Enough Astronaut Blood To Last The Winter makes for a strange bit of business. First, it’s an odds-and-sods assortment of illustration, microfiction, and photography chronicling Derek Van Gieson’s salad days in New York City. Second, who in the hell is Van Gieson? And last, how does a little known artist rate the sort of pseudo-retrospective reserved for more long-lived, let alone well-known, artists?
Let’s take the second part first.
Now relocated to his home state of Minnesota, Van Gieson has previously published only one title: Eel Mansions. Originally released as a series of six minicomics (Uncivilized Books, starting in 2012, collected in 2015), Eel Mansions follows an ex-military, ex-Satanist, ex-children’s-variety-show auteur named Armistead Fowler and a put-upon indie cartoonist named Janet Planet, as each navigates their own self-made hells. The series also includes seemingly non-sequitur strips like “The Negative Orphans”, “The Record Store Guys”, and Janet’s own “Milk City Comics”. To call Eel Mansions eccentric or eclectic leaves out both its charm and its downright weirdness. Think A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron if Daniel Clowes made references to ’80s synth rock and baroque Brit pop and added more dancing. As a cartoonist, Van Gieson is singular to a fault, an artist who has never met a page he has not wanted to dribble, slather, and soak in ink. His chops as a writer rest in a narrow band of offbeat humor, record-shop bravado, and self-awareness that, at times, gives a reader the sense it’s all a put-on, a rock-and-roll swindle.
(In the spirit of full disclosure I, along with my colleague and friend Daniel Elkin, co-authored the introduction to the collected Eel trade. So, yeah. Not to mention, I’ve gotten to know Derek personally and outside of his professional work. For me, Eel Mansions occupies that enviable and liminal space of art that feels “having-been-written-for-me.”)
Enough Astronaut Blood to Last the Winter should be like so many red flags to so many bulls for a person already so (ahem) bullish on Van Gieson. And yet … and yet … I have to call bullshit on myself. I am glad a cartoonist I admire is getting more exposure in the marketplace. I believe his work deserves to be seen by more readers and obviously the powers-that-be at Fantagraphics feel likewise. And yet, I feel as though I’ve been invited to dinner and instead of sitting down to meal, I’ve been taken out back to visit the cows in the pasture, to check on how the garden is growing and tour the vineyard. For someone not already besotted with Van Gieson’s work and style — they are legion — Enough Astronaut Blood to Last the Winter acts as a useful (if scattershot) introduction. It’s not comics, it’s not literature, it’s not photography—it’s something else which is Van Gieson all over.
Throw a rock at any small press or ‘zine fest and you’re apt to hit a horde of cartoonists like Van Gieson, strivers all with one-of-a-kind skewed views, Risographed and stapled and within arm’s reach — most (or all) of them hoping the gods like those at Fantagraphics (or its micro imprint) will reach down and single them out for distinction. Singular stylists like Van Gieson produce an instantaneous “yea” or “nay,” there is no equivocating, no meh. It’s the blessing and the curse of indie comics: too often too heavy on technique and style and lighter on everything else. The question becomes: when does the work overcome the artist’s mannerisms? Unfortunately, Enough Astronaut Blood to Last the Winter evades this question with its dash-of-this-a-smidge-of-that design and approach. The constituent parts are strewn about, leaving it up to the reader to total the sum.
It may not be a good idea to dismiss this work out of hand, though. That it doesn’t answer fundamental critical inquiries — such as “what is it and is it worth my time?” — is, of course, a punk move, which is perhaps the point. Beyond Van Gieson’s talent, it’s his DIY aesthetic and how his work seethes with a punk gestalt which gives it its edge. Is it a sign of audaciousness or a creative laziness when an artist releases juvenilia, rough mixes, and sketchbooks? Does an artist have to earn the right to be nostalgic? Why should it matter? Good art doesn’t equivocate, it acts. Perhaps the punkish (puckish?) side of Van Gieson’s work is its own reward. It’s a conversation starter regardless if what’s inside is lighter fare and requires some assembly.
