Thursday, March 15, 2018

slasher, a comic by charles forsman

Last weekend I gave myself over to an unwholesome taste I rarely indulge and can’t quite recommend: I read a comic I thought I’d hate because I knew I’d take pleasure in trashing it. I guess some gals—well, at least the protagonist of Charles Forsman’s Slasher—are pedophiliac serial killers who get their rocks off at the sight of “knife play,” while girls like me are content to sit on a couch and quietly explore the depths of their contempt. One difference to note is that I was born this way, whereas Slasher’s Christine Sobotka, in her latex suit and gimp mask, is the product of one man’s imagination.

“Jesus, why?” is one question that might be asked of a comic book that consists of a 25-year-old woman masturbating her way through a murder spree. Over at the Comics Journal, Leonard Pierce entertained it with less than half a heart. “She [Slasher’s protagonist] can only get off sexually at the sight of blood,” he writes. “Why? It’s not really important.”

Oh, okay! He continues:

“The quest for an irreducible meaning behind mass violence is, in life, largely futile and easily confused effort, and in art, almost never more than a narrative crutch. Forsman wisely doesn’t spend more than a token line or two on the origin of her mania, instead plunging us directly into its expanding consequences.”

Pierce imbues the cartoonist’s dubious narrative choices with the sort of sweeping philosophical import one might find in the work of Cormac McCarthy; failing to find fault with the idea of a woman who takes sexual pleasure in her own evisceration, Pierce concludes that here’s a comic that really makes u think. Mmm, does it, though? Because when I ask why this young woman finds sexual satisfaction in a 14-year-old boy drawing a knife across his concave chest, say, or why she doesn’t mind when some other pervert saws off her hand, my spirit isn’t quite so equivocal. In fact, I can say with some confidence that the answer to Why is Charles Forsman’s protagonist turned on by these unspeakable things? is: because the cartoonist decided to make her that way.

To catfish is to pretend to be something you’re not to lure people in - a lie told to another person in service of your own satisfaction. Catfishing is central to the plot of Slasher, but it is also, if you think about it, part of the packaging of Post-Dumb comics, the genre to which this comic book belongs. The Post-Dumbs, you may recall, are artists like Johnny Ryan and Benjamin Marra whose shtick is to take loaded, politically incorrect imagery and empty it of meaning. These artists play with plausible deniability, mostly through the haphazard deployment of irony, a recognizable aesthetic, and a modern point of view, but at the end of the day they’re trafficking in old stereotypes. Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find there’s nothing there.

Forsman is a millennial who has been to comics college, so Slasher is the Post-Dumb genre with a socially aware twist: he casts the gender of his serial killer against expectation. James Sturm is proud, I’m sure, but much like “The Sponsor,” the problem here is that Slasher’s gender commentary can’t quite obscure its misogynistic attitude. The feminist swell I’m meant to feel when Forsman shows me Christine’s sleazy boss hitting on her isn’t enough to make me overlook the cartoonist’s stereotypical representations of (just for instance) mothers as overbearing and mentally unstable. Some images, like an unhinged woman giving herself an empowering haircut in a bathroom mirror, will be familiar to readers from the language of cinema. Others, like a lady in a gimp mask chowing down on a fistful of raw ground beef in the supermarket, are newer, if somehow more tired. The effect, either way, is the same. 

Roughly a thousand years ago I read a book of writing advice by Stephen King. One of the exercises he recommended (at least as I remember it) was to write a short story about a cat burglar who was...wait for it...a woman. Wild and crazy stuff. That’s basically the plot of Slasher, except with violent perverts. Christine Sobotka is a seemingly mild-mannered data entry clerk who’s secretly in love with Chester Brown’s grandchild, who she met via fax on the Internet.

Her father dies, so she decides to start doing sex murder? Then a road trip to see Chester Brown Jr. Jr. doesn’t quite go as planned. Gosh, I really don’t want to spoil things for you, but hopefully you’re getting the sense that this is not so much a story that hangs together as an undercooked thought experiment.

As with all Dumbs and Post-Dumbs, Forsman exhibits a certain level of craft and competence. He can draw a hell of a cover. 

He’s more or less proficient at the level of the sentence, of the panel, of the page. Where he struggles in Slasher is in fleshing out the idea of a nightmare person necrophilia comic beyond a shallow elevator pitch. (Hey, does Bret Easton Ellis meets Juno sound good to you? I guess it sounded good to Netflix.) There is often something quite commercial about “edgy” work, is there not? I believe the line between offensive and appealing is more porous than these men care to admit.

Post-Dumb comics are part of the legacy of Robert Crumb (the ur-Dumb, if you will), who’s celebrated for his use of politically incorrect imagery. The key difference between Dumb and Post-Dumb is that with Crumb, that imagery meant something, even if it meant different things to different eyes. Now we have post-race racism instead of regular racism, post-gender sexism instead of plain misogyny, so on/so forth. I was pondering this lineage a few nights ago as I was writing a thread venting about old Crumb, when I noticed something interesting: One of the authors of an old AV Club piece that named a panel in which Crumb raped a woman as its #1 “unflattering moment from autobiographical comics” was Leonard Pierce, the same critic who gave Slasher that glowing review.

