Friday, November 23, 2007

1-800-Mice is a great name for a comic book. Just say it out loud if you have doubts. In terms of crafting prose that rolls off the tongue, a comic pretty much just needs to nail it with the title. With movies and TV, dialogue needs to ring true, books and poetry might be read aloud. A comic just needs to have its voice captured in the form of brand recognition, especially with these one-person doing whatever the hell they feel like comics. "Love And Rockets" is a pretty good example. When I saw the title 1-800-Mice for the first time, I got all excited. I walked around with it in my head like a pop song's chorus for a day or two.

The comic itself is pretty good, which is why I'm writing about the title now, rather than when I first came to know it. It's a good name for a Matthew Thurber comic, specifically, because it seems like a non sequitur. It wouldn't actually work as a phone number. The first time I read one of his comics, I was half-distracted by trying to have a conversation or something, and couldn't really follow it. The prose- the dialogue/captions, that which is not drawing- is really distinct, it has these odd rhythms, and the stories themselves have the same rhythms. It seems like nonsense, because it will take these sideways detours. But it's not a Marc Bell comic, where the nonsensical dialogue is just this weird act of self-negation and deterrence: It actually builds and goes places. "1-800-Mice" actually ends up being a plot point. It's the name of a company that uses mice as couriers for messengers to parts of the world unable to be reached by cell phones. Which is, maybe, the plot point on which the whole world turns, thematically.

Because detectable within Thurber's comic is this anxiety about the modern world of cell phones. I'll cite examples of dialogue like "I spent too much time on the internet today. It's fucking up my DNA." "I hear that man... but how do we get out of the way... of waves?" and bits from thought balloons like "recurring nightmares of population density, a poisoned ipod or a generation lost to a suicide faddishness." And I think part of this is why anthropomorphic characters are being utilized. Thurber reviewed a Leif Goldberg zine where that sort of technique was admired for how it "helps level the playing field between humans and the Earth." There's an interview with Thurber in the same magazine as that review, as well as a comic involving humans turning into lizards. There's this weird natural world bubbling up through a cartoon world, which is one of those things that seems counter-intuitive, but actually makes perfect sense to me, in a way that's hard to articulate in the form of criticism.

It's because of this that I got obsessed with 1-800-Mice, with it really bothering me that there was a long period of time when a second issue was out and unavailable to me. Even though, after reading the first issue at the same time as another Thurber comic, the newspaper Carrot For Girls, I thought the latter was better, even though it's kind of not that great. I finally got issue two not too long ago, and that comic really was great.

The same magazine that hosted Thurber reviewing a Leif Goldberg zine had an interview with Thurber himself, that ended with him saying that he wanted to "figure out how to write funnier comics, more interesting comics, more readable stuff." It turns out when reading issue two that the key to making funnier comics is to make them more readable as comics, actually utilizing the panel-to-panel rhythms that have traditionally worked in comics rather than having apeshit layouts that are closer to psychedelic posters with a lot of text on them. Pretty much everything before that first issue had sequences that were largely unparseable on a first read. Here, the nonsensical weirdness just works as jokes, rather than artiness, but it doesn't detract from what makes Thurber interesting at all.

I attribute this shift to the publication of Art Out Of Time, edited by the publisher of 1-800-Mice, Dan Nadel. Art Out Of Time is a collection of old comics, drawn by people who were weirdos enough to have a distinct vision, and presented in a context that highlights that what these were distinct artists, and not just hacks, even though they were hacking out the pages at the time. Everything I've seen Thurber cite as an influence is kind of esoteric- the music of Caroliner, The Sun City Girls, and Captain Beefheart, the comic-zines silkscreen printed in the underground. Art Out Of Time presents stuff that works and tells straightforward narratives, originally for kids largely, and points out that it glows with weirdness anyway. It's like pointing out that the beat for an Usher song sounds like Black Dice to someone who really likes Black Dice, this kind of "wait, what" epiphany that leads to clarity because you understand how to channel idiosyncracy in a way that's clear.

So, suddenly, for an issue at least, (and I'm very much anticipating issue 3, which should be coming out imminently) Thurber's comics read all that much easier. What's weird is that, to me, they kind of felt like funny animal comics already. Kind of like how the Grant Morrison Doom Patrol comics that remain an all-time favorite channel silver-age superhero stuff that was already kind of weird because people were working at high enough speeds that unconscious anxieties spilled out and turn up that weirdness by utilizing a conscious awareness of a history of surrealist artwork. Only for "The Fox And The Crow" or something. Now, it's really been nailed, and the comic reads like Boody Rogers adapting fragments of an unpublished Thomas Pynchon novel. (Other Art Out Of Time reference points would be the nervousness of Rory Hayes, with the frozenness of Ogden Whitney surfacing on the page where Groomfiend is receiving a message from a coffee cup.) I cite Pynchon not just because I like him, but due to the size of the ensembles he works with, and the proclivity towards "funny" names that was in itself probably inspired by cartoons. (Oh, also the weird sexual practices: In issue two a cop fucks a duck! But not in the tawdry way that you'd see in a sixties underground comic, but in the weird and casual way it would happen in Gravity's Rainbow.) But I do really like Thomas Pynchon, and part of the reason I think that's a fair comparison point is because 1-800-Mice rules.

And while that's an obvious ending to an essay, I realize that I didn't get into, really, the way that sometimes out-of-nowhere, right after a tangent, there'll be occasional moments of straightforward emotional truth. Like, the "Megabat" page in issue 1: In itself, it's a complete detour from the rest of the comic, and then towards the end, there's a two-panel detour. And then, at the end: "I need to move," which, due to the context in which it appears and the way its drawn, I now think about everytime I think about how I need to move. That the context is pretty much completely fantastical makes it even more of an achievement. Or two panels on the page that wraps up that issue. It's the same improvisational methods that are so all over the place that enable the comic to be funny, when it is funny, are the same things that enable the emotional bits to come out of nowhere and be all the more resonant for it.

Oh oh: The ad copy for it, that appeared in issues of Cold Heat and probably nowhere else, "Like Maus without the holocaust" is completely hilarious and really should be thrown around more.


Frank Santoro said...

1-800 Mice
"Like Maus without the holocaust"

Just had to say it out loud!

Great review, you juggle alot of ideas successfully. And I agree about issue 2 "utilizing the panel-to-panel rhythms that have traditionally worked in comics rather than having apeshit layouts that are closer to psychedelic posters with a lot of text on them" --Matthew is really reaching and growing as the comic unfolds. It's fun to watch.

Brian said...

I just found out that 1-800-Mice, like Frank Santoro's Cold Heat, has been canceled by Picturebox with a graphic novel to appear in 2008. Sad times for things I like.

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