I’ve been a fan of Max Clotfelter’s work for several years now and have long awaited the day when some enterprising publisher would release a nice collection of his work. Birdcage Bottom Books has come through, gathering stories from a variety of zines and anthologies to give us Rooftop Stew, 120 pages of Clotfelter’s cheerfully morbid, blackly comic Southern Gothic comics, in all their ragged glory.
Clotfelter, a prolific small press creator based in Seattle, alternates between scabrous fictional narratives of various grotesques and low-life grifters, oddball surreal strips featuring slithering, morphing, otherworldly creatures, and gag strips with titles like “Stove Grease” and “Stupid Shit in the Shop.” Then there are his mortifying autobiographical short stories about growing up in Marietta, Georgia with a seriously dysfunctional family. Whatever mode of storytelling he employs, his oeuvre is all of a piece and instantly identifiable. His densely crosshatched panels capture every detail of his characters’ sweaty, bewildered desperation—as well as their seedy, trash-filled, often vomit-splattered surroundings.
The book opens with a an episode from a recurring strip called “Red Eye,” which features the titular character, a deformed but sweet-natured child with an extended eyeball that moves around like a periscope, and his drug-addled mother and whatever male friend she happens to have in tow. Mom does seem to love Red Eye, in her own peculiar way, but that doesn’t stop her from exploiting him for financial gain. In one episode, she and her lover manipulate Red Eye into selling his infant sister for big money. In another episode she gets one of her John's in a heap of trouble when she skips out to score Red Eye some food from McDonald's. The pathos of the strips stems from the fact that Red Eye remains completely innocent throughout, never understanding the criminality and violence that surround him.
Throughout his work, Clotfelter exhibits a fascination with the decay and corruption that pockmarks both our rural and urban landscapes, a rot that no amount of gentrification or urban renewal can fully wipe out. In an auto-bio piece called “Rough Things I’ve Seen on My Daily Walk to Work,” Clotfelter shares disturbing sights from Seattle’s Pike Street, including “Countless syringes, ass-explosions, and melted half gallons of ice cream.” Another panel shows a “doorway of blood,” which even Clotfelter admits, “made me gag.” Another comic, the fictional “How Do You Like Your Rat?” is a darkly funny spin on downward mobility and gentrification, focusing on a couple forced by their city to relocate to another neighborhood because, they are told, they “just don’t make enough to live here anymore.” The hapless pair are welcomed to their supremely bleak new quarters thusly: “Enjoy your new home. Contact us if the spiders come back.”
I really liked the story “Shame Train,” in which Clotfelter renders with genuine empathy a night in the life of a homeless drunk who haplessly lurches from annoying other passengers on mass transit to drinking mouthwash to keep his buzz to catching some Z’s on a makeshift cardboard bed in a shop doorway. In the morning, the man calls his family to wish his daughter a happy birthday. His wife rebukes him before hanging up on him: “Her birthday was last week, you drunk.” Most of us have encountered (and tried to avoid) folks like this on the streets; in just nine pages Clotfelter vividly captures the tragedy of his protagonist’s wasted life.
But my favorite Clotfelter comics are his mercilessly revealing autobiographical stories, in which he spares no one, especially himself. In one story, set in the fall of 1992, Clotfelter describes going to his eighth-grade school dance, where he hangs out by the bleachers with his best friend Coot and with “the losers, weirdos and white trash.” It’s clear that he knows to which crowd he belongs.
In “Chasing Tail with Pappy” he describes a bizarre father-son activity focusing on a dead raccoon. Clotfelter paints his father as a well-meaning but inept, inappropriate parent, regularly proving himself to be an absolutely terrible role-model (and one of Clotfelter’s funniest characters). Meanwhile, Clotfelter reveals the rough time his mom, Pattie, had trying to keep him on the straight and narrow. In “Pattie and the Brat,” she tries to make him attend church. But Clotfelter, now twelve years-old and deciding he’s had enough of churchgoing, refuses to put his shoes on. So Pattie makes him wait in the car while she attends the service, which only ends up humiliating her when church lets out. “Up-All-Night-a-Thon” is a look at Clotfelter’s teen years, during which his main ambition is to stay up all night, every night, watching television during summer break. In all of his family reminiscences, you find yourself laughing helplessly while wincing at the terrible poignancy of it all. Clotfelter generally depicts himself in most of these comics with mouth agape, anxiously sweating, as if always waiting to encounter the next bit of bad fortune to befall him.
Clotfelter’s brutal honesty about his fraught upbringing, like that of cartoonists such as Aline Kominsky-Crumb, comes across less as bravery than as a form of catharsis. Based on these stories it’s pretty clear that a depressing future very possibly awaited him (check out this 2014 interview I did with him where he explains how he managed to turn things around). His rough-and-tumble roots were rough indeed. But they provided him a wealth of material to fuel these intense, darkly hilarious comics. Clotfelter is a natural storyteller, with a worldview and persona peculiarly his own, wrapped up in a visual style that fits it all like a ratty glove. Rooftop Stew is one mighty fine brew.