln Washington's fight against the tyranny of oppression. For example, someone with less-impressive credentials than Marra would probably not make you feel the truth of having your KKK-wearing spine ripped out, or the historical realism of that time Lincoln Washington punched a klansman's head clean off with a single blow. Amateur historians wouldn't make it hurt so much.

Fortunately for all of us, Marra is not only an academic, but he's also a comic book maker, and if the "To Be Continued…" box in the lower-right-hand corner of the final page is any indication, the true story of Lincoln Washington is far from over. As far as MoCCA 2012 is concerned, that's about the most exciting news of all.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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