Trading Outpost: Growing Up Is Hard To Do

Trading Outpost: Growing Up Is Hard To Do

Hello and welcome back to Trading Outpost, with me, FST, co-host with the co-most of The Trades, a comics podcast for people who like comics and podcasts. The other half of The Trades is Aaron, who can’t write here, because Aaron’s a dude. You can find the previous installment on WWAC here, and you can

Hello and welcome back to Trading Outpost, with me, FST, co-host with the co-most of The Trades, a comics podcast for people who like comics and podcasts. The other half of The Trades is Aaron, who can’t write here, because Aaron’s a dude. You can find the previous installment on WWAC here, and you can listen to the new episode here! In the Trading Outpost, I’ll write a little about what we’ve already said, and a lot more about what else I would like to say. Content warnings this time for cartoony blood-n-guts, mentions of antisemitism possibly in the Cap Controversy towards the very end of the podcast.  Cool, great, thanks, let’s go!

After making ourselves sad with an extended meditation on the Ninja Turtles as exemplary millenials (they live with their parent and eat nothing but pizza), we talk in some detail about Aaron’s favorite webcomic and a beautiful complicated little mini comic by Whit Taylor, published by the late great Sparkplug. The comics we read this month were mostly about the difficulties of growing up and taking responsibility for yourself. Just standard existential dismay quarter life crisis stuff. He Is a Good Boy and The Anthropologists are two very different comics, in very different styles and genres, about figuring out a way through a world which, despite the obvious inefficiencies of such a setup, has other people in it.1 If you stick around till the end, you get to hear Aaron’s imitation of the kind of person who bases their life on Eat, Pray, Love, and it’s worth it.  

If you distill a lot of the history of Western moral thought, from Hobbes’ claim that life outside of society is “nasty, brutish, and short” to the post-war era’s crises about what caused and how to prevent enormous evil done by seemingly ordinary folks, you could get something like ‘what is people’s deal, intrinsically’ or possibly ‘what intrinsically is people’s deal’ or sometimes ‘what is the deal with intrinsically, people.’  If you live in a world that’s sort of shitty, you probably struggle with what makes someone good, what determines goodness, if goodness is innate or performative. Some of the greatest works of art have been devoted to answering these questions, and if you set Sartre’s No Exit in a cheap bar and replaced the existentially unfixed army deserter with an expressive acorn, you wouldn’t get KC Green’s webcomic He Is A Good Boy, hereafter usually HIAGB, but you’d get something pretty close. Maybe it’s more like an Always Sunny in Philadelphia and No Exit crossover. Except, unlike either of these, HIAGB lacks permanent foils for its emotionally and existentially stunted central character. Crange, the poster boy of Peter Pan syndrome (acorn) at the heart, loosely speaking, of the story is the eponymous Good Boy. This, despite robbing an orphanage for especially dismal girls.2 Despite, possibly, leaving someone to die or be already dead along the side of the road. Despite belittling everyone he talks to in language varying from salty to profane. This, despite, you know, he’s just kinda shitty. Like, as a dude. He’s just kind of a shitty dude. We know he is the good boy because the deus ex mantis, or, possibly mantis ex machina, says so. Let’s back up.

KC Green, He Is a Good Boy, HIAGB.com

Now that’s some #relatable #content. http://hiagb.com/19

When we first meet Crange, he lives in his childhood home, a talking tree that is also his parent, in a room filled with garbage. The comic opens as morning dawns, pale blue and yellow, over an improbable cartoon geography. A tree with a nose-like branch and a slightly rolled eye sits on single elevated outcropping of dirt, which probably used to be a hill before the area immediately around the tree was scooped away. On closer inspection, as the next three panels move closer and closer in, the eye is a door and the pupil, actually a glass window, reveals a mountain of blurry garbage. On the other side of the glass, we see the garbage solidify into a dim room, cluttered with posters, empty cans and bottles, miscellaneous detritus, at least one full garbage bag, and a figure under a blanket, just the tip of a stem sticking out. Here is the good boy, and he spends the next several pages doing everything he can to prove otherwise. When the water doesn’t turn on, he mimes blowing his brains out, rendered in gruesome, exaggerated, detail, leaving a hole through the back of his acorn-body which shows most of his squat skeleton and bits of bright pink brain sitting gloppily on top of what’s left of his skull, as Crange looks backwards at the mess in dull irritation. 3 This over the top violence is a persistent feature in the comic, and a big part of what Aaron loves about HIAGB– he describes it in the episode as ‘grotesque’ which i sulk about a little, since i don’t think descriptive words are useful unless they’re specific. “I can’t help it” Aaron says, “grotesqueness is… grotesque!”

