REVIEWS

The Cartoon Utopia

Well, it’s that time of year again. The time when a witchy wind starts blowing and the darkness comes earlier each day, and it’s a little easier than usual to believe in magic.

Ron Regé, Jr. certainly seems to believe that magic is real, anyway — the good kind, at least. What is it called? White magic.

The comics in his new, almost literally dizzying book, The Cartoon Utopia, are packed with visual detail and collect his thoughts on magic in some of its many incarnations: astrology, the occult, sex magic, the “alchemy” of love relationships and other hermetic principles, and communion with animals. It opens with a short introduction by Maja D’Aoust, the self-described White Witch of L.A. who had Regé as a student in her “Magic School” lectures. In it, she describes the otherworldly sense of coincidence that swirled around the group of artists and musicians that took her class during this time.

“So, as you read the concepts contained within the passages of this tremendous work of art, take care, for the utterance of the magic words and their penetration into your eyeballs shall bring the magic to your life as well, and surround your heart — above, below and always,” D’Aoust writes. So right off the bat you know what you’re getting into.

Utopia loosely depicts a race of humanlike creatures of a future world who are as cute yet no-nonsense as Megan Kelso’s Artichoke folks. They go about their business, being gentle and wide-eyed, and occasionally reflect on “the time before people believed in peace” (i.e., now). But rather than following any narrative, the book depicts one psychedelic philosophy after another, breaking the ideas down and explaining them, sort of. Some of these seem to be Regé’s own, some have been pulled directly from his apparently limitless reading, and they’re all brought to life by his disarmingly simple and hippie-ish figures, all almond eyes and flowing hair.

Anyone familiar with Regé’s previous comics will likely see this as a move toward something … more difficult. Packed even tighter with detail and captioned in hard-to-decipher block letters, the visuals are squirrelly but orderly, almost obsessively so. In fact, in its alarming density the work has a needs-must quality that I find so intriguing, as if the drawings were made by a fringe artist in a fever to get his ideas out there but with limited access to materials. Almost impossible to categorize, the work in Cartoon Utopia is both fully realized in a formal sense and wonderfully idiosyncratic. Like, it’s really out there.


“The old patterns of culture are breaking up!” Regé warns us early on. “The new patterns are being formed!” He depicts the difficult and forward-thinking philosophies he admires; some of the people quoted include Blake, Goethe, Alan Watts, Manly P. Hall — all of them mystics as much as writers, artists and thinkers. He’s interested in the nature of the universe and our interaction with it (i.e., magic): “Light can be slowed down and condensed into matter. Change the number, change your tune, turn the dial on the Prima Materia — once you know the frequency of something you can create and transform it. … Apply your consciousness to the ether and give it form.” He also deals with the inherent mysticism of animals, and the way we (can, but rarely do) relate to them: “You can share your consciousness with anything because we are all one thing.” Much of the book reads like this, a recitation of beliefs that makes the work feel something like a textbook or even a prayer book.

But to me the work is much stronger when it depicts magic in action, which Regé accomplishes by telling us stories about historical figures and their relationship to the natural world. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of these: There’s the tale of coincidence regarding Jung, a young client of his, and a scarab beetle; the piece about Tesla and the deep connection between his life’s work and a pigeon of his acquaintance; and my favorite, the moving story of Mesmer and his companion canary, who followed him everywhere and died within moments of Mesmer’s own passing. All of these passages accomplish Regé’s apparent goal of teaching us something about magic, and they require much less head-scratching to figure out.

It’s also sweet when he gets personal, as he sort of does by telling little anecdotes about Sun Ra and talking about music in general. “All creative art is music!” he proclaims, and whether or not you know he’s a musician — Regé plays drums in the exuberant freak folk act Lavender Diamond — the declaration seems to carry more weight than some of his others.

***

Most of the text in Utopia is interwoven with its drawings, and it’s rendered in a cramped and uniform way that makes it difficult to read or even pick out from the surrounding art. This has the interesting effect of making the experience feel more like deciphering than reading, as if we’ve discovered an ancient holy book or are coaxing forth meaning from patterns in the natural world. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the book itself is like a magical thing, and reading it calls to mind the ideas of divination and conjuring.

Picking my way through the comic’s strange trains of thought, I was put to mind of the work of self-taught artist Justin Duerr, who has been making his quasi-spiritual, apocalyptic art zine Decades of Confusion Feed the Insect — in the old-school, photocopied style — for some fifteen years. His work, too, is crammed with vertiginous detail and prophetic writings, and also has an essentially hopeful message. A longtime, beloved member of the underground art scene in Philadelphia, Duerr has recently achieved wider acclaim for his documentary film Resurrect Dead, which is in turn about the really outsider artist behind the Toynbee Tiles, a street art project that makes oblique references to shamanism, government conspiracies, and life on Jupiter.

