J.T. Dockery has been at it most of his thirty-eight years. He is from Grey Hawk, in rural eastern Kentucky, baptized at eight, out of the church by ten, diagnosed at twenty with psoriatic arthritis, caged within its pain since. Heavy drinking was replaced by heavy reading, when his liver quit on the former. The tuburcular novelist Hubert Selby, Jr. became an inspiration, the noir-enraptured author Nick Tosches another, the manic depressive, psychobilly one-man band Hasil Adkins, a third. Dockery draws, writes, and plays in garage bands. He has said, “(T)he only gods I believe in are concepts of endless mystery, endless questions, and guiding precepts of love, compassion and forgiveness…” He has been to Berea College, UK, and Morehead State and, after a lengthy stop in White River, VT, lives in London, KY.
What Dockery writes and draws often ends up on the same page within the same grid. But I hesitate to call it “comics.” His work appears less Little Lulu or Zap than a this-is-the-only-way-I-can-navigate-this-existence expression. It seems pitons by which to grip to earth. The sense that his work defies conventional slotting is augmented by its form of issuance, flagrantly over-sized, not from a traditional – or even alt – comic publisher but Institute 193, producer of exhibitions, publications and recordings which “document the cultural landscape of the modern South.”
This landscape, as documented by Dockery’s recent work (In Tongues Illustrated, Spud Crazy, and Despair vol. 1) has included smokey bars populated by sexy dames whose nylon-ed legs mutate into potatoes, and tough-talking P.I.s whose gun barrels become vaginas. Quotations from Homer, Luke, and Epimenides of Knossos abide beside a man who feeds one eye to his penis, and a tribute to Henry Stephen Keeler, who came out of an Illinois nuthouse to compose, from a weave of obsessions, coincidence and indecipherable ethnic dialogue, two novels made into movies and 1.3 million words unpublished at his death.
Dockery’s roads map the South beyond Gothic into the teratogenic. They extend the polite dreams of the Surrealists into preternatural nightmare. You laugh here – and immediately consider critical self-examination. His panels, some as black as Ad Reinhardt’s canvasses, have led the critic Rob Clough to cite Dockery as a leader of a “Coal Mine School” of cartoonists, whose members labor amidst the “dark, dangerous (and) oppressive” results in “metaphors that are concrete, primal and easy to grasp, while never making their meanings plain or obvious.”
Despair vol. 2, Dockery’s latest, introduces itself straightforwardly enough. On the cover a shaggy haired, shaggy bearded, grief-stricken fellow, sporting a crown of thorns, utters “CHRIST.” Inside, though, matters grow murky. Other contributors present a remorseless look at a homeless wino; a wordless allegory (I think) about a primitive (I think) cave dweller and his (I think) unfortunate life choice; and single-panel geometric shapes, enchained bodies, nonsense language lettered upside down and sideways, with titles that speak of “static,” “moan,” “dungeon,” and “asphyxia.” But the bulk of the excavations that fill this gondola car (twenty-three of forty pages) are Dockery’s.
They take several forms: Kafka calling for books to strike us like blows to the head; references to Sobek, the Egyptian crocodile god, Celine and Jung; Peter Lorre, Alfred Hitchcock, and Bill the Duck (or Platypus) reflecting upon external representations of inner monstrosities; selections from Stephen Crane’s “Black Riders” referencing truth, assassination, and men “crushed…to blood; and the anchor entry (entitled “delete; title”) taking on the prodigal son.
Across a landscape, barren save for a burning pick-up truck, DT returns home, lost, broken, seeking peace. “Maybe,” he says to no one, “what I am is nothing better than never having left.” If this is not strange enough, emplanted above DT’s right ear is a rectilinear object bearing an eye-like symbol which seems to transmit and comment upon his thoughts, while an unnoticed flying saucer-like something-or-other, with its own “eye” on a proboscis-like extension, whirs above him..
His cousins, Laymon and Crofton, each with their own-above-the-ear thingie, which (maybe) allow them to share hierogryphically expressed thoughts, await DT on their cabin’s front porch. All three figures are ungainly, unnatural, their conversation strained, obscure, their renderings distorted, heavily cross-hatched, sinking inexplicably between panels into darkness. The cousins force DT at gun point into “the old growth,” where “the box” abides. “When you leave here,” they tell DT, “you ain’t from… Once we get you to the box, you can be from here again.” The resolution involves hallucinated (I think) demons (I think), eyes without faces, and admonitions about “blood” – the Lamb’s, the box’s, and that of unspecified others. En route, there is, as if needed, a blow to the head.
I would not dare to tell you what to make of this. I would not blame you if you turned prematurely away shrugging, “Huh?” But I would encourage deeper excavation. Sometimes swinging the pick of the mind against the most seemingly unyielding veins of mystery and question will yield light and warmth.