Which comics artists do we - the “comics community” - interrogate, and which ones get a pass? I found myself thinking about Pierce’s praise for how Slasher challenges its audience to “look at a lot of our assumptions about the nature of violence in both life and art” (lol), and also Tucker Stone’s more compelling, if somewhat antagonistic, interview with AleŇ° Kot, which hit on many of the same topics in a different register. I don’t wish to say those pieces fail to attend to the issues at hand so much as that, taken together, they express a larger cultural force, a skewed perspective we might endeavor to correct. The ur-Dumb set a double standard in which a provocative indie comic, no matter how incoherent or appalling an expression of the id, is presumed to have worth and intellectual integrity, whereas anything with mass market spit-and-shine is automatically an object of suspicion. Too often there's something fundamentally dishonest about the way in which violence against women in indie comics is drawn and discussed. 

But here I’ll admit to one of my own limitations: sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between finally seeing into the matrix and viewing everything through the lens of my own irritation. It was the possibility that I was mistaken about Slasher - maybe even more so than the prospect of a delicious hate read - that convinced me to give it a shot. After all, Forsman’s Revenger series is published by Bergen Street Comics Press, home to Michel Fiffe’s Copra trade paperbacks, one of this world’s few perfect things. Plus, of course, Forsman recently became a mainstream success, with The End of the Fucking World having broken the salon barrier (meaning the woman who cuts my hair enthusiastically recommended it). I was curious.

Alas, there was no need to look past my assumptions, which were met and exceeded; Slasher is just another exercise in empty titillation from a bad boy with a brand (albeit a brand that’s more capacious and flexible than most). Like its Post-Dumb brethren, Forsman’s comic falls somewhere between aimless, listless satire and absolutely thoughtless entertainment, a combination doomed to fail. If we’re digging for meaning—that pesky why—the Post-Dumb genre is like a joke that’s not a joke in that it expresses something true without the courage of conviction. I find it lazy, despicable, and bloodless. Writing this post, I’m reminded of the time I taught a writing class, where sometimes I wondered if I spent more time commenting on papers than the students had spent writing the papers themselves. In my fantasy, in lieu of this review, I’m handing Charles Forsman a copy of Slasher with a single comment scrawled in red pen: Suck my dick.

No offense, gentle reader. “No offense.”

Thursday, March 8, 2018

now trending: rapscallions' sad fantasies

Here's a thing I truly believe: it's not cool to make fun of other people's sex stuff. Like... of all the losers on the internet, is there any sadder demographic than would-be Chapo middle school alphas whose bon mots are always about how Arthur Chu isn't doing it correctly, or enough? This type of teasing is transparently insecure and deeply unattractive. We're all just out here trying to live.

That being said, Tim Kreider writing a New York Times column on roleplaying after being in a romantic relationship for three weeks has got to be the saddest shit I've ever seen:

My, how quickly things can change. For example, in the space of just two paragraphs, I found that nigh on a decade's worth of creepy stranger crushing on Tim Kreider had transformed into a sort of uncomfortable pity. (He's devastated, I'm sure.) Immediately, it got worse:  

Oh no. Somehow Tim Kreider's role-playing scenario involving Nabokov is more horrifying than every sad horny detail that preceded it. But, hey, I don't want to leave you hanging. I know what you're wondering. Did Kreider fuck?

Sigh. Do you know how hard it is to find a male writer even marginally attractive in your imagination these days? This piece came out almost simultaneously with Kreider's new book, which I pre-ordered, but now I'm holding onto it till I'm in a better frame of mind. Anyway I was reminded of all this upon seeing this headline at Slate, which suggests to me a trend:

Nothing against Ted Scheinman, I guess, but his new book (of which this is an excerpt) is so clearly "Urban Outfitters novelty book about Jane Austen, about a decade too late, and by a man" that it sort of grates in the first place. And in the second place, there's how the piece begins:

You see, this intrepid reporter has discovered that people at cosplay conventions have sex with each other. But also they read? Worlds colliding!! Old people have sex! Wow. adorable.

Ugh, this piece has so many levels of condescension I can't even keep track. I guess to me the joke of it isn't old people's sex lives, but the writer's attitude towards the subject as though it's even remotely interesting or scandalous. Humorists often take the central question of essay writing to be Am I punching up or down? when sometimes the question is more Why am I sitting here, punching myself in the face? You know, what do you think is funny, who do you imagine to be the object of your joke, and is that the same as the actual joke to your readers? I found myself thinking about this as I encountered a weird degree of antipathy towards that post I wrote on promotional headshots - like, lots of people who felt compelled to say, out loud, some version of "oh, you think this is a good use of your time?" (as though that even ranks among all the many ways in which I waste time, haha, please), plus a number of comments about "bullying," including someone who berated me for not being as good of a person as Simon Hanselmann? Sometimes comics really makes u think. Like, what if it's time to recalibrate my moral compass and STOP bullying Jeffrey Dahmer and that warlock from Game of Thrones and START finding a way to commodify trickle-down gossip and/or using all my sacred comics hobby time to write plot summaries of new episodes of Jessica Jones? Mmm, I'll pray on it.

Two pieces of writing advice. Try to be kind - but when you're not, try to mean it. Also your writing is always going to be bad when you're trying to be cool, and that's especially true if your jokey piece about sex has any whiff of a boast. Take it to the bank.