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GNARTOONS by James the Stanton review – Casual Surreal Comix

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.

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PEARL III #1, Dark Horse comics review

Pearl, a girl in trouble!

Is Brian Michael Bendis the hardest working guy in comics? Or is it that Greg Rucka fella? When I see yet another girl trouble comic with a very well established name attached to it, that gives me pause. That’s not to say this isn’t worth checking out. When in doubt, don’t pout! First, there are plenty of fans who are looking for a certain itch to scratch. This is the story of Pearl, a tattoo artist who was born into the yakuza underworld. Pearl is a critically acclaimed Jinxworld title partnering with Dark Horse. And the talent behind it, Bendis and artist Michaeli Gaydos, are also behind the celebrated Jessica Jones title. So, all in all, an exceptional crew at work on satisfying a certain itch.

A girl with a gun. Blam! Blam! Blam!

For those catching up, Pearl found out about her parents and her connection to mobsters in previous volumes of this on-going series. In this misadventure, the big mystery to solve is summed up in the question, “Who is the ghost dragon of San Francisco?” Who, indeed! If we can find that out, then it unlocks other questions, and so on down the line. All in all, this is supposed to be a fun roller coaster of a ride, all wonderfully rendered by Gaydos. What matters most here is whether a casual reader of this genre, such as myself or maybe yourself, can claim a good reading experience from this. In other words, is this as compelling as viewing Ozark or maybe perhaps some notches below that? That show comes to mind since we have a young person in over her head because of her criminal parents. Anyway, as far as satisfying an itch to scratch, it does a nice job. I’m not going to say this is at the level of Ozark but few things are. If you’re already a fan, this is definitely for you.

We need to talk.

So, what exactly happens in this comic? In a nutshell, you get a lot of cool dialogue and a bunch of crunchy and gritty action. All for the price of a latte. Not bad. Not bad at all. This comic is so completely in the Dark Horse wheelhouse and that’s a very good thing. This is a fine example of the girl trouble comic. Even the most casual of readers will get a kick out of it. This is the first issue in this new mini-series so a terrific place to jump right in.

PEARL III #1 comes out May 25, 2022, 32 pages, priced at $3.99, from Dark Horse Comics.

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FONDANT #2 by J. Webster Sharp review – Surreal and In-Your-Face

To say that J. Webster Sharp is a visionary comics artist is a very good place to start. I was immediately intrigued by what I saw of her work on her Instagram and I knew I’d need to take a closer look. Having read the last five of her works in comics, I can confidently say that this is someone who tapped into something special early on and continues to blossom. Jemma’s latest book which I’ve received is Fondant #2, and it is easily her most powerful work. This is in-your-face stuff, delving into deep psychological and sexual issues, and bringing to mind such artists as Phoebe Glockner and Renee French. I applaud what she is doing and would like to share a bit of what I’ve observed.

If I’m really being honest, I am fascinated by Jemma’s daring and inventive play with the theme of feet. I’ve always been interested in feet on various levels, not the least of which is as a subject for art. So, it’s nice to see a fellow artist on the same page. Jemma certainly confronts the foot theme from a wide variety of vantage points, spanning from cadavers to tortured cathartic acts. Like much of what she does, feet are rendered in such a way as if encrypted within a larger psychological landscape–especially with her distinctive pointillist style. If you scan the pages too quickly, you might miss a lot. And, if you linger, it can be a combination of unsettling and satisfying. Yes, it pays to be honest. I do so love feet, particularly depicted in unusual and provocative ways. I’m sure there’s a number of stories behind each of  these depictions. I like what I see from this very honest and daring artist.

What is so impressive to me about Jemma’s latest book is how she reached a point where she was ready to just completely let loose. This book is totally wordless and confidently so. There’s no need to explain anything. You simply don’t need any form of text to accompany an image of breasts with teeth instead of nipples. That pretty much speaks for itself. The rest of the book plays with more body horror as well as various other surreal imagery involving exotic animals, bondage and strange lab experiments. It’s all quite unusual, fascinating and thrilling. If you enjoy work of a more adult nature, then this is for you. Obviously, this is highly charged work that is unafraid to be, at times, more dark and challenging. But it’s not simply shock value that Jemma is after. Like Phoebe Glockner and Renee French, the work of J. Webster Sharp is invested in cultivating mystery and wonder through finely-crafted work. As I suggest, you will be rewarded for taking the time to linger upon a page. You may even find that you like what you see more than you realized.