The tree, it explains to Crange, from its actual face, not what looks like a face in the first page, is dying. It doesn’t want to be saved, it wants him to move out and grow up. Crange wants to not have to do that. That’s pretty much the central dynamic of the comic. Crange will go to absurd extremes to avoid really growing up. He’s miserable, selfish, smug, self-hating, prone to outbursts and extremes of emotion in every direction. After the tree dies, despite Crange’s best and/or worst efforts, he ends up drinking constantly and bemoaning his fate, usually at a bar under the auspices of a praying mantis bartender who seems to take a special interest in his survival, possibly his well-being, although it insists that he never needs to change, contrary to Crange’s own feelings about his life. When Crange stumbles into violence, through fate or foolishness, external forces usually resolve the event around him; he is protected from consequences but not from confrontation with himself. I think this structural conceit is part of why HIAGB is so effective in thinking about the paralysis of depression and existential dismay.

HIAGB is episodic, with short and mostly self-contained chapters. Each chapter is titled with a deadpan declarative sentence –“Crange starts his day,” or “Crange stops a robbery” 4 — and starts with a cold open style panel or panels before a single panel with just the title, always white on black. This use of or reference to a sitcom format, which invites stylistic comparisons to Always Sunny, does at least two things. It emphasizes the thematic issue of stasis, as Crange wrestles with different aspects of personal growth or morality, and I think it emphasizes the artificial conditions under which Crange is kept while he fails to grow. It’s a necessary condition for the classic sitcom or cartoon, and one subject to much gentle ridicule, that no matter how outlandish or extreme the events which happen, everything is reset before the next installment. Whatever the references to continuity or very special lessons which might have been imparted, it’s very rare that lasting significant change comes to sitcomland. Similarly, after initial trauma, Crange is protected from most consequences for his actions, both through his ability — following the laws or logic of Looney Tunes — to survive relatively extreme physical violence and the sworn protection of the praying mantis bartender. There’s maybe textual evidence to suggest he can sustain new mental trauma, but his existential stall out is a kind of stasis to which he seems to me to return, regardless of experiences. I think with He Is A Good Boy, Green is either using that trope to interrogate the psychological pain of arrested development, the extended but often sublimated panic of the être en soi pour soi, who recognizes his existential responsibility but is unable to fulfill it, or using the aforementioned crisis of self to interrogate the sitcom trope, depending on your priorities.  Aaron says Crange is “an anti-hero, in the sense that he never does anything ever, not even remotely to make things better. He just gets drunk and sad.” I say weird, wrong things about what an anti-hero is, which is because I depend on genre tropes to inform all of my garbage opinions. Crange is, in fact, an anti-hero, because he is not how you would expect a hero to be: he lacks courage in his convictions, and also lacks courage and convictions.

What Aaron and I both noticed, and what we actually talk about on the podcast, is more recent storylines have offered a hint of optimism for Crange’s future emotional development. In previous stories he has longed for change, including flirting with the idea of becoming a werewolf as the change he’s been looking for (although he’s mostly hung up about the possibilities of a ‘weird dick’), but has balked at making changes.5  The last few story lines suggest Crange has begun to take some responsibility for his choices and then moves slightly towards living with, rather than wallowing in, the impermeability of the past. Because of what the text is, these come from improbable places — for instance, easing the restless soul of a sexually miserable ghost who created a spectral, yet drippy, tunnel of earthly delights (I call it a “Boschian fuck tunnel” and Aaron calls it a “wall of flesh”).  These small moments of connection may or may not become redemptive, as the structure of HIAGB suggests that continuity is, for Crange, more powerful than change.

