Gnartoons. by James the Stanton. Silver Sprocket. San Francisco. 2022. 270pp. $29.99
I was running on a buzz from a Tequila Sunrise at Seattle Tacoma International Airport. Of course, I was barefoot, my preference. I had flip flops at the ready under one arm and a copy of Proust in one hand. The other hand was navigating a filled-to-the-brim rolling carry-on. Just as I was about to brave my way into the security line, a woman in a large floppy hat, also barefoot, approached me. “Here you go, brother, you’ll want to read this and spread the word!” There wasn’t much chance that she recognized me as a cartoonist or a comics journalist. “You’ve got that star tattoo on your foot. Let it guide you, my man!” That comment was peaceful and it helped to reassure me–but more on that later. Indeed, the timing was very good. She placed in my hand a collection of comics, Gnartoons, by James the Stanton.
Right now, things have been quite hectic and distracting. I’ve been on the road, on the run, in more places and situations than I’ve been in for quite a while. The world is opening up, right? We’re somehow finding our way into something that is starting to look more and more like a post-Covid world. Of course, we’re not quite there yet, and yet, we are, aren’t we? And nothing seems to be working as it should. We remain in this topsy-turvy transitional phase. So, it is a perfect time to take a close look at a cartoonist engaged in the crazed world of comix, a new generation’s take on underground comix. That’s exactly what this guy is about, a cartoonist whose work I’ve been observing for well over a decade and who I am so glad to see showcased in this first collected works by Silver Sprocket.
Let me ask you something, do you like Johnny Depp? Or, more to the point, do you like his character, Captain Jack Sparrow? That character, as you can imagine, did not simply emerge overnight. It’s the result of a layer-upon-layer process. Going even further afield, do you know Errol Flynn? Now, he was sort of in a similar situation as Depp. Errol Flynn created a sensation in 1935 with his character, Captain Blood. Again, a case of a process that took time. In fact, Flynn’s acting improved so much over the course of filming that director Michael Curtiz had no choice but to reshoot some of the earlier scenes. Okay, all this comes to mind as I look over this book of comics. It’s a perfect case of juxtaposing earlier less developed work with more recent polished work. I certainly don’t mind that at all. I think it’s essential to be able to observe this creative evolution. It’s kind of fun, for a cartoonist such as myself, and it’s human nature to want to make these sort of comparisons. I don’t know if that was exactly the goal of this collection but I suspect it was a consideration. Art of any kind has its ups and downs. In this case, the lesser art acts as background for the gems.
The first gem in the book is quite a fine little masterpiece of style, pacing, and wicked humor. It’s truly a high point to this book and to the cartoonist’s career. Thanks to an extensive contents list at the back of the book that also acts as endnotes, I see that this story, “Limo King,” first appeared in the local Seattle comics newspaper, The Intruder, serialized in issues 16-18, May 2015-January 2016. So, not exactly a modest undertaking. It is steeped in the tradition of underground comics packed with lowlife lowbrow all-out zaniness. The sort of stuff that you can’t unsee once seen. We begin with two classic ne’er-do-wells enjoying some drinks out of an enchanted bottle of perpetually pouring bourbon. They’re inside a limousine that serves as the home for one of the guys, the aforementioned Limo King, as well as an on-call free ride service. Why the Limo King doesn’t charge a fare is unclear and best to just roll with. That night’s excitement is provided by a female grizzly bear out on the prowl. The story gets crazier from there, mayhem ensues, and ends with a street smart grace note as the Limo King observes that gnomes would never have called the cops: “Those lil folks are chill AF!”
It’s James the Stanton’s consistent style and bold street cred that keeps the reader charmed and intrigued throughout. The actual style borrows as much from the gritty underground ethos of yesteryear as it does from current trends in graffiti. As much is owed to trailblazers Jay Lynch and Jim Mitchell as to the drippy trippy work of Seattle’s Ten Hundred. A fair amount of this collection is made up of single page art, or a series of pages of neo-psychedelic art, which all takes on a logic of its own. Some stuff just needs to be what it is without a coherent narrative. That said, I tend to gravitate to the more constructed work, of which there is much to enjoy. Then again, as a painter, I’m strongly attracted to works in this book that would fit right in at any contemporary art gallery.
Another fine piece of narrative is a sort of science fiction story about the Florida wars set in the not-too-distant future. This neatly brings us back to my friend in the airport noticing the star tattoo on my foot. I can’t help but mention this story as part of the narrative involves how all the Florida natives were branded with dolphin tattoos on their left foot. It was the only way to try to establish some order during those very disturbing times! This is weird comics at its best, an intoxicating combination of inventiveness and sly humor.
One final example is the story, “Squatters of Trash Island, Part 2,” one of the most recent works, from Silver Sprocket, March 2017. It is clearly one of the more polished and developed of the sequential pieces here. This is pure Dada art fun as the story kicks off with two representatives from a a soft drink company tasked with removing any labels from discarded soda bottles with the company brand that have somehow reached a very disreputable landfill island. The two soda pop guys are shocked to find an entire community of people quite happy to live amid their own filth and, from time to time, copulate with dolphins. It’s a story that fits in well, with its strange beauty, within our own strange times.