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Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank by Eric Orner review – Tribute to a Liberal Giant

Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank. Eric Orner. Henry Holt. New York. 2022. 222 pp. $25.99

Barney Frank was a tireless public servant. We need more of his kind of dedication: someone who gets things done. He was a man ahead of his time and, sadly, a little too much of his time too. Frank came of age in the 1950s, great for some bright kids with bright futures, but not all kids. And hardly an easy time for a bright gay kid. For much of his life, the guy who got things done for so many, lived life in the closet. Critically acclaimed cartoonist Eric Orner provides a unique perspective on one of the great legislators of our time with his debut graphic novel. Orner is a former congressional aide to Frank and that shows in the level of detail found on these pages. It was my pleasure a few years back to review a collection of Orner’s comic strip, The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green, which ran from 1989 to 2005. And it’s a honor to share with you this most impressive work.

Orner has that particular sensibility you find with the best cartoonists: an inquisitive mind; a compulsion to get to the essence of a subject; and the ability to express complexities in a concise and clear way. Barney Frank may not appear to be an obvious choice for the subject of an in-depth graphic novel but, oh, he most assuredly is! The big mistake made my some marketing folks is to have tunnel vision and think that a protagonist in a narrative needs to look and act a certain way. Well, Barney Frank fits that unconventional profile and that’s part of the beauty of his story. Here we have a guy who didn’t dress well, or eat well, or was careful about social niceties. He could be curt and rude. But he cared, heart and soul, about improving the lives of others as a public servant. His weakness was that he was afraid that, if he was outed, that would end his life in politics. But it didn’t and he learns that he can have a good life too. Orner deftly conveys this whole arc of a fascinating life filled with one battle after another, both personal and political.

For my money, I’m just captivated by all the accounts of political intrigue. If you’re a political junkie, that alone is reason enough to read this book. Born in New Jersey, and graduating from Harvard, Frank proved to be an exceptional student of government with a decidedly New Deal inspired fervor to do good in the world. Determined to see through his PhD thesis, those plans keep being derailed in favor of the public arena. Massachusetts politics keeps beckoning. Right out of the gate, Frank impresses the right people. After helping to run a successful Boston mayoral campaign for a local scion, Frank is promoted to a top level position in the Mayor’s office. Frank’s star just keeps rises as he himself enters politics and wins election as a state legislator and, ultimately, as a congressman. Of course, it should come as no surprise that he makes some political enemies along the way as he’s no slouch for a good fight. It’s Frank’s fight for gay rights that takes him closest to the edge as he fears his involvement will lead to his undoing.

Orner has set up a graphic novel with as quick and urgent a tempo as his subject. It is packed with so many assorted details, all neatly presented, sometimes even itemized within a panel. All the better to evoke the whirlwind of activity. Orner’s Barney Frank is a hero to relate with and to root for, all the more so given one of the greatest of challenges a politician can face, a sex scandal. The story begins with it in a brief prologue leaving you to wonder what exactly is supposed to have happened. And, believe it or not, it’s complicated. From that teaser, the narrative mostly keeps to a steady chronology all leading up to that fateful denouement. By then, the reader has come to believe in Frank from a multitude of vantage points: as he runs to catch that last train to an important meeting; or simply struggles to be likable; or pleads with a man to understand he’s not quite ready yet to come out. Barney Frank is the “smahtguy” who, through conviction and sheer will power, is ready and willing to do the work that others would rather avoid. Politics is not romantic and can kill idealists. But if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and do the work, then there’s a chance to make a real difference. That’s the greatest lesson from Barney Frank and it adds up to a very compelling life story which Orner so vividly tells in this book.