KC Green, He Is a Good Boy, HIAGB.com

Spectral lovin’, it happened so faaaaaast, http://hiagb.com/127

Despite my focus on the grim existential questions which are a small but significant part of the comic, HIAGB is undeniably and principally fun. One of the best jokes in the series is when Crange, emptied of guts by an unknown assailant, stumbles upon an ‘artist’ in the medium of innards. On the wall behind him are artworks made out of organs, which is itself sort of funny, but i spotted at least two clever homages to ‘classic’ works, Magritte’s ‘dude with an apple for a face’ 6 and the Creation of Adam. I sort of suspect some the others might be references, too? If you recognize them please write in. The art is a delight to look at, bright colors, expressive faces, pleasant round shaped creatures and jagged intrusions of violence. Green’s heavily outlined cartooning moves with elastic joy as faces, figures, and objects balloon and contort from panel to panel, obeying a logic of force and the laws of comedy. Basically between the gore, which makes me go “hahah OH DANG” every couple of pages and the over the top cartooning, it’s a real nice comic and y’all should read it, is our hot take of the moment.

KC Green, He Is a Good Boy, HIAGB.com

Sequential art is a medium with infinite potential. http://hiagb.com/59

I’m not sure the expanded summary of a podcast where I regularly libel Big Comics for the fun of it is an ideal venue for a writeup on the complex issues of cultural observation and exchange in Whit Taylor’s The Anthropologists, but The Trades is a reckless ship and it steers without foresight. As I mention on the podcast, I got ‘The Anthropologists’ as part of an effort to get a bunch of stuff from Sparkplug before online orders closed, and it’s sort of the standout for me of the set, especially in the paratexts. 7 “The Anthropologists” is narrated in first person past tense by Wren, a young black woman studying anthropology visiting Australia for fieldwork experience. 8 While the white girl on the same study abroad program is seemingly uncritically excited to experience the thrills of an “authentic” experience, Wren is more uneasy, feeling it necessary to resolve for herself her ethical concerns around intrusion, appropriation, and objectification as well as her own uneasy position as an object of other’s observation and inquiry both in Australia and in the United States. A coming of age narrative that asks difficult questions about coming of age narratives for outsiders, a field work experience story that questions the ethical values of anthropological observation as a framework for understanding and why people undertake it, Taylor’s created a complicated text which performs these questions through sophisticated multimodal forms.

The front cover visually references Aboriginal Australian dot painting, a form which, as most people will have encountered it, was was adapted from older Aboriginal art methods. Dot paintings as sold to the art market were partly as a result of the intervention of a white Australian schoolteacher. 10 So, already, this is a book which is interested in the result of adapting a style to a new context which was itself an adaptation.  The inside of the cover is styled both like decorative book endpapers and the kind of scientific illustration of natural flora which accompany accounts of “exotic” lands — I’m thinking mainly of colonial exploration, given the artful arrangement of the flowers and the relative popularity of such objects in teaching about early colonial history. You see many in museums and textbooks, alongside accounts of the ‘explorer’ who made them. Again, this is an intervention on an intervention. These illustrations in the style of scientific illustration are an account of a practice of ‘objective’ observation which in fact by being a hand-created record speak both to the referent, the plant, and the society that wanted a particular kind of account of the plant — the same objective observation that anthropology promises, potentially, to make of people. By maybe also referencing aestheticized book end-papers there’s possibilities of thinking of this image-making as a commercial practice, as colonialism was an economic system, and one where the image of the other is, perhaps necessarily, modified to suit the desires of the culture which produces the image. I don’t know anything about plants, like, at all, so i don’t know what plant it is, but it looks drawn from reference maybe? It looks specific.

