For the past three days, friends of mine have been visiting from New York City. Together with my partner Lane we’ve been to an art exhibit, a Bernie Sanders rally and a death metal show. We’ve eaten all of our meals together, and spent hours talking or reading quietly in my living room together. Every day I feel profoundly lucky and thankful for the chosen family I’ve gained, via comics and underground music, throughout my twenties and thirties. That said, as an only child and a profound introvert, I have tremendous empathy for people who lack kinship groups, who long to find meaning in community, who are still searching for a sense of belonging. Perhaps for that reason, I’ve had a longstanding fascination with cults, communes, occult secret societies and utopian communities.
Some of my earliest memories of the nightly news involve the firebombing of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, and the mass suicide of the members of Heaven’s Gate, who believed that in death they would meet a space-craft orbiting the Hale-Bopp comet. I’m an avid consumer of books and documentaries on the subject: From the Quakers and Shakers to the Theosophists to Oberon Zell Reavenheart’s Church of All-Worlds to the Source Family’s utopian experiment in Hawaii to the Love Family in Seattle, Washington to the MOVE compound in Philadelphia to the Rajneesh settlement in Oregon to Stephen Gaskin’s The Farm, a long-running community in Summertown Tennessee, to the Order of the Golden Dawn, to the Jesus People and the Children of God, you name it, I’ve probably looked into it, at least superficially.
Some of these groups are anti-government, many are rooted in Christian theology, all of them are critical of the materialism and superficiality of life under capitalism, and in this sense, I find myself agreeing with many of their teachings. Human beings today crave companionship, and we long for the sense of purpose that comes with feeding, sheltering and clothing ourselves. Friendships based on shared interests and values become harder to maintain the older we get. Friends pair off, have children, move away for work. Technology has given us unprecedented freedom, and as a result, people now often work alone, from their cars or from home. We post our most intimate secrets on Twitter, knowing that only strangers will see. We are simultaneously known and unknown, ubiquitous and somehow invisible.
Hannah, the titular character of Will Dinski’s latest book Holy Hannah, published by Uncivilized Books, is a software designer who made a small fortune developing a near-obsolete online payment app. A loner, she keeps to herself in her apartment above Gluyas cafe, seldom venturing outside except for the occasional coffee. A chance encounter at the cafe reconnects her with Noah Ganapathy, an old high school friend and former head of alumni relations at a local university. At loose ends, Noah has fallen under the influence of Reverend Clarence Carpenter, the charismatic leader of the Church of Love and Devotion. Like all cult leaders, Carpenter, a drug addict and master manipulator, claims to have unlocked the secrets to longterm health and happiness, sharing them with his acolytes in his book Life Skills, and laying hands on the sick in public healing rituals.
Cults and cult members have frequently been the butt of jokes in popular culture, but Dinski does a thorough job of examining the psychology behind his fictional group. Starved for human contact, Hannah is quickly assimilated into the church. She moves into their compound and begins a sexual relationship with Reverend Carpenter, a fact that Noah, jealous and concerned for Carpenter’s wife, finds troubling. In the Church of Love and Devotion, All of Hannah’s physical needs are provided for, which allows her more time to contemplate headier topics. Her new app, Know Me, which allows its users to answer personal questions in an anonymous social network, is quickly adopted by the church, which prizes interpersonal bonding.
Initially somewhat skeptical of Carpenter’s leadership tactics, Hannah makes one short-lived attempt to leave the church, but struggles to hold down a conventional office job. She finds the work stultifying and her co-workers, with their fixation on trivialities, unbearable.
These themes of power, control, manipulation and disenfranchisement are present in all of Dinski’s previous work, including the zines Ablatio Penis (2012) and Looking Good (2014), and the graphic novel Trying Not To Notice, all published by 2D Cloud. His characters are universally white-collar workers, accountants, senators, movie producers, tech developers, miserable in their dead-end jobs, humiliated by know-nothing bosses, trapped in hierarchies they don’t fully comprehend but can never escape.
Frequently, Dinski tells these stories from multiple viewpoints, with different characters narrating subsequent chapters in the first person, their narratives weaving together and then breaking apart, leaving resentments unspoken and outcomes unclear, echoing Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 epic Magnolia. No judgment is passed on these characters-we are simply presented the events through their eyes, cognizant that they can only see a small piece of the picture, while we, the readers, observe from on high.
Because they’re so similar in class and education, their voices can sometimes become monotonous. Most of them are emotionally constipated, venal and selfish, striving, small and overwhelmed. After reading a decent chunk of Dinski’s oeuvre, I can confidently say that I didn’t like a single one of them, in the sense that none of them are people I would want to know or spend time with. But I think it’s extremely dangerous to conflate morality with “good” art. These are not pleasant stories-they’re better than that-they’re smart stories about difficult people. In times of great social upheaval, pop-culture trends towards fantasy and escapism. That was true at the turn of the 19th century and it’s true today. But while many of his contemporaries are drawing sexy witches and werewolves, Dinski has devoted himself to unflinchingly documenting contemporary American life, with its myriad daily assaults and indignities.
The artwork contributes to the anhedonic atmosphere. Dinski is a competent cartoonist, in the tradition of John Porcellino and Ivan Brunetti, artists whose school of cartooning involves simplifying people and objects to their most basic shapes. He eschews spot blacks, relying on hatching to create value, and defining his figures with thick contour lines. The drawing gives the reader exactly enough information to place them squarely in these contemporary American stories, no more and no less, but every panel is carefully considered, with background elements such as bumper stickers and store awnings highlighting larger ideas and themes.
The biggest, and most important idea in this book, is that “There is no empirical guiding principal for navigating our world. We believe in a system of rules, but it’s all fantasy. culture only works when we say it does, unlike a computer program. In culture, you can cheat. It’s only true when enough of us believe it to be so.” This statement, uttered by Hannah after a series of horrifying events causes her final break with the cult, reminded me of Yoko Ono’s statement “War is Over, If You Want It.”
The book stumbles a bit in its final act, hampered by Dinski’s choice to base certain events very closely on the Jonestown massacre rather than culling from a wider variety of source material. For better or worse, certain historical events are so thoroughly ingrained in the public imagination that it’s impossible to transpose similar events onto another place and time. For a truly harrowing follow-up to Holy Hannah, I suggest you listen to the recordings of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple Choir, many of which you can find on Youtube. Unfortunately, cult leaders know what many of us lonely strivers often forget. That individuals have tremendous power, and that collectively we have to tools to make and unmake reality.