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What Happens When You Can’t Save Everyone? Review of STRAYS by Chris W. Kim

Strays. by Chris W. Kim. SelfMadeHero. London. 2021. 192pp. $19.99

Chris W. Kim draws a certain way and not for the pursuit of a particular style but as a way to best express what’s deep inside him. It’s a scribble style, but a very refined and elegant network of scribbles that he’s leaned into and allowed to develop over time, nourishing the accidental and letting it grow into the intentional. You don’t always know what works…until you do. Random marks, along with words, build up and graduate into perfect moments of joy. It’s the stuff of revolutions. This uncanny vision has the power to tell bold stories and one of the boldest in comics right now is a modern-day fable questioning what we owe society.

Life as we know it.

This is a hard luck story about a simple but persistent guy, in a similar vein to Kim’s debut graphic novel, Herman by Trade. You can read my review here. This is a very different story, to be sure, but it shares that same whimsical spirit. The writing is just as quirky as the art. Every aspect of this story’s world has been attended to, like a Wes Anderson film. Essentially, what you need to know is that our main character, who goes unnamed, was part of a work crew that experienced a monumental explosion at the work site leaving everyone at loose ends. Our hero makes it back home to his sister, Carey, and, from there, lands a new blue-collar job, this time as a deliveryman. There’s much to enjoy in Kim’s depictions of everyday life and the offbeat beauty amid the daily grind. The words-and-pictures narrative vibrates: cars, trucks, city dwellers, the whole urban landscape, dancing along Kim’s jittery vibe. This is a strange urban dreamscape with a hypnotic glow, the people as elongated and lopsided as their surroundings.

Coming Home.

Just as the main character has settled into his new work routine, he crosses paths with one after another of his former workmates: Sammy, Lionel, Jun, Gina, Sean, Ameya, Yama, the list goes on. It’s a whole village of people, the numerous becomes countless; the individual blurs into the faceless. No one stands out. Kim underscores this by rendering them with a thicker line turning them into an endless sea of dark brooding figures. No one speaks up or distinguishes themselves. But our hero believes in them, while he has his own receding qualities, deliberately nameless and unassuming.

Kim is unrelenting in depicting the soul-crushing and dehumanizing effects of life in the big city for the average human being, especially the wage slave. There’s a certain haunting beauty to his rendering of wave after wave of utterly anonymous crowds of people. Even people with names have only a fleeting sense of individuality. Perhaps the only character with a dynamic personality is a rather dour-looking house cat named, Kurt. In fact, Kurt will play a pivotal role towards the end of this tale, whether he realizes it or not.

What Happens When You Can’t Save Everyone?

So, everyone from the old job is now in the big city with new entry-level jobs keeping them afloat. And that works out until it doesn’t. One by one, the whole gang find themselves out of work again and homeless. Somehow, it becomes our hero’s mission to save them all. But what happens when you can’t save everyone? It’s a very difficult lesson to learn and our nameless hero is too stubborn to contemplate it. No sooner does he discover the plight of his numerous down-and-out friends than he implores his sister to take them all in. Of course, she balks at the idea but ultimately gives in out of a sense of charity. She doesn’t want to appear to be a not-in-my-backyard naysayer even though she can ill afford to help in the first place. It’s not going to be easy to properly accommodate a mass of humanity in a tiny apartment for too long, is it? Kim is at the top of his game as he bends reality in order to allow room. Bill Plymton, another great spacetime-bender, would be proud.

Finding a way to survive.

Reality has a way of breaking through, even in the most whimsical of settings. A utopian homeless encampment is as unsustainable in a fable as it is in cities tinkering with social engineering. What our nameless hero comes to appreciate, push comes to shove, is that he can’t impose his crazed over-the-top misguided ideals on the back of his sister, the one person here who is steadily making a living and being responsible. It’s just too much of an ask. Kim shows how our nameless hero learns the hard way that he can’t always do for others what they ultimately need to somehow bring about for themselves. In the end, Kim finds a way out of this self-made predicament for our nameless hero culminating in a satisfying resolution to this most unusual, and most timely, urban tale. Suffice it to say, in a story where a cat can earn more respect than a human, it’s clear that humans can’t be treated as little more than strays.

