Black Eye 2 is an almost painfully personal statement by its editor, Ryan Standfest, despite the fact that very few of the pieces present in the book are his. The first volume of this anthology was outstanding in a number of ways, but it also felt flabby and self-indulgent at times. In some ways, that first volume was Standfest’s personal manifesto regarding Black Humor and comics in general, and his desire to draw a line between EC horror comics, Black Humor, and today’s cartoonists saw him tenuously stretch those connections. The second volume feels tighter and sharper. There’s less of an editorial preoccupation on telling the reader what Black Humor is and more of an interest in actually showing them.
The mix of new and old essays, comics, poetry and short stories is effectively sequenced, with each seamlessly introducing the next. That’s in stark contrast to the first volume, whose jarring use of fake advertisements frequently halted its own momentum. The book’s subtitle is “An Anthology of Humor and Despair”, and that’s just what we get with cartoonists like J.T. Dockery and Julia Gfrörer. In some ways, one could argue that this is really a psychological horror anthology with bleak punchlines. The book starts with an epitaph for humor and in general is filled with imagery depicting endings, with Standfest’s own grim “Sensible Proverbs For Today” issuing advice like “When passing an elementary schoolyard, toss a dead puppy over the fence. This will bring good luck.” These proverbs are always accompanied by a photo of a gun that looks like it’s covered in paint: an impotent symbol of death. Indeed, death is something to be laughed at in this volume as more of a logical reaction than a way in which to achieve comfort.
Drawing from contributors new and old seems to be a key to the anthology’s success. For example, Standfest includes essays by Michael O’Donoghue and Paul Krassner; fiction by Bob Levin; poetry and fiction by Jesse Nathan; a cartoon by S.Gross; and images from David Lynch. Black Eye feels like a digest-sized, darker version of the New Yorker with this edition. The twin themes of death and the impotence of guns get worked out throughout the issue, as with Martin Rowson’s Durer by way of Gorey “The Dance of Death”, which sees death coming for the wicked and greedy. Helge Reumann’s “Sexy Guns” features a series of absurd, scratchily-drawn images with primitive villagers, brutal conflicts, and beloved anthropomorphic guns. David Paleo’s brutal one-panel gags are another highlight of the book, toning down his usual level of grotesque details for mean and simple punchlines. Quentin Faucompre’s “Religious Circus” fits in with its visceral, silent and clever comparisons between religious figures and circus acts, with Christ on a cross attached to a rotating wheel with a knife-tosser taking aim being my favorite. Stephen William Schudlich’s “The Young Person’s Urban Occupational Planner” works in much the same way, revealing the harsh truth about policemen, paramedics and teachers.
The sequential comics section is small but well-curated. Julia Gfrörer’s “Unclean” compares different kinds of predators (emotional and vampiric) in a story whose verisimilitude makes the amusingly creepy ending all the more effective. Eric Haven’s “Even An Android Can Dance” takes his sturdy superheroic storytelling and once again turns it into a bit of Dada. It works because the reader is all too acquainted with superhero angst, and Haven flips that feeling and turns it into something else. The same goes with Ben Marra’s take on romance and crime comics, “The Biggest Change In My Entire Life!”, turning melodrama into absurd science-fiction. This is the perfect comic for a Standfest publication, given the way it touches on so many EC tropes while still retaining its own distinct, weird identity.
J.T. Dockery’s “Fukushima Love” is a sort of mutant version of the romance story, as he uses a figures rendered in a Golden Age style in a world where potent men are quickly dying off. He can’t help but go surreal as a walking platypus shows up to vex the female leads as the line turns to a dense crosshatched web. Max Clotfelter’s “Fema Kids” is much along the same sort of apocalyptic lines, where society has mutated into something barbaric but not too unlike life today. Brecht Vandenbroucke’s strip about about a coffin-maker trying to make a sale by exploiting the fitness crazy is starkly and crisply drawn, earning one of the more solid laughs in the book. Ian Huebert (with Jesse Nathan writing) contribute a strip that trades on Black Eye‘s fascination with figures and images from the 1940s and 1950s, even as it relentlessly deconstructs these images. Onsmith’s story about a sadistic corporate structure is perhaps his finest work to date, with hints of Tom Kaczynski’s musing about corporations combined with his more savage and visceral sense of humor. The image of a meeting room converted into a re-education center, complete with a hooded guard at the door (naked from the waist up, but wearing a tie around his neck) is my favorite of the entire book, especially when he tells a visitor that only authorized personnel can pass by him, but that there are cupcakes in the break room.
The main feature of the book is a long “reaction” to the works of artist Jose Posada by a number of artists: Bill Fick, Peter Kuper, Sue Coe, Lilli Carré, David Sandlin (pictured) and many others. The “dark populism” of Posada is also reflected as a whole by Standfest in the contents of this issue, emphasizing imagery related to a sort of death and decay mixed with vitality and joy. Despite the gruesome and visceral nature of Posada’s work, it very much represented life as it was lived in Mexico, as a series of contradictions that encapsulate stirring beauty and stark horror. Standfest’s editorial vision is much the same, as Black Eye manages to be dark but not downbeat; it’s laughing into the abyss.