REVIEWS

Black Eye 1

For an anthology of scabrous sick humor, Ryan Standfest’s Black Eye sure is tastefully designed. The cover and paper stock are creamy and pleasant to the touch, an ideal platform for the black and white, graytone, or pencil-shaded art of the contributors. Its introduction, table of contents, and prose contributions come in an array of exquisitely curated typefaces from the mid-20th century. A triumvirate of top comics critics contribute essays — Bob Levin on Phoebe Zeit-Geist, Jeet Heer on S. Clay Wilson, and Ken Parille on Steve Ditko — of the sort that would animate the altcomix cocktail-party circuit, were there such a thing. Of all the publications to be seized by overzealous Canadian customs officers on guard against American Obscenity recently, this un here’s surely the most classiest.

Clearly, editor Ryan Standfest was up for a challenge when he conceived and assembled Black Eye, and not just for its lofty production values. He’d have to have been, to combine two of comics’ diciest propositions into one giant hit-and-miss amalgam. All but the best anthologies are characterized by the inclusion of a few clunkers, while gallows humor and gross-out gags are forever in danger either of being predictable in their transgression or of overemphasizing the dark or disgusting at the expense of actually being funny. In both cases, success at surmounting these obstacles is largely in the eye of the beholder — and from the title on down, Black Eye seems created with exactly that in mind. But cognizance does not equal transcendence, and the book ultimately shares the typical vulnerabilities of most comics that share either its form or its content.

Black Eye‘s biggest problem is kind of a killer for a humor anthology: It’s not particularly funny. In a way, its rather astonishingly high production values work against it: The highfalutin’ look and content saps the proceedings of the anarchic savagery that tends to characterize the most effective work in this vein, from Harvey Kurtzman to Johnny Ryan. Only Onsmith goes hard in the Ryan direction, with a suite of gag panels that was the ostensible cause of the Canadian customs confiscation, and unsurprisingly they’re the funniest bits in the book — an indictment of selfishness and lack of empathy as a stealth running theme amid a bunch of brutally blunt sex ’n’ murder jokes. (“Shit, bro…I should call my father!” says one frat boy to another as they gawk at the naked dead woman on their couch. “He’s gotta get in on this while she’s still warm.’) Two of David Paleo’s similarly nasty cartoons got a chuckle out of me on the strength of the kinetic body language his loose, ink-splattered line is capable of: a bound execution victim leaning forward as a hunter blasts him point-blank in the back of his enormous deer mask, a concentration camp internee’s ta-da hand gestures as he encourages a despondent guard to sit back and enjoy being a part of a momentous historical event. Though Ryan himself doesn’t put in an appearance, the other maven of pitch-black humor, Ivan Brunetti, does, and his work here feels as enervated as it has for some time now; one of his punchlines is just a non sequitur, another a simplistic riff on the way Popeye speaks, and the third a visual pun involving a cartoon bone that doesn’t even make sense, given the way he draws his characters’ limbs as a single line. Most of the other more raucous contributions overestimate the value of visual noise at the expense of good jokes or even directly outré imagery (cf. Clotfelter, Moore, Nudd, Head); an apples-to-apples comparison with Al Columbia’s dental-trauma illustration makes the others’ weaknesses apparent.

Of the subtler pieces, only Brecht Evens’s paean to his late wife (sic) stands out, for the clever, self-indicting way in which it actually pays tribute primarily to Brecht Evens himself. Beyond that there are several staid art-inflected pieces of the sort you might flip past in Kramers Ergot 5 or 6 on the way to the good stuff, and way too many parodies of the ads in the back of old comics, nearly all of which are one-note riffs on your basic “these x-ray spex won’t prevent you from dying loveless and alone” schtick. Danny Hellman is by far the best of that bunch, with a novelty-item parody page that’s funny from top to bottom and an ad for an art school for the ill-fated, featuring spokesman Wallace Wood uttering the immortal line, “We’re looking for people who are dying to draw”; the rest lack both his chops and the sense that they were made by an artist willing to ruin his life with lawsuits in possibly misguided but nobly intentioned attempts to be funny. Maybe that’s the problem with Black Eye overall. It’s a lovely thing to look at, but it seems intended primarily to illustrate that its contributors like black humor and sick jokes, not demonstrate why we the readers might like ‘em too.

