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This 120-page collection of comic book art contains remarkable
work. As a whole, it manages to convey a sense of claustrophobic
neurosis. Even though many of the individual contributions do
tell stories, these are completely overpowered by the artwork,
and when one browses through the book, the diversity of styles
and the density of details make it hard to read it from front
to back in one sitting. It's far better suited to reading one
short story at a time; so it's ideal for bathroom breaks.
What's more, much of the art is disturbing and disconcerting,
hyper-ironic, saturated in cultural references, picturing a sick
and mechanized world of sex and consumerism. Indeed, it reminds
me of a great deal of art brut or "outsider art,"
the creative work of the "insane" or those who are not
part of the fine-art tradition. There's a combination of amateurishness
and obsessive attention to small detail on many pages here, suggesting
an altered perception of reality, and an unusual dwelling on the
dark side of life.
Let me give some examples. On the cover, the Clayton Brothers have
a boy/man amputee in a wheelchair. He is smoking, and has a bird
on his shoulder. Around his head is a yellow aura, giving the
impression of a halo. In the sky behind him, there are floating
circles in the air; in the foreground, a devilish bunny waves,
holding a stick of dynamite. A little girl, in much smaller proportion
than the other figures, is in the bottom right corner, holding
out her hands either in religious ecstasy or as the blind reaching
forward to avoid bumping into something. A skinny boy holding
a giant match is in the background. A snake slithers under the
wheelchair. It's a disturbing and puzzling combination, full of
impenetrable symbolism. The same is true of their piece, "Ding
Dong. Welcome to Tim House." (These works by the Clayton
Brothers work are reminiscent of the artist Henri Darger.)
Jonathan Rosen has two contributions: "New Zodiac for Sentient
Machines" and "Son of Obsessive Compulsive." Both
are full of pictures of mechanized bodies or body parts, as if
they were taken from a fantastic textbook of medical anatomy.
They are bizarre images and remind me of the delusions of schizophrenics
who feel their bodies are becoming machines or are being taken
over by foreign agencies - there's a strong sense of alienation
Laura Levine's "The
Collyer Brothers" looks like it is painted on wood; it is
dense with color and writing, with pieces of the New York Times
in the background, telling an apparently true story. It could
just as easily be classified as folk art as a comic. Peter Kuper's "Dreams
of the Rarebit Fiend" is appropriately surreal and futuristic,
full of modernist images, making a bewildering mixture that is
very pleasing to the eyes.
I think it's the refusal of these pieces to yield a coherent interpretation
that gives this collection unity, and in this combination of manic
imagery and utterly private symbolism, it feels strongly rooted
in madness. Even one of the most straightforward pieces, a collection
of postcards from the beginning of the twentieth century by various
artists featuring the figure of Krampus, is very dark. Krampus
is a devilish figure of Austrian myth, who was supposed to come
to people's homes the night before St. Nicholas visits; Krampus
beats the bad children with hickory swishes so that St. Nick knows
which students not to leave gifts for. Krampus is a hairy demon
with horns whose long touch is always hanging out. Unfortunately
in order to find this out, you have to do your own research, since
there's no explanation in the text. Indeed, there's no information
about any of the artists in this collection, which contributes
to the sense of alienation provoked by reading it. I know I would
have liked to know more about the artists, not just to help me
understand, but to reduce the alienated discomfort I experienced
on looking at the images.
So this powerful book is not for everyone, but the move of comic
book art to overlap with outsider art certainly represents a significant
transition that makes it all the more compelling.
Santa's Companions: Krampus
© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College,
Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry.
He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can
play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster
communication between philosophers, mental health professionals,
and the general public.