All this to say: Some of The Cartoon Utopia reads like the loony but often prescient ravings of a madman-prophet, the kind you’re sometimes treated to on the subway. I guess that sounds insulting, but I don’t mean it that way. Those moments of authenticity and surprise — the joyful and unsettling shake-up of the everyday — are among the things I find most exciting in life, and Regé’s work teems with them, breaking down the expected order of things with the intention of installing a new one. I’m reminded of a quotation from Death By Black Hole by everybody’s favorite astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson: “One thing is for certain: the more profoundly baffled you have been in your life, the more open your mind becomes to new ideas.” Consider me baffled, but in a good way.

If you’re a mere mortal like me, you may need to read this book in small installments rather than attempting to cram it into your brain in one straight shot. Treat it instead like the religious text that it almost is, and school yourself over time.

 

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16 Responses to The Cartoon Utopia

  1. David Roel says:

    He’s fallen into what’s called the pre – trans fallacy. He needs to read Ken Wilber.

  2. Will says:

    David,

    I think it’s unfair and disingenuous to dismiss the entire work by saying that Rege needs to read a certain book, and not explain yourself any further.

    I don’t think the comic book can or should be compared to any academic theories because there has never been anything like it before, as mentioned in the article it’s a piece of ART, in the same realm as music or poetry, designed to inspire rather than to provide systematic fact or ideological truth.

    The Cartoon Utopia is a beautiful work of humanity, earnestness, and hope in a sea of countless cynical drab dark ironic unfunny tangential “art”.

    Ron Rege has given a great gift to the english readers of the world.

    • mateor says:

      I cannot understand how someone can look at those pages and then dismiss them on philosophic or moral grounds.

      I cannot identify with that frame of reference at all. Is that the point of Art?

      • Scott Grammel says:

        Can one dismiss them as glorified stoner notebook doodling, or does that capital “A” in “Art” (or, even better, David’s all-cap “ART”) effectively ward off all criticisms?

      • mateor says:

        Nope. thinking the [Aa]rt just sucks is right fucking on.

      • Briany Najar says:

        What is the criticism?
        Anything can be dismissed by called it a glorified one-thing-or-another, or just for the sake of it, even.
        Maybe in its inception it is exactly what you called it, stoner notebook doodling, but that doesn’t really mean anything relevant or incisive. One person’s baked scratchings are another’s wonder of human insight. Kubla Khan has its admirers.
        If you’re bemoaning a lack of rigour or some paucity of structure – 2 possible weaknesses of “stoner notebook doodling” – then maybe you might have a way of undermining the glorification it’s apparantly attracted, I dunno.
        Looks to me like really excellent stoner doodling, if that’s what it is, and I’d certainly give it a couple hours of my valuable time, especially if Against Pain is anything to go by.

        Er, perhaps more to the point, I think David’s “ART” was to distinguish the work from “Science”, “Philosophy” and/or “Theory”, not to distinguish it from “art”.

      • Briany Najar says:

        Sorry – Will’s “ART”, not David’s.

  3. Briany Najar says:

    Maybe Rege has read Ken Wilbur and disagrees with his particular system, or that aspect of it which distinguishes between pre- and post- rational mystical states. Ken Wilbur’s are one set of interpretations among many – he’s only an authority if you choose to concur with him. Humankind’s abstract verbal speculation about their own nature and potential is not a closed case.

  4. Mike Hunter says:

    I’ve several Ken Wilber books; he’s a genius of spirituality, extraordinarily brilliant, learned and perceptive.

    ————————–
    Pre/trans fallacy

    Wilber believes that many claims about non-rational states make a mistake he calls the pre/trans fallacy. According to Wilber, the non-rational stages of consciousness (what Wilber calls “pre-rational” and “trans-rational” stages) can be easily confused with one another. On Wilber’s view, one can reduce trans-rational spiritual realization to pre-rational regression, or one can elevate pre-rational states to the trans-rational domain. For example, Wilber claims that Freud and Jung commit this fallacy. Freud considered mystical realization to be a regression to infantile oceanic states. Wilber alleges that Freud thus commits a fallacy of reduction. Wilber thinks that Jung commits the converse form of the same mistake by considering pre-rational myths to reflect divine realizations. Likewise, pre-rational states may be misidentified as post-rational states. Wilber characterizes himself as having fallen victim to the pre/trans fallacy in his early work….
    —————————-
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Wilber )

    Fair enough! However, Rege’s book is surely not intended as an intellectually-rigorous academic treatise. Looking at these dazzling images from this highly talented creator, obviously excited and inspired by the subject, it’s absurd to find fault with it for being “spiritually incorrect”…

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