Culture To Go

CULTURE TO GOAleksandar Zograf

Psychonaut

Fantagraphics

           Bosnia. Croatia. Serbia. Word association? War. But unless you're a public radio junkie, you probably don't have a real knowledge of, or even a clear context for these countries in crisis. Never fear, Psychonautis here. Through the dark and depressing comics of Serbian artist Aleksandar Zograf, we get a first-hand perspective of the economic, social, and political despair in what he calls "the barbaric little nations from the Balkans."

           Zograf covers everything from draft dodging, defining borders, and economic embargoes to the emergence of turbo-folk music (a distraction from the daily news) and the role of women in the wars. Isolation and fear are rampant in these pages of heavy black ink; for every dash of hope, a wave of oppression lingers in the next panel, waiting to wash the faith away.

           Psychonaut doesn't always dwell on the misery of Zograf's homeland, but his non-war stories carry psychological scars nonetheless. Whether they're about a child's creativity or human/animal relations, Zograf's stories all come down to oppression: Teachers stifle the expression of their pupils; people exploit animals for their own selfish needs. The only escape in Psychonaut (and probably in Zograf's mind as well) are his hypnagogic visions--illustrations of images he's experienced between wakefulness and sleep. Despite their surreal nature, these drawings are actually easier to relate to than Zograf's disturbing documentations of the former Yugoslavia. Not a comic to flip through for chuckles, Psychonaut requires your utmost attention; like Joe Sacco's Palestine, it can be a kind of Cliffs Notes on world affairs. (Heidi Olmack)

PRINTED MATTER

Lydia Millet

Omnivores

Algonquin Books

           Omnivores, as the title suggests, includes bloodsuckers and meat eaters, all of whom want a good chomp off of teenaged Estee Kraft (named after the esteemed makeup company Estee Lauder). Estee is no victim though, or at least she never seems to think of herself as one. And talk about dysfunctional families! Estee calmly and good-naturedly puts up with her senile, bed-ridden, ever-masturbating mother and her salivating father, whose hobbies include cockfighting and conducting scientific experiments in the basement on creatures progressing from insects to warm-blooded mammals (last stop, homo sapiens). Not a healthy atmosphere for a growing girl--yet, as this satire hints, perhaps not much worse than what plenty of American girls grow up with.

           When her father, Bill, turns their house into a sovereign nation, complete with its own army of rats and rabbits, Estee realizes she must make her escape sooner rather than later. Her chance comes at her 18th birthday party, a grand affair with hired call girls role-playing friends (Estee hasn't made any of her own, what with assisting her father in the lab and outfitting rabbits with hand grenades) and other people's home movies with Estee's face pasted in. (Between cockfighting and army drilling, the Kraft family has no time for home movies.) Salvation comes in the form of Pete, a slick, dim real estate agent who peppers his sentences with "come on baby" and "you know, babe," and who'll make Estee's life sane again. She will eat Eggo waffles and talk on cordless phones. Pete himself enjoys normal things like driving fast in his Mercedes and reading pornography. Yet soon, Estee's new world of Jenny Craig, video stores, and canine psychotherapy comes to seem no less rapacious than the one she left behind. Add little Bill, the fruit of Estee and Pete's loins who gobbles everything from baby birds to poodles, and you've got quite a hysterically creepy mess of a book.

           Thanks are due to Larry Flynt Publications for letting author Lydia Millet work as copy editor for his gun and porn magazines, giving her the time, means, and inspiration to create Omnivores. Don't think for a second, though, that this book is solely a male-bashing satire--Millet does a fine job of lampooning the hunger in everyone. (Amanda Ferguson)

Stewart Home

Slow Death

High Risk Books

           Skinheads are scary. Or sexy, depending on the ones you know and your tolerance for their hypermasculinity. Johnny Aggro, the skinhead thug (of the non-neo-Nazi variety) protagonist of Slow Death, is both. He's also the perfect sounding board for the self-involved artists and hangers-on of Stewart Home's modern London landscape; Johnny just infiltrates their scene to get high and get off, leaving them to backstab each other into oblivion.

           Home, no doubt influenced equally by art school deconstruction, '60s and '70s soul/reggae, and skin mags, uses a refreshing (but sometimes hollow) workman-like style to create a high/low culture clash; it's got the dramatic outline of a TV movie you'd never see on TV. His satiric bitchiness is right on when tackling a bunch of bandwagon-jumping "art terrorists"--middle class students who break into galleries and destroy works, superficially in order to make a critique of the art canon, but with the real hope of achieving art superstardom themselves. Where Home falls flat is with the redundant, unnecessary sex scenes and violent punch-ups he falls back on whenever the spine of the story starts waning:

           "'Hey,' Karen giggled. 'Don't you wanna perform for me? Are you camera shy or something? I'll put on some music and you can strip to it.'

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