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Review: THE BLAME by Jon Aye

THE BLAME

The Blame. by Jon Aye. mini-comic. 2021. 22pp. $11.11

This British mini-comic is a low-key rather urbane bit of fun, an excellent showcase for the wry humor of Jon Aye. If you like local color, there is plenty of it in this collection of short works. There’s even one piece that features Matt Hancock, an inept politician on his way to a comeback byway of a role as a UN flunky attempting to scare up business opportunities in Africa, despite the UK’s dismal record in getting vaccines into developing countries. So, in Aye’s Hancock satire, he has the miserable sod sadly lurking about until he perks up by trying out tiresome American slogans on for size.

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Paul Buhle Honored by The Progressive

Paul Buhle

Paul Buhle is an eminent historian who, from time to time, graces this site with his writings on comics and related issues. Today it is my honor to direct your attention to a wonderful tribute to Paul Buhle in The Progressive. Here you will find a very useful overview of what Mr. Buhle has accomplished in his lifelong exploration and analysis of progressive politics–and how he’s incorporated his work into the comics medium. Paul Buhle’s contributions are essential!

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Review: ‘COVID Chronicles’ published by Graphic Mundi

COVID Chronicles. edited by Kendra Boileau and Rich Johnson. Graphic Mundi. 2021. 296pp. $21.95

COVID Chronicles is a unique comics anthology, a testament to the collective response to COVID-19. The comics medium is exceptionally well-suited to convey, evoke and process the massive tangle of information and expression involved. We often say that comics is known for superheroes. However, on an even grander scale, comics is known for being a communication and educational tool able to make it possible to see the forest for the trees. This remarkable anthology was put together during the first half of 2020. We were lost amid the trees then and we’re still finding our way today. As a comics creator, I fully appreciate the challenges for a book like this to stay on point. I have seen countless comics anthologies and the biggest stumbling block for such an endeavor is a lack of consistency and vision. And then we have those gems that prosper because of a clear and compelling purpose. This is such a collection.

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Review: HELEM by Stanley Wany

Helem. Stanley Wany. Conundrum Press. Wolfville, Canada. 2021. 240pp. $20

A work of comics will sometimes go from one form to another and such is the case with a couple of titles by Stanley Wany. Agalma (2015) and Sequences (2017) were both published by Trip which have recently been combined, with added material, into Helem, published by Conundrum Press. So, two works have been combined into one which is fascinating given what seemed to me to be open-ended options in two mostly wordless comics. However, there’s a narrative running its way through both titles, and now more emphasized in the final version, Helem.

We will first take a look at one of  Wany’s previous titles, Sequences, as a way into the new book, Helem. As the title to the older book suggests, we are dealing with sequences, one page at a time, and in connection with each other. If you were to view this as a show in an art gallery, you might accept each page as just a set of four small drawings. As the reader takes in more pages, something sequential emerges. What follows are three pairs of sequences.

Pages 22 – 23 from Sequences

In this first pairing, Wany offers us a look into the inner life of a call center, complete with its peculiar hum of activity. It’s hard to say if there is any hint of irony on display and maybe that’s the point. People working in call centers is so common that it’s most likely you have worked in one or know at least one person who has. It’s a strange and highly artificial world but, when you are in it, it’s the only world you know.

Pages 36 – 37 from Sequences

Our pairings become progressively more surreal moving forward. We start off with two friends chatting on a walk in the city. But what exactly happens next is anybody’s guess and best to chalk it up to dream logic. Mr. Death appears to be in a foul mood and not to be ignored. And then there’s a crack in the system, a sign of greater concerns ahead.

Pages 106 – 107 from Sequences

Finally, our last pairing of pages takes us to a higher plane of existence. Our protagonist appears to be lost but soon finds a potential ally, a queen no less. Who is this queen? Does she possess supernatural powers? Our friend will soon find out.

