REVIEWS

Mudbite

In Mudbite, Dave Cooper conjures a perverse and lurid dreamworld that seethes and wriggles with its own nightmare logic. The erstwhile hero of this world is Eddy Table, an apparent alter-ego for Cooper himself. Mudbite collects two new Eddy Table adventures, "Mud River" and "Bug Bite", abject fantasias of intense sexual anxiety rendered in Cooper's compellingly repellent style.

The two tales are bound tête-bêche; after you finish "Bug Bites", you can flip the book over and read "Mud River." Or maybe you'll read the stories in the other order. Mudbite's playful design invites the reader to participate in ordering the relationship between the stories. Cooper's inimitable aesthetic unifies the project's themes of aberrant sexuality and libidinal anxieties. His art also unifies the collection's dominant tone, a queasy grappling of the relationship between comedy and horror. Cooper's tone and themes inhere through both tales, despite a few superficial differences.

The most obvious difference between "Mud River" and "Bug Bite" are the divergent settings. "Mud River" takes place in a surreal forest and details Eddy's encounter with an Amazonian automaton. "Bug Bite" is an urban adventure, and befitting its domestic milieu, sees Eddy navigating the big city (and a mystery labyrinth within it) with his family in tow. The stories also have minor formal differences. "Bug Bite" employs large panels, limited to one or two per page, while "Mud River" averages between four and seven per page, as if Cooper wants to constrain his forest setting to give it a claustrophobic feeling.

Ultimately though, the stories are of a piece. Eddy Table is the obvious common denominator, but Cooper's foils dominate here. These foils are giantesses, wobbly women of Amazonian proportions that readily recall R. Crumb's phantasies or Otto Dix's muses. Cooper's giantesses dominate not only the book's material landscape but also the mental landscape. Nowhere is this more evident than in the twin splash pages that link the two stories. One is a riff on Gulliver's Travels: Eddy prances over and among the bodies of unconscious giantesses while wood nymphs cavort in the bushes. The page oozes the creepy joy of a cartoon Saturnalia. The other splash page depicts an apocalyptic parade of giant topless high-heeled women, some of whom literally transport versions of our goggle-eyed hero through the city streets. After each splash page, Cooper includes a set of doodles, most of which are versions of his women. The 60 sketches condense comix, commercial illustration, fine art, Goya's caprichos, and every kind of perversion over four pages. A few of these doodles are of Eddy himself, looking alternately ecstatic, nervous, or abject. Despite his fantasies of domination, he's outnumbered in this setting.

And yet the setting is all Eddy. Indeed, there's no real separating the material world from the mental milieux in Mudbite. Cooper's primary stage is the psychosphere. We're in Eddy's head the whole time, and Cooper uses this setting to show not only how our dreams can tip into nightmares, but also how our nightmares can enthrall us. We like to poke around in that horror sometimes, even as other impulses prompt us to flee.

The opening lines of "Mud River" show our hero attempting to flee: "Oh NO you don't! Not AGAIN!" Eddy exclaims, running from a giant bird. To finish his escape, Eddy heads to his car, which Cooper renders as a swollen admixture of a phallic symbol glommed onto two mammaries. The car's locked, because of course it is---this is a nightmare---but Eddy is able to enter through a sphincter-like tunnel in the car's trunk. He pops out wee and shrunken--or maybe the car has grown? The comedic adventure here slides into surreal horror. The other side of the looking glass is a scary place. The car wriggles to life and a phallic nozzle sucks poor Eddy into a vaginal engine, before shooting him out of the car's priapic tip with a loud "SQUIRT." I've belabored a description these panels to highlight the Freudian field day that is Mudbite. Cooper's evocation of the grotesque is deeply reminiscent of David Cronenberg's films, where the mechanical and the organic merge in a weird twisty dance of comedy and horror.

Eddy finds himself ejected into a pastoral scene. He's soon spying on the Amazonian nymph Kari, who bathes nude in a clear stream. However, the stream won't be clear for long; neither will Kari be conscious for long. She slips on a gross turd-phone (don't ask) and becomes an automaton, a fleshy golem that Eddy pilots from the strangest perch---betwixt her buttocks. In the meantime the titular mud river is on its way. This slimy abject symbol suggests defilement on one hand and creative fertility on the other. Cooper merges both symbolic gestures in a bizarre and disquieting sexual fantasy neatly summarized in Eddy's line, "Well, I've never been one to pass up a NAKED LADY SLITHER RIDE down a mud river!!" Cooper delights in detailing this disturbing ride, which ends with Eddy's blithe escape: Our hero is now so dominant that he easily flips his overturned car right-side up and escapes into the next dream/nightmare.

"Bug Bite" begins as a big-city family vacation, but by the story's second panel, Eddy's daughter Nico has noticed that "Everything's the same, but DIFFERENT!" Son Zak describes the city as "a reflection in a funhouse MIRROR." A panel or two later finds our hero Eddy "randy," his eyes "engorged" by the enormous women callipygian who waggle above him. The whole scene is horny, gross, and anxious, culminating in a grotesque visual punchline. Again, Cooper welds humor to horror in images that pulsate with sexual anxiety.

One of these women, a hypersexualized gigantic Betty Boop,  waggles over to Eddy and teases him with a "microdevice," a strange gadget that enthralls and disturbs our hero. These "microdevices" are another Cronenbergian motif in Mudbite, techno-organic hybrids gestating some new nightmare. Everything in Cooper's world might mutate in a moment, so of course the microdevices hatch. Eddy's obsession with the mystery inside these pods serves as a tidy shorthand for Cooper's style---there's an attraction to what is repellent, a subtle sympathy for the abject. What should push us away draws us in, following Eddy into a winding labyrinth, yet another phase of his nightmare journey in queasy sexual humiliation.

Despite all its strange horrors, the final scenes of "Bug Bite" show a family reunited. The impulse for Eddy to return to domesticity after his abject adventure is sweetly sympathetic, but the sympathy is underwritten in by an anxious horror in the comic's final panel. We see that an unnameable sin has been transmitted from father to son. This horrific conclusion is the flipside to the gleeful comic escape at the end of "Mud River." We might break free from our nightmares, but many of us seem doomed to transmit our anxieties to those we most love.

In the end, Eddy can't get out of his own head. Like the book he's contained in, he's bound tête-bêche, flipped upside down from narrative to narrative, propelled on Cooper's abject dream logic. He's a hero fascinated by his own grotesque visions, attuned to both their comedic possibilities as well as their horrific underpinnings. Like any work of grotesque art, Mudbite simultaneously attracts and repels its audience. Its writhing perversity and troubling depictions of sex and violence are certainly not for everyone. What Cooper is so good at showing though is just how much of this stuff is around in a person's head all the time. If poor Eddy, as Cooper's sacrificial totem, can't get out of his own head, he at least lets us in to poke around in there. And if it's too dark and weird and bizarre for us, that's fine---we can always leave. But sticking around a little longer shows us that there are parts inside of us that we don't look at, that we confine to nightmares that we hope to forget---and that we're never really out of our own heads.

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One Response to Mudbite

  1. Anthony Thorne says:

    C’mon Cooper ffs let PRESSED TONGUE be collected. I much prefer it to this highfalutin artistry.

    (Just kidding – this does look like fun stuff).

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