The illustrations, which take up the bulk of Enough Astronaut Blood to Last the Winter, will sate Van Gieson-ologists like myself who delight in the cartoonist’s drawings of cats, spindly-legged phonographs, ruffs, and bouffant-haired and unknowable women. For the novice, these drawings look like the funkiest of funky handbills found taped to the glass outside a bar or posted on the wall of a coffee shop. Black and white beauties that create an instantaneous FOMO (fear of missing out). It comes as no surprise Van Gieson handles all the art for his own band, Murder Shoes, because of course. Thin pen lines counter thick brushwork like some on-going conversation both labyrinthine and quotidian. When Van Gieson includes captions they’re always either wry or simply silly. A long limbed and apparently hydrocephalic man wearing swim trunks lies in suspension over an oblong rectangle. The caption reads, “We mocked everybody (god included) with our big ass swimming pool.” In another a cat with an overbite looks up to observe, “You cosmic fucker.” Take a jigger of Ralph Steadman, add some Stanley George Miller, and shake, no ice. The paintings, of which there are too few, are more brooding and somewhat less whimsical. In one, thick brown and black brushstrokes of forests and tree limbs cage reluctant lovers while in another a cat-headed ballerina looks like she sautéd from John Tenniel’s Wonderland to one of the ballet practices that Degas staked out, all swirly greens and purposeful blues and browns. It’s fine art, sure, but ephemeral like wild posting, it is art for a moment. Dip in. Dip out.
The short bursts of fiction that pepper Enough Astronaut Blood to Last the Winter are equally bite-sized, demonstrating Van Gieson’s capacity for sincerity and stupidity. They are nearly immune to analysis. Van Gieson knows how to take a simple sentence or idea and twist the last few words into something unexpected. It’s a talent, but is one well-crafted sentence or a fully sketched-out idea “enough” to hang one’s proverbial hat on? Take “You Have Nothing To Worry About”, which finds a man in a no-win Philip K. Dick-like situation having to fend off either a fluffer or a proctologist whom his wife has invited over for dinner. This dinner guest keeps repeating, “You have nothing to worry about” and “Take off your trousers please.” Is it a nightmare for the never-nude, a ribald invitation, or both? The reader must decide. “Peanuts” parodies a Gorey-ish tale fit for Gashlycrumb Tinies which ends with a rueful seagull “regretting yesterday’s late night drunken quest for burritos.” Funny and gross. So where’s the beef? “The Charles River Band”, relies on the John Fogerty neologism “chooglin” to deliver its bittersweet punchline. For readers who may get the reference or those who respond to the inherent goofiness of the word “chooglin” itself, again, is it enough? Like the illustrations, these stories work regardless if you’re in on the joke or know the backstory, but they’re much less potent.
All Van Gieson’s inside jokes and references evaporate in his photography. It looks so plain and pedestrian next to the illustrations and fictional flotsam the reader may begin to wonder if it’s been a put-on from the jump. Here the winks and nods give way to youth, bonhomie, and joy. All the women look like sophisticates, trendsetters, ingénues, but not unapproachable or too beautiful for men both brave and stupid. They are women who appear to have gone to schools where skill in conversation is held in the same high regard as properly holding a cigarette for maximum effect. Van Gieson’s camera is crueler to men. Their self-imposed ennui is palatable: drinkers, lost poets, and factotums all. They look as pensive as they do unhurried, men in their twenties who call on tables, play in bands, and drink. Van Gieson’s women pose (hunt), his men wait (gather). There’s a time-out-of-mind nostalgia in these photos that betrays the barriers put up by the stories and illustrations. What’s present by its absence is the dissent, the irony, the punk snarl. These photos are so accessible they could be lost snaps from the Beat generation, or any group of poor twenty-somethings living in New York City at almost any time. Their universality challenges a reader by its ordinariness.
The quirkiness, humor, and uniqueness of Enough Astronaut Blood to Last the Winter and Van Gieson’s relative obscurity fits Fantagraphics Underground’s stated commitment to appeal “to a smaller, more rarefied readership.” And how. Self-identifying as one such “rarefied” reader adds a tang of fanboy-like cynicism for anyone who doesn’t get it, not to mention a punchable factor nearing infinity. Self-deprecation aside, for newbies Enough Astronaut Blood to Last the Winter delivers what it promises. Put it on your shelf and pull it down when your capacity for oddball stories, inky pictures of cats with ready catchphrases, and photos of pretty boys and girls comes in at a low ebb.
What remains somewhat irksome for the more zealous minority is, like its title, it is merely “enough.” The rarest of the rarefied need more than a lark and will never be satisfied, for that is the double-edged sword of such a strain of fandom – the exact demographic on whom publishers like Fantagraphics depend. There’s an apocryphal story about Jerry Garcia’s tenure in a music shop that gets to the audacity and obstinacy of what it means to care about something so much it clouds objectivity. The story goes something like this: a customer walks in, pulls a guitar off the wall and plays a smoking hot riff. Garcia walks up to this wannabe guitar hero and drops the ultimate coup de grâce, “Yeah, but can you do anything else?” True or not, Jerry could be a real asshole. Perhaps Van Gieson will remain a cult cartoonist and riff on the same subjects and in the same unique style to remain fodder for the Fantagraphics set. Oh to be so lucky. If there is more either in the way of artistic progress or simply more of the same, for now, it is only and completely “enough.”