Detrimental Information collects entries in the Holden brothers’ zine of the same name, spanning 2001 to the present. The book is perhaps best read in installments—readers will encounter enough anuses and severed limbs to derail a sustained read. Even so, Detrimental Information’s segments have an undeniable cumulative power. Taken together, they form an unsettling portrait of Catholic boyhood and a life beyond it.
The Detrimental Info collection is coy about the division of labor between John Holden and Luke Holden. According to 2D Cloud, John writes all of the zines’ stories, while Luke hand-letters John’s prose and contributes illustrations. The Holdens have a narrow shared range, tonally and visually—again, reading Detrimental Information as a single discreet work is only for the brave—but they also work nimbly within their limitations. John and Luke’s approach throughout the collection (and across the years) brings to mind John Peel’s old quote about The Fall: “They are always different; they are always the same.”
Nearly all of the segments in Detrimental Information recall, in the first person, an anecdote from John Holden’s childhood, although later segments include stories from his job assisting developmentally disabled persons. Whether these stories are embellished or entirely true to John’s experience, the Holdens present them in more or less the same manner. Luke renders the prose in a type of bubble lettering, a back-of-notebook scrawl, and adds spots of line art to accompany the text. (The borders between some of the collection’s early segments are difficult to discern, but the Holdens get better at giving each story its own presence as Detrimental Information goes on.) This is work on the fringe of comics, to be clear, but questions of category are probably less useful in considering Detrimental Info than a look at how the work’s words and pictures interact.
Despite the line art surrounding (or intruding on) each passage in Detrimental Information, the prose itself is unadorned in the usual sense—John writes with a flat affect, everything matter of fact. So while Luke’s bubble letters might suggest a kind of standard-issue punk-zine primitivism, the lettering also generates tension in the work—the affectless tale told in a declarative manner, or the meeting of young adulthood’s practiced nonchalance and the more transparent needs of childhood. That latter reading might seem like a reach, but these stories are all about the transition from child into (something resembling an) adult. Luke’s spot illustrations bear this out.
The artwork in most segments of Detrimental Info has a tenuous connection to the events it accompanies—at least superficially. A story in which the narrator repeatedly chips the tooth of his younger sister features a spot in which two figures drive the front bumper of a car between the butt cheeks of another, larger figure. Luke executes scenes like this with a minimum of detail. The figures in the car-into-butt spot resemble shaved yetis—these are doughy semi-men, with limited definition. The somewhat-unformed person populates the book from beginning to end, helping to unify nearly all its segments under the theme of growth and development (or lack thereof). Pretty much every aspect of the book contributes to the record of the brothers’ entry into adulthood, and if many of Luke’s illustrations also depict incidents of violence (dismemberments, usually), John’s stories often include violence of at least the psychic variety.
Detrimental Information is at its best when John Holden shares accounts of an expanding sexual consciousness, which the stories capture with unflinching specificity. Sex is everywhere and nowhere in some segments, such as an anecdote about the discovery of a row of maxi-pad boxes. The text describes the alien quality the pads hold for John’s pre-adolescent self, as well as the alien feelings they generate. Luke Holden’s illustrations for the story include a shitting bird, a bisected elephant, and one semi-man shoving a mop handle into the ass of another. A person could run in circles trying to make specific connections between art and text here, but the spot art furthers feelings of chaos and confusion that the muted prose merely implies. It might be messy but it works.
The Holdens’ stories of sexual ambivalence are most fraught—and most revealing—when John describes the attitudes toward sex within the Catholic school of his boyhood. In “Large Butt”, John’s teacher—whose panty lines were a source of fascination for young John—tells the students of her reproductive science unit that “when her husband made love to her, it felt like god was in the room.” This serves as the jumping-off point to a meditation on erections in church and a larger sense of sexual guilt. Among the illustrations here: one figure using the severed arm of another figure to knock off that figure’s head; a figure planting his feet inside the anuses of two other figures, pyramid-like. A lot of this is supposed to be funny, and sometimes it is, but Detrimental Info is perhaps more compelling because the stabs at humor don’t beat back discomfort—the book is like a batch of sugar pills that did not pass factory inspection.
There are different kinds of discomfort, of course. Many readers will find the anecdotes about John Holden’s work with disabled persons hardest to digest. The text dryly conveys John’s occasional unease with the people he supervises. The Holdens are at their least sympathetic here, with John including lines like, “If it wasn’t for the authority of mean, old women like Kathy [another care assistant], the mentally-ill would run around like wild horses,” and Luke’s grotesques taking on a crueler (if perhaps accidental) cast. The anecdotes in these segments have the weight of experience—a sense of fatigue, even—but they lack the insights that emerge when John and Luke engage with institutions like Catholicism or the classroom. They also mark the only times when John Holden’s work as an autobiographer reads as somewhat predatory. Maybe these stories are necessary, or at least a logical feature of the collection—a glance at the accumulated damages of a troubled childhood. But Detrimental Info is strongest when John and Luke capture the damage as it happens.