Cover to The Anthropologists, via Taylor's website, whittaylorcomics.com

Cover to The Anthropologists, via Taylor’s website, whittaylorcomics.com

The next image, on the first page that is not printed on the comic’s cover, has a slightly abridged version of the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of anthropology, the claims to authority of which are fairly obvious — people use the dictionary to win arguments and learn facts. However, Taylor has re-written this definition by hand herself — an image of a particular choice of what anthropology is. The page on reverse of the definition is a hand-drawn map of Australia. Aforementioned map has few geographical features, except insofar as the borders of Australia are a geographical feature, and mainly shows a few cities and the political borders within the country — the current states. I think the theme is clear at this point, so i won’t belabor it. Taylor’s central character explicitly struggles with feeling like she doesn’t belong in the United States because of her race, and struggles equally with her role as ‘anthropologist’ observer, or maybe intruder, in Australia. Through different visual claims to authority and observation, Taylor gives us the opportunity to think through different ethics of intervention and objectivity, different ways of looking at and interacting with ‘others.’

Anyway The Anthropologists leads out the gate with a powerhouse display of multimodal thinking about the ethics of looking at Others, and it continues as powerfully from there, as Taylor, through her possibly semi-autobiographical central character, tries to figure out how to learn anthropology, learn about the current life of Aboriginal Australians, coexist with her papal-obsessed but ‘organized religion’ hating, women’s-college-attending, fellow program participant, and resolve her own questions about where she belongs and who she is as a mixed race black American woman. It’s funny, it’s awkward, it’s smart as heck, and the drawing’s nice. What else can one ask of a comic.

To close the show, Aaron explains the New 52: “DC rebirth is just them adding another universe to their universe… there’s three Jokers now. Also just for the fuck of it, we’re gonna add the Watchmen.” DC’s messed with the wrong dread warlock, since Alan Moore, we assume, as a result of this insult to his intellectual property, is biking from England to America, propelled by fury and a beard gone bad. On a practical note, Aaron wants to know “what’s the point of jerking off Watchmen nerds? Watchmen nerds don’t have money, and if they do, they’re not willing to spend it, because they think they’re tough and anarchists.” We have a moment of anger because in Civil War II they kill “the one black dude in Marvel” although he later amended that claim to say Black Panther counts as “like fifty black people.” Plus, we don’t like Nazi Cap! We propose some neat alternatives, as for instance, anything the fuck else. Make Comics Progressive Again, or, as Aaron put it, “make comics have a heart again.”  Take note, publishers.

[1] He Is A Good Boy, KC Green, HIAGB.com; The Anthropologists, Whit Taylor, Sparkplug Books. Published as part of the Sparkplug Minis series.

[2] In the interest of fairness, he did give them the money in the first place, although not on purpose.

[3] http://hiagb.com/1, http://hiagb.com/2

[4]  http://hiagb.com/1, http://hiagb.com/114 , Punctuation in respective originals and, as we all know, nobody uses a period at the end of anything where they could plausibly omit it unless they’re being passive aggressive.

[5]  KC Green, He Is a Good Boy, HIAGB.comhttp://hiagb.com/86

[6] possibly not the artwork’s proper title

[7] Granted the line between text and paratext in comics and especially small press projects is thin and fair game for contention. With your forbearance, I’m going to delineate artificially between ‘the cover and first few introductory pages’ and ‘the parts which are iconically traditional comics, with panels and abstracted images representing people objects and settings in narrative sequence’ since I think that’s a distinction the text itself is set up to encourage or allow, in keeping with (what i think are) the norms of comics texts.

[8] The coexistence of the observed and observing narrator who is subject-object in autobiography generally and the more obvious co-presence on comics pages has been written about pretty extensively, but merits a footnote so y’all know I’ve thought of it. I’m approximately drawing on 9Hilary Chute, here, but you’ve got options.

[9] eh???

[10] You can read an article about the schoolteacher involved in the evolution of this form here, one thing that stuck out to me was, in discussing dude’s legacy, they’re like “he was not an anthropologist,” seemingly making a distinction between the profession of understanding a culture while, probably, trying not to alter it, and being a person who comes to understand that culture through collaboration with it and in order to provide resources for people to work through their relationship with the rest of the world, namely the colonizers’ art world, for themselves. As to what kinds of non-coercive negotiations are possible between a representative of the colonial government and a colonized people, that’s necessarily only answerable by the affected people.

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