Things Just Get Away From You

Walt Holcombe drew a comic called Poot back in the late nineties. After a handful of issues it was cancelled by the publisher (which seems unheard of today-no comic book from an 'alternative' publisher sells particularly well. It's a given these days that circulation will be low). Holcombe's work fit snugly within what, at the time, was a new scene of alternative comics at least to my eyes as teenager discovering it all. Comics that whole heartedly embraced the visual short hand of cartooning and bound it with a certain narrative sophistication-Frank, Acme, Schizo, Biologic Show, Sleepy Head, Hate, Palookaville all come to mind though they are barely the tip of the iceberg. In general, a group with certain Literary aspirations that sought to acknowledge it's history while at the same time distancing itself from that history, usually with huge amounts of irony-poking fun at the widely perceived artistic worth of the medium, while also basking in a certain odd nostalgia. That sounds derogatory, but it isn't.
After Poot was cancelled though, Holcombe, despite being remarkably gifted, sort of disappeared as a cartoonist and joined the ranks of the ever growing Lost Cartoonists Club. Other members who immediately come to mind are Debbie Dechsler, Al Columbia, Roy Tompkins, and J.R. Williams amongst many, many others.
As a cartoonist, I am fascinated by cartoonists who abandon comics, especially when they clearly have a deap seated love for the medium. I love going through old anthologies and seeing how much promising work was made by cartoonists no longer involved with comics. Cartooning is hard, as much as I hate to admit it, and if you are a cartoonist you can often wonder when enough is enough. It's frightening for me to imagine that point in my own life and as a fan its quite depressing seeing potential unfulfilled or seemingly rich careers willingly cut short. You also never know whose next to cut the cord-I keep a running tally in my head of cartoonists about to drop off any day now where the last strip published will be the last one ever.
You can't spite someone for letting go, in fact you can have a certain level of respect for them, but you just wish they kept going, even though doing so would mean an artistic life of no satisfaction and a social life that barely exists. You lament it, but you know in your heart of hearts that to do so is ridiculous.
Holcombe is one of those cartoonists whose work was strong and the abrupt end to his output, though understandable, was disappointing. He moved into animation, and made the short film The Courtship of Sniffy LaPants.
On friday, a collection of Holcombe's comics, Things Just Get Away From You, arrived at the store. It is, without a doubt, one of Fantagraphics most beautiful looking books-hardcover, cloth binding, excellent paper, well designed-a big sturdy book that's a pleasure to just turn over and feel in your hands. Flipping through it, I was really curious to see how these strips help up, having not read them in almost a decade, and with a really different set of criteria today as to when I first encountered them. It's hard not looking at the book in the context of when the material first appeared. And frankly I was nervous they would not stand up to the test of time.
Well, the strips hold up extremely well, and I can say, without a doubt, that Things Just Get Away From You is one of the best collections released in a long time and it's awesome that Fantagraphics put it together. There is not much new material-a couple of good dream strips, some stand alone artwork, but having all the work in one place is revelatory. Holcombe's places all his stories in world full of ghosts and sailors and fops, and exotic locales and talking cute animals. they are all epics that revel in the fantastic-it's innately comic bookish, and they make me wonder why there aren't more people making comics like these, at least superficially. My favorite of the bunch though is a three part story called Swollen Holler. It concerns a handful of characters all dealing with the throes of love, albeit in different ways. It's funny and well written-Holcombe has an incredible way with a particular kind of nuanced vernacular and it's drawn in a style that while drunk with a love of cartooning and cartoon history, remains his own.
Reading it now I was struck by how much it reminded me of Knut Hamsun's novel Pan, a book also concerned with relationships and love. Both Hamsun and Holcombe will have their characters say and do things irrationally that they, the characters, don't have the foresight to understand, though the reader does. Acts of violence to others or themselves, a manifesting of pent up frustrations and longing bursting through in odd ways. Desperate acts that in their essence show a character trying to communicate but doing so in ways that create the opposite effect, just alienating the affections of their love even more. In Pan there is a scene where the main character, feeling slighted by the girl of his affections, throws her shoe in a lake, and when the upset girl asks him why he says he does not know and he is telling the truth. Similarly, in Swollen Holler, when the Snail is confronted with the love of others, his reaction is to smash his car headlong into a tree.
And while other cartoonists may use an extroverted, verbose line merely for the sake of irony, as way to counterbalance more complex narratives and characters, a sort of wink wink to the audience, Holcombe uses that same approach to present the inner emotional state outwardly. The bounce and pop to his character design and settings is way to bring the simmering under current of emotional frustration and existential dread to a boil. And to bring a new meaning to the tropes of the cartooning tradition. Never has a 'flop' been so allied with such an emotional clarity.
after reading the story, I was seriously shook up by its authenticity. It feels honest in its sadness while presenting a world view not mired by that sadness, a clarity in seeing the world where existential pain and an almost spiritual love can both exist in the same space. I can't remember the last time that the entire form and content of a comic has so wholly worked together to create such a clear artistic vision.
The book sat closed on my lap and looking at the cover, it began to turn itself over in my mind: A love sick donkey, it's muzzle turned upward toward the moonlight, a state of bliss expressed with the slightest bend of an eyelid, as it unknowingly approaches the edge of a looming waterfall. The tight circular drawing that leads the eye out, surrounded by a bluish hue signifying unending night pouring to the outer edges. And Things Just Get A Way From You- the 'Just' making it almost apologetic and giving it a slightly defeated presence. It's a title that serves as a fitting reflection of both the stories within, concerned as they are with the fragility of hope and by extension living, and, not so dramatically, of the artist himself. How you can, despite how much love you may have for something, let it go.

posted by sammy at 11:03 PM

Blogger mattmadden said...

Nice post Sammy, a very concise verbalization of just what makes Walt's comics so affecting. Another artist he puts me in mind of is the filmmaker Guy Maddin--both self-consciously self-consciously old-fashioned visual culture and overheated psycho-melodrama to get at something painful and true about life and love.

Here's hoping this new book finds Walt the large audience he should have had back in the 90s.


8:25 AM  

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