REVIEWS

Blue Teeth

The Iron Curtain still exists. To me anyway, it seems like Russia is still the world power that you have to go through the darkest mirror to see. Whether it's the Russians Are Awesome youtube channel, the propaganda apparatus of the Putin regime, or the US media whose reaction to a xenophobic president has been to be xenophobic about the  countries he likes, it sure does seem like a lot of the discussion around Russia these days is pretty heavily invested in selling you something. Hell, even most of the great Russian artists were political dissidents - or at least the great ones we Americans get exposed to, like Dostoievski and Tarkovsky. They mostly read Pushkin at school in the Federation, I've been told. 

Uno Moralez is a Russian cartoonist; actually, off the top of my head, he's probably the Russian cartoonist whose work is best known in the West. He sure doesn't seem like a dissident though. Based on his instagram, he looks like a pretty regular-ass dude. But he's one hell of a weird cartoonist, weird enough so it bears remarking on that he's his nation's most notorious comics export. The answer for these two puzzles is one and the same: artistically, anyway, Uno Moralez is a citizen of the internet.  

At this point the chestnut that the internet would do away with the media-gatekeeper system of the 20th century and replace it with something more democratic seems as baldfaced a lie as anything else about "democracy" that gets repeated ad nauseam, but you know what? Comics, anyway, has been an outlier from Culture for its whole existence, so it makes sense that it would find its opportunities to extract the mote of truth from even that harmful cliche. This medium is still such a small pond that you can get pretty notorious with no more than a couple of anthology shorts, one full-length comic book release, the Journal's own Sean T. Collins stumping for you all the time, and a really good tumblr page. If you come from a nation without much of an international comics tradition, you can even be That Dude in the minds of your American fans. 

That really good tumblr page, though - that's where Moralez really earned his stripes. Even on a platform that nobody uses anymore, his posts still rack up likes by the hundreds within a few hours of being posted. Like the best of creepypasta and vaporwave (both idioms with which his work has quite a bit in common), Moralez's most popular single images and gifs would obviously be impossible without the internet, and yet feel like they exist in a space that's deeper than a url. Like they were immaculately generated by internet culture itself, rather than the hand and mind of one singular and determined artist. The Game Boy look of his pixel drawings, the '80s obsession, the clear Japanese influence, the (to Americans) exoticism of his Russian backdrops... it's a stew so potent and so seamlessly put together that it seems pulled directly from a definite historical moment - some time in some country's pop culture - as much as agglomerated by an eye and set of tastes savvy enough to create something that speaks powerfully to a lot of people.

Doled out as it is in single gifs or pictures every couple of days, that "internet-ness" of Moralez's work, its immediacy and rebloggability, is what's most readily noticeable about it. It's in his comics work, his strings of silent, sequenced imagery, that the true depth of his talent comes into sharper focus. A new Moralez comic is all too rare an occurrence, but Sunday brought an understated notice that Moralez had dropped by far his longest comic to date, the long gestating 90-image novel Blue Teeth. It's here, and really only here, that his full prowess as an artist can be seen. It's easy to pigeonhole Moralez as a horror cartoonist, and to be sure, his work carries heaping helpings of the bizarre, grotesque, and aggressive. But horror seems more like a trapping of his work, like its post-perestroika setting is, than the grain of the stuff. Transcendence, the lifting of the veil worn by our everyday world, gets closer to what Moralez is really concerned with - that, and drilling down into the formal basis of the comics medium itself, building a specific tone and atmosphere by ticking off a sequence of images one after another after another. 

So Blue Teeth is a horror story, but it's also a period piece, and a fable, and a wordless formal exercise, and a very much digital-only webcomic. It tells the story of one night in the life of a young Russian woman named Marina (at least that's her name according to a year-old note on one of Moralez's tumblr posts). The kind of Slavic knockout that populates Putlocker pop-up ads, Marina's got every guy in the city after her, which is bad enough when you hang out with an armed biker gang, but worse when a being with godlike supernatural powers sweeps you off your feet and out of your man's arms in the middle of a crowded club. That's the setup, and what occurs from there is fascinating and alienating in more or less equal measure, a massively powerful sequence of images that does the horror-movie trick of slowly maneuvering Marina into a scenario that gets worse and worse, but steadfastly refuses to cohere into a standard plot. 

If there are movies to compare this one to, they're not the all-time classics, but the great ones' searching also-rans, movies like Mario Bava's Lisa and the Devil or Dario Argento's Inferno; the ones that speak vaguely of universes so carnivalesque and haunted that their stories are more like macabre catalogues than narratives. The most indentifiable menace in this comic is that Marina is trapped in a succession of images whose creeping wrongness she cannot escape, that her beautiful face and figure will inevitably surrender to the tone Moralez so implacably creates, and be turned from adornments into abominations. Amid a shower of bikers' body parts, Marina is taken from club to car to crash pad by her paranormal paramour, but neither explicit violence nor explicit sex follows - just a bath, a cuddle, and then a nude walk down a long, dark hallway. There is a mirror at the end, a flash of orgiastic imagery, and then Marina ends up somewhere very different, in a snippet of what seems to be a different story altogether, though its themes are all the same: a biker, a vulnerable woman, an encounter with a being either demonic or divine, a sticky end. A stunning suite of blasphemous spiritual imagery provides the big chords of a climax; and then, in gifs, everything fades away and we are left staring at the empty elevator in Marina's apartment building, its door opening and closing on an endless loop.