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15 Responses to Black Eye 1

  1. Nicholas Gazin says:

    I’d say that’s about right. It looks nice but doen’t really grab me.

  2. Look again, the glass is half-full.

  3. Nicholas Gazin says:

    Danny Hellman’s the best thing in the book.

  4. David Paleo’s great. Onsmith is great. R. Sikoryak is always great. I could go on. There’s great stuff in BLACK EYE. Is every page in the book up to the same level of excellence as every other page in the book? Of course not, and it’s ridiculous to expect that. The nature of anthologies is that no reader will ever like the ENTIRETY of a book’s contents. But when these self-appointed comics reviewers get their hands on a new anthology, they always zero in on a handful of pieces that aren’t to their taste, and proclaim that their disappointment with those few pieces somehow indicates that the book’s a miserable failure.

    Bear in mind that we’re talking about BLACK EYE No.1, not RAW No.9, and it’s editor is the newcomer Ryan Standfest, not a seasoned editor like Art Spiegelman. My first anthology book is so full of flaws, I can’t bring myself to look at it anymore. I’m sure if we inspected RAW No.1 or WEIRDO No.1, we could pick out numerous pieces that fall short of the stronger material in those books. For a freshman effort, I think BLACK EYE is a startling success.

    If you actually want a thriving, vibrant anthology comics scene, (most people don’t), stop stabbing these books while they’re still in their fucking cradles.

  5. Nicholas Gazin says:

    The contributors were all good. Everything looked good. It’s just that I didn’t feel like it needed to be a book.

  6. Ken Parille says:

    To me, the collection’s strength is its mix of short gag comics, narratives, “art pieces,” fake ads, as well as the essays. One of the reasons I happily agreed to write something when Ryan asked, was that he was doing something I haven’t often seen: combining comics and criticism in the same book.

    I have a different take on the question of production value and its relationship to content. The book is nicely designed, but in a way that’s very clean and unobtrusive; I don’t see any kind of clash between ‘highbrow’ presentation and ‘lowbrow’ material. I don’t see any need for the design to live up to – or down to – the book’s contents.

    What someone finds funny is what they find funny. While there are piece I wouldn’t describe as funny, that doesn’t mean I don’t see them as successful on their own terms. Despite the name ‘black humor,’ the response I expect from something so labeled is often a sense of discomfort – it’s a little sick. Many of the pieces work on this level for me, while other are more traditional gags, and others work as art pieces.

  7. Danny, over the past ten years I’ve reviewed about a bajillion anthologies — you can find many of those reviews in the sidebar here; this year alone I’ve reviewed,Prison for Bitches, Thickness, Closed Caption Comics #9, Studygroup12 #4, Ax: Alternative Manga Vol. 1, the PictureBox issue of Monster, and Mould Map #1 — and I think it’s safe to say both that I don’t simply judge them based solely on their weakest stuff and that I value a thriving, vibrant anthology scene as much as anyone. I don’t think I stabbed Black Eye, which as I said is a beautiful-looking book with some funny stuff in it, in its cradle — I’d certainly love to see a second volume, whatever my problems with the first.

    I am indeed a self-appointed comics reviewer, by the way, but only because I didn’t get my application into the U.S. Department of Comics Reviewers in time to receive an official appointment from someone else.

