Womb with a View

WHETHER COMICS WERE ever really kids' stuff, there is a certain juvenile quality implied by their accessibility, by how much easier they are to grasp than prose. It only makes sense, then, that some of the medium's best work should be concerned with the process of growing up.

Take, for example, Chester Brown's Underwater (Drawn and Quarterly), which tells about a newborn's life from her point of view. If Underwater is disorienting, it's only as disorienting as the infant's day-to-day experience itself; Brown sees something worthwhile in the confusion of infancy, and his ambitious comic depicts it unfiltered, lacking any rearrangement to fit adult notions of coherence. Dreaming and waking blend without warning, and even spatial relations can't be taken for granted--a doctor's face phases through the head of the nurse in front of him; a man's throat becomes a staircase. The story is also told without any transitions to indicate the passage of time: As a result the girl seems to learn to walk a few days after birth.

At first, reading through this apparent nonsense is pretty taxing. But the pacing depends on the assumption that readers won't gloss over the non-dialogue. Eventually the girl, apparently named Kupifam, slowly learns the language. Familiar words begin to pop up amidst the Underwater-ese, reflecting Kupifam's increased understanding, and tempting readers to try divining lines like "We won't have shoo ok I have to be zaw at karshah." Still, Kupifam's childhood, centered on the difficult process of moving from one kind of consciousness into another, is more mystic than idyllic. If this strange worldview rings true, it's because Brown expertly depicts the innocent energy of a child: Every one of Kupifam's actions breathes with a gestural vibrance; the author's lines are sparsely expressionistic, and his careful pacing is complemented by a loose, intuitive sense of panel composition. He has tailored his style--most obviously in the craggy or bulbous heads of the characters--to match his story, underscoring the strangeness of Kupifam's emergence from the warm water of nothingness into the cooling air of the real world.

And the real world gets cold fast, if the darkly comic Dear Julia (Black Eye) is any indication. The book's protagonist, Boyd, is an undistinguished man who passes his days trying to ignore his mountain fever, a mental illness that occasionally results in the compulsion to leap from high places. Boyd's life is up-ended when he comes across a pair of human-sized wings that might work, although his illness has affected him long before that. Identifying with creatures of flight, he has always had trouble caring about people; he views the human species with disgust, as a "clumsy and ridiculous animal."

Brian Biggs's gray-toned drawings, filled with overpolite, anxious people, don't always make intimacy seem worth the trouble, anyway. Biggs skillfully creates an unassuming mood of quiet doom, balancing sympathy and bemused pessimism. Luckily, he makes the characters worth caring about; things never get to the point of complete alienation, where people are merely objects to be ridiculed.

Or dismembered, for that matter: That's where Johnny: The Homicidal Maniac (Slave Labor Graphics) comes in. Misanthropes don't get any worse than Jhonen Vasquez's Johnny, a rage-filled goth who hunts down the worst examples of humanity--trendoid hipsters, Hootie fans, and even a fellow darksider or two--and kills them in page after page of jagged, nervy art.

Johnny's adventures offer a violent, immature catharsis: There's a certain satisfaction in seeing people of all cliques getting killed for being narrow-minded assholes. Still, Vasquez doesn't let the reader off easily. As much as Johnny avenges the socially downtrodden, he also spends a lot of time screaming to himself, struggling with his grab-bag of psychoses and wondering if he really has any control over what he's doing.

As might be expected, the comic is thoroughly adolescent, replete with self-pity and multiple exclamation points. Its redemption is that Vasquez understands how ridiculous it is, and liberally mixes comical absurdity and satire with melancholia and rage. Johnny kills a convenience-store clerk, then gets distracted by the store's selection of soda; a trip to heaven slips without warning from theoretical revisionism to a psychic head-exploding war. What results is an odd pop psychodrama, a gleeful mélange of bile, self-loathing, and humor. Living well may be the best revenge, but killing well, it seems, is a close second.

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