Moralez has internalized one of the most important lessons of the horror genre, one it shares with the kind of esoteric mystical texts that Blue Teeth also slots in comfortably next to. Don't make too much sense! There's a reason every horror movie starts to suck after you see what the monster looks like, and that haters always insist there's no scientific basis for whatever your religion is. Horror is our fear of the unknown; transcendence is our awe of it. You can't have either if you explain the fuck out of everything - and as long as you provide good characters and settings, people will ride with you over some pretty bumpy roads. Moralez lays out a sumptuous mise en scene and vivid, lively characters here, and watching them slowly pour into a cauldron of ominous imagery where the action plot that's been building for half his book is suddenly short-circuited and creased in on top of itself is simply much more effective, much more of a piece with the feelings his drawings are pointing at, than a more narratively rigorous series of events would be.

The drawings do all the lifting in this comic, basically. Anyone who knows Moralez from his gifs and pixel art knows that he’s a hell of an image maker, and that talent is on full display here. Every last individual frame of Blue Teeth is a knockout. The pixel art packaging is the first thing anyone will notice about Moralez’s imagery, but his chops are absolutely hellacious. Complex but readable compositions with perfect balances of black, white, and gray space gesture here at Orthodox icon painting, there at Helmut Newton, and frequently at the more outre work of Junji Ito. There’s a strong aspect of Japanese-import visual language that runs through much of Moralez’s work, but it’s less native to manga than it is to anime, with a chorus of sparkles framing the face of the lovestruck Marina, the passage of light over surfaces in gifs indicated by simple animatics, and simple, fluid figures stationed in hyper-realistic backgrounds. As much awesome anecdote and design as there is to pick apart in Moralez’s more detailed pictures, it’s his simplest ones that hit me the hardest. A frame of Marina’s go-go boots illuminated by motorcycle headlights against an alley wall is as elegant as it gets; the many shots of her face enraptured by forces impossible to understand are indelible. You can count the other artists making comics this visually accomplished on one hand.

But what Blue Teeth attests to even more than Moralez’s image making expertise is his power as a comics maker. In a way, this is work as formally simple as it gets: a screen that shows one single image at a time, each isolated and complete in itself, yet linked by subject to the others. What’s so impressive is how immersive Moralez makes his work without any page-layout tricks or advanced sequencing or even words, for crying out loud! He gives his trust to the effectiveness of comics at its most basic level, comics as a simple accretion of image after image. It’s like hearing music played along with the strict, ticking beat of a metronome, where none of the power is in the timing and all of it is in the harmonies, the way every new note bounces off the vibration of all the ones that came before to expand the size of the world being created. Anybody can format a comic the way Moralez does here; that’s not the point. It takes someone who really understands the form, who gets that it’s about the thoughts that flicker in the reader’s head between the images as much what’s as inside of them, to make it work this well. The routes Moralez takes through his story’s information are unusual and exciting - in my favorite transition, a sexy stolen glance between Marina and her man’s road dog is followed immediately by a shot of two butterflies hovering above a flaming rose. Moralez’s sensibility is more poetic than literal, always willing to forgo the direct approach to accommodate a moment of beauty or bizarrerie.

Of course, he’s also ladling on a ton of secret sauce. This is an internet comic, not a printed volume, after all, and if he can make the pictures move, why in the world wouldn’t he? Each gif in Blue Teeth, from the full on multi-shot animated sequence that opens the book to the barrage of twinkling demonic icons that closes it, is calibrated for maximum impact. They’re stunners, frankly - if you’ve read enough comics that even the most breathatking pictures don’t really stop you in your tracks anymore, try this one on for size and marvel at the uncanny valley Moralez has charted for you. There’s no awkward figure animation here, no jerky lo-fi stop-motion, just an expert eye selecting exactly which aspects of a picture would work better if they had a little more life to them. As much control is put into these gifs’ placement as their creation; the vast majority of the pictures here work great as still single images. It’s only the big moments, the utterly bugged out ones, that get to reach out of the screen and grab you. This, perhaps, is the internet equivalent of proper splash page selection, and it really puts this book over the top.

So if you’ve been looking for the first significant comics release of 2018, it’s here - and you can read it for free right now on whatever you’re reading this article on. It’s tough to figure out what’s driving Moralez from a career perspective; there’s very obviously a ton of work in this comic, and he dumped it online for free in the middle of winter. But then, it’s tough to figure out what’s going on with him in general; this is work so far off the mark of convention that it’s easy to chalk it all up to a foreign cultural context and assume a Russian audience could knock it back without much pause. Of course, that’s absurd - no matter how you measure Blue Teeth, it’s not going to fit nicely into a milieu, and it’s not going to make a whole lot of sense. This is ambitious and hugely original work by a major talent who seems perfectly content to be to the comics world like something in one of his gifs - a malevolent, twinkling light very far away in a black and unknowable sky, approaching.

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