Thursday, August 18, 2011

visceral

Recently my friend Jerome Baconnier launched The Publishing Eye, a multimedia publishing operation that styles itself "visual culture for the conscious mind." But this is also a visceral art that is emphatically affective and immediately appeals to (or rather, assaults) the physical senses. It is equally, then, visual culture for the embodied mind.

Take the Publishing Eye's most ambitious undertaking to date, a hardback comic book by NeMo Balkanski called The FIB Chronicle. This is a beautiful object, with high production standards: glossy paper, robust binding, clean and crisp images. Perhaps then this is why the front cover has to be wrapped with police-style crime-scene tape warning that "this is not for children." "Beware," it seems to be saying: "Don't let a pretty cover fool you."

Indeed, on second glance the cover is not quite so pretty. What seems at first to be simply a generically noirish scene turns out to be the depiction of an interrogation with strong undercurrents of torture. A cartoonish pig is trussed up, its eyes black and blue and its face bloody, while all around, much more realistically drawn, are the shadowy figures of men in suits and uniforms. It's as though the cute little animal of some classic children's story has unexpectedly wandered into a darker and more violent world.

Or perhaps the cover is an indication that the conventions of the comic genre itself are to be mistreated and abused. Is the point that they will "squeal" and tell us what they know? Or are we just to glean some guilty enjoyment out of the exercise?

What follows, within the book's elegant covers, are a series of short strips (each usually no more than a couple of pages long) that raucously parody popular cultural genres such as the police procedural, the private eye, the war story, or the fairy tale. The loose frame is the notion that these are secret files from the clandestine "Fabulous Investigations Bureau." But the common theme is a scabrous anti-humour that effects a kind of scorched-earth assault on the very enterprise of drawing comics.

The very first story, for instance, features a "Detective Harddick" who while taking a shit in a back alley accidentally interrupts a man attacking a scantily-clad young woman. Somewhat to the detective's surprise, the would-be killer runs of and his victim is saved. "Oh, How can I ever repay you?" she asks the cop in the final frame. "Well, how about a blow job?" he replies as they walk off arm in arm.

The drawing here is in the manner of Robert Crumb--an artist who is not exactly kid's fare, but who is never quite so abrupt or so scathing. Instead of Crumb's stoner antics or (increasingly) world-weary reflections on everyday life, Balkanski gives us psychopathic violence and institutional incompetence, sleaze, and corruption, leavened only by the toilet humor of public defecation. Nice, it isn't.

One of the book's very last strips also deals with the topic of an unexpected salvation with a bitter aftertaste. Here, the drawing style is closer to the tradition of surreal or stylized European animation. Jan ҆vankmajer, say. The setting is an un-named and undated wa: it could be World War II, it could be the more recent Balkan conflicts; an epaulette suggests the Croatian flag. An executioner and his sidekick are about to cut a man's throat. But the trace of a "small ray of innocence" induces madness and allows the would-be victim to go free. Striding off, the reprieved man shouts out "Eat Shit and Die." The end.

I can't say that this is exactly my cup of tea, but that's not really the point. It's not supposed to be anybody's cup of tea. Some, however, will take to it more easily than others. At times the stories seem to blur the line between a critical parody and indulgent fantasy. Or rather, this isn't a critique: it's an attempt to provoke revulsion; the danger is that the reader may be tempted to identify with (or rather, not to disidentify from) some of the many sad passions that the book lays bare. A parody of (say) misogyny or homophobia can be uncomfortably close to the real thing.

Still, this is an undoubtedly brave first "Publishing Eye" venture. It probes the limits of the comic-book form, and if it makes its readers squeal then I think that Jerome will be happy enough.

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