Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Odds and Gems #1: L

Words: Gene Kogan

This must have been ‘97 or ‘98. At the old Big Apple Convention below the Church of St. Paul and the Apostle thrown by Michael Carbonaro, a Willy Wonka, of sorts, to this strange and chaotic comic factory. I was already a fan of Erik Drooker’s when I discovered this comic nestled among issues of Kickers Inc and Lady Supreme in a quarter box at one of the tables. His name was at the bottom of the comic, so I didn’t notice it right away. But there was something about the simple gray L train insignia stamped on a black cover that caught my eye as I was speedily fingering through colorful tableaux of seemingly constipated costumed figures in unnatural poses. I pulled it out. It was only then that I realized it was by Erik Drooker. I was elated. I didn’t know he had ever produced a comic. Embarrassingly, it was my only purchase at that table; a whopping 25 cents. The dealer was thrilled with me.

I did some digging on the book and really wasn’t able to uncover much. It looked to be self published in 1990 with a print run of 1000 and I learned that it was a reprint of a story that had originally appeared in Heavy Metal magazine. I’m certain the story was outstanding leaping from the pages of Heavy Metal, but what really struck me was how wonderfully odd it appeared in the comic book format. You just didn’t see comics like this. You didn’t see unadorned black, gray and white covers. You didn’t see wordless stories. While much of the comic jarred the senses, it was especially so because it lulled you in with this familiar format and then proceeded to shatter the expectations that come with that format.And the images were unusual, to say the least, yet beyond beautiful: poetic, ethereal and horrific.

As I continued to browse through it, it started to feel familiar. It wasn’t until I got to the iconic image of the police officer with the dog, which was used as a cover to a Faith No More album, that I realized I’d read this story before. It appeared in Flood: A Tale. At that point, Flood was the only thing I’d read by Drooker, several years prior, leaving an indelible mark on my comic reading psyche. It was barrier-shattering at the time. A comic story utilizing a visual language only spoken by such woodcut masters as Lynd Ward, Otto Nuckel and Franz Masereel. Stark, sharp-edged scratchboard drawings that exposed the idiosyncrasies of the city. Beautiful, but with razor sharp teeth. Vast, but with a claustrophobic darkness. Embracing, but with clawed hands. A city both inspiring and depressing. And a story wordless, yet each panel worth a 1,001 words.

I never made the connection between comics and this wonderful German Expressionist style, but flipping the pages of Drooker’s masterpiece, the link became so obvious. The relationship would eventually be dissected by Scott McCloud in his own groundbreaking work, Understanding Comics, but at that point, my comic book sensibilities were shaken to their core. This may all sound overly dramatic, but consider that this was a time when I was slowly rediscovering comics, after abandoning their super powered adventures during high school. In this period I was away from comics, I had developed a greater and broader interest in the visual arts. I was studying film and literature and exploring a more mature aesthetic sensibility, which were just then beginning to incorporate comics, albeit very different ones.

And along comes Flood and kicks me in the stomach – it was that powerful. It took me days to finish it. I would linger on panels for minutes, searching for details. I would go back and observe relationships between panels, studying the flow, the pacing. And after I finished the book, I went back and read it again. To say it was a revelation would be an understatement.So there I was, looking through this book I had just picked up for a quarter, taking me back to my winded, bruised stomach. I started reading it again. I lingered on each panel as I did the first time I read it, taking in the details and the flow.

And I just felt like I found the chocolate bar with the golden ticket.

Gene Kogan first wrote for Yellow Rat Bastard magazine (published by the hipster store chain of the same name), and covered luminaries including Peter Kuper, Tony Millionaire and Bill Plympton. Shortly after, he followed it up with online column Back Issue Reviews. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Liz, their son, Shaylem, their dog Mabel Eddie Campbell Kogan and way more stuff than is probably legally allowed in an apartment.