Wany is a master of manipulating the quotidian and transmogrifying it. With Helem, the final and complete version to his two previous books of art-comics, he takes the reader into the heads of two lost souls. The two main characters, both relatively young, are adrift, in an existential crisis. This is Wany’s landscape of the inner world and welcome to it. In both stories, the reader first experiences the world through the eyes of each protagonist and it is only towards the end that we get some closure through actual remarks. In the second story, originally from Sequences, it turns out we have a man wondering where some of the best years of his life have gone. He loops in and out of reality to discover that some of his most compelling moments are in his nightmares.

Stanley Wany is in that select group of artists who are diligently creating comics as art or art that is also comics. A cartoonist who makes art. An artist who makes comics. Wany’s linework is exquisite. The lines dance upon the page and seem quite capable of anything–and telling more than one story all at once. Wany delights the reader on many levels with his flights of fancy; he offers gifts for both the eye and the mind. It really would be no surprise to me if these same pages were to be sliced and diced yet again to tell a completely different story! Isn’t the comics medium malleable by its very nature? Of course it is! Any work by Wany is a delight and I look forward to seeing more from this exciting artist.

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Review: ‘The Domesticated Afterlife’ by Scott Finch

The Domesticated Afterlife. Scott Finch. Antenna Works. New Orleans. (available thru Domino Books) 200pp. $18

There are certain things I love and respect: compelling art like finely-crafted comics; and places that can make your heart sing like Louisiana. So, it’s a double-pleasure to feast upon this work of comics by Baton Rouge artist Scott Finch. He is the real deal: an artist who can make art-making look easy, as natural as breathing, because of all the work that he does to reach that level of grace and ease.  Too many artists can fall into a perpetual trap of producing slapdash work which is lifeless to say the least. The more that I’ve seen of Finch’s work, the more that I appreciate his level of commitment. Finch treats the comics medium with a genuine artistic sensibility. What Finch does is precisely what I aim for with my own work so I know of what I speak. If you’ve spun a comics narrative about animals in some domesticated afterlife, and you’re an artist with a consistent vision like Finch, then expect to find your very essence deep in that world.

We are decades away from a true metaverse, a complete virtual reality landscape where we are totally sucked into another world. That’s a good thing so enjoy reality while you still can before everyone has drunk the Kool-aid. What we’ll experience now with such entities as Facebook lurching into the future should be bad enough. That said, the metaverse is alive and well in fiction and comics is especially adept at evoking such a loopy terrain in the right hands. Finch is just the kind of artist to tap into the potential of the comics medium. This is both a philosophical and mythological work on a grand scale; a grand opera about a metaverse of humanoid animals, mostly dogs and cats, at the mercy of chicken-like creatures. The dogs and cats fend for themselves as best they can in this virtual world. Their minds, their psyches, have been tampered with to such an extent that all they know is that something isn’t quite right and maybe they want to reach for a portal to the outer darkness, what they assume is the real world.

Finch’s arcane sense of humor informs this comic’s cryptic sense of logic–which is totally cool. It’s difficult enough losing yourself in a work of comics given that a lot of comics doesn’t even try to challenge or engage the reader. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of the good stuff out there but you need to look. This comic delivers with page after page of striking imagery and a whipsmart narrative. Finch is a painter and that special insight shows here as you’ll delight upon one panel after another that could easily be worked into a stand-alone drawing or painting. As I’ve always maintained, it takes someone with a well-cultivated sensibility, part novelist, part painter, to truly make the most of comics as an art form and Finch proves he’s up to the task.

Single Panel Excerpt from The Domesticated Afterlife

The story itself, with its byzantine subplots, provides so many delicious and thought-provoking moments that you are bound to get hooked. This is a world where animals act like humans: they don’t eat to live; they live to eat. They are utterly disconnected from the natural world–and what kind of life is that? It’s a twisted world where dogs and cats are outsmarted by chickens. Everyone is weak but just strong enough to claw at each other. We naked apes are so prone to folly that our own metaverse, with chickens ruling over us, could be our destiny. Finch’s book is one part cautionary tale and one part just good old-fashioned loopy fun.

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