  8. Not as a gesture to sway opinion, but rather as an attempt to clarify my objectives (which admittedly I fell short of as a first-time editor), I will be professorial at the risk of being a complete bore and overly didactic. However, pretension and pomposity is far preferable to me than the phony populist, dumbed-down approach that is so prevalent today—I have no desire to sound like the guy holding the beer and shooting from the hip. Therefore, pipe is firmly clenched between teeth as I explain:

    I did not approach the anthology as a comics-minded editor with any particular reverence for popular trends involving narrative strategies or empathetic devices (read: biographical enterprises). Instead, coming from a different angle I wished to shape the material in a way that was highly self-aware and more of an experimental and eclectic fusion of a comics vernacular with that of the avant garde art reviews of the 1930’s and 1940’s I’m interested in, such as the Surrealist publications “Minotaure” and “View”. That formal strategy was then coupled with the expression of Black Humor, in both its incarnations. And when I say incarnations, I mean it’s “American form” (which came to prominence in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s) and that of an earlier “European form” (which was identified in the 1930’s).

    To relight my pipe and explain further:

    1) American Black Humor: Content leans more toward the broadly satirical and the gleefully nihilistic—teetering between the sophisticated and the outright juvenile, with presentations of a world (and often the libidinous body) gone mad; more properly called “black comedy” as it aims to entertain and disturb simultaneously. See: films: “Dr. Strangelove”, “The Loved One”, “Lord Love a Duck”; literature: Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, Nathanael West.

    2. “Bretonian” (after André Breton, who devised the term “Black Humor”): Content is grotesque, at times oppressive, cynical, and often absurd, presenting material in a highly self-reflexive manner that implicates the reader. This is “black humor proper,” as it delivers the material in a more serious way than “black comedy,” not always resulting in a laugh or any sense of transcendence, but often hopelessness. It aims for discomfort over release, humor without a punchline or guaranteed laughs. See: literature: Jonathan Swift, D.-A.-F. de Sade, Alfred Jarry, Franz Kafka, Benjamin Peret; films: Luis Bunuel, Roy Andersson, Marco Ferreri.

    To be sure—not everybody’s idea of a knee-slapping time, nor intended for reception by a general audience. A bit over-intellectualized? Perhaps. An experiment that could have mixed results? Most assuredly. It’s not a book that considers a target audience (again the byproduct of it’s editor wandering the wilderness of the so-called “high art” realm), and I’m sure this may account for the discord experienced by those familiar with comics as a more communicative, direct medium and may stymie a more engaged reading. In fact, the book does employ a mode of “disengaged objectivity” throughout, an aloofness that can be a condition of much of Black Humor. For those who might not take an interest—no hard feelings, I understand.

    With that said, I appreciate criticism that opens up a conversation by calling attention to both perceived positive and negative attributes. Mr. Collins raises many well-reasoned issues, which I may or may not agree with, but that is far preferable to single sentence, flip asides that do nothing to generate conversation.

    My hope is to continue “BLACK EYE” as a publication that explores many different ways of presenting material—each one resulting from the learning experience of the last, never slavishly settling into a single format.

  9. Sean Michael Robinson says:

    >>>I am indeed a self-appointed comics reviewer, by the way, but only because I didn’t get my application into the U.S. Department of Comics Reviewers in time to receive an official appointment from someone else.>>>

    You really should get on that, Sean. I got my plaque and my monogrammed ascot in the mail just the other day and they really do look great with my smoking jacket!

  10. You stabbed it! You slipped the knife in right above the diaper!

  11. Uland says:

    I think presenting “an anthology of black humor” is always going to be a let-down. That kind of humor is hard to pull off when you announce its intent before-the-fact. It’s supposed to be surprising, jarring, stirring ( I agree it doesn’t have to spark laughter to work), etc.. A collection like this is especially difficult to pull off today, when “subversive” material is championed far and wide by institutional power. I mean, this stuff isn’t really upsetting to anyone, is it? We all get the historical context, we’ve all seen this sort of thing, we don’t really think it’s made by weirdos who’ve been captured by some dark energy, do we? It seems like self-aware college-guy cartoonists acting out an established thing.

    I think its future iteration could benefit by a) dropping “black humor” from the title; show us, don’t tell us. b) by presenting material that doesn’t really fit with our now-conventional notion of “black humor”; what should black humor look like today? c) Drop the essays. I like the essays on their own, but again, it seems like offering a running commentary on what the reader is taking is overbearing.The comics/art content has a hard time taking on a life of its own.

    All in all, I’m glad it’s out there, and I’m eager to see where it goes from here.

  12. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with “self-awareness” nor displaying a label (“black humor” is actually not in the title). Self-awareness for most artists in the 21st century is unavoidable, and in fact was a stated goal of Breton’s notion of Black Humor.” Somehow, we have grown accustomed to genre labels being slapped on works of art on a regular basis, to steer the reading of that work– but it has not lessened the impact of those works. In fact, this is why the book isn’t trying to be “subversive”– I think any attempt to do so, is like making dutifully political art, which dates easily and is like playing a shell game with no end in sight. The anthology is not trying to lure anybody in or trick an audience– but to present material in a straightforward way that, even though you’ve “all seen this sort of thing,” I myself am not finding a surfeit of when I visit the bookshelves today. The anthology came from a very personal desire to see a book made available that I am hoping to find more of– it’s not reflecting popular genres, it’s not concerned with a personal narrative, it’s not general humor for humor’s sake, it’s not bound by a particular stylistic convention, and it isn’t just comics. I actually find that there are and have been more books like this available in Europe than there are stateside.

    In my opinion, there isn’t a “conventional” notion of Black Humor– the meaning and goal has been lost in our culture and misread as something that is only meant to offend/shock or come across as “weird” and just plain nasty. Have I successfully countered this mis-reading in my first effort? I would be the first to say that I have not. In an American context, it is always mistaken as being solely satirical, and hence needing to be “of the moment.” Whereas I believe that the best examples of this sort of humor transcend the moment and continue to deliver well beyond its stated expiration date. Much of the American brand of Black Humor does not age well– precisely because it is fixated on topical satire– the constant need to be relevant.

    I don’t think everyone does get the historical context– it’s not a given. By including essays in the book, risking didacticsm, I attempted in this first book a kind of experimental “introduction” punctuating the material. Self aware? You bet it is. But as my friend Ian Huebert has said: “You gotta throw a few lawn darts.”

    There is a reason that the name of the press I started has the designation “publisher of excursions into humor and despair,” rather than just “humor.” I think there is no shortage of despair to address/confront and I think black humor will always be a relevant vehicle to do so with. I simply cannot be guided by the sentiment that such a means will inevitably be a “let down.”

  13. Uland says:

    All I’m saying is that the material has to be genuinely unnerving to work as “black humor” , however you define it. If it looks like it’s trying to be “black humor”, or if its interested in justifying itself, it’s not going to work.There’s no mystery if it announces itself, and if there is no mystery, there’s no reveal.

    That’s not to say the author can’t be self-aware ( or the editor), but if that awareness doesn’t contribute to concealing what needs to be concealed for it to work, it’s just going to go the other way, and you end up reading about it, rather than reading it.

  14. Fresh Faced Baby says:

    confiscated for obscenity + pseudo-intellectual comic reviewers hate it = I’m going to buy it

    Mr Standfest, don’t waste your time justifying yourself to asinine self-important children such as these. Let them be satisfied in their festering cocoons of “superior critical knowledge” while you are the one actually putting your balls on the line. I know it’s the job of reviewers to assess work based on their own opinions but I fear many suffer from the old stereotype that they are simply failed creators intellectualizing their own sub-par taste.

    Bravo Black Eye for not jerking off jerks

  15. Bit o’ the shameless self-plugging for a new translation of mine in the vein of the Topor suicide list in Black Eye: Jean Ferry’s “The Society Tiger” is up at the VanderMeers’ Weird Fiction Review. The story was one of the originals Breton picked for his 1947 Anthology of Black Humor.

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