Anyone who knows me knows of my love for whacked-out, anti-linear B-to-Z movies of the 1950s and ‘60s. Their bewildering lack of structure and logic have always been a tonic as I swim against the current from the standards of Western storytelling.
Among my favorite books of the last decade is Anders Runestad’s 2015 epic I Cannot, Yet I Must: The True Story of the Best Bad Monster Movie of All Time—Robot Monster (Radiosonde Books). Among its many revelations is something that explains why films like Robot Monster, Mesa of Lost Women and Glen or Glenda? have such baffling moments. Often, due to budget problems and the whims of thrifty producers, pages were torn out of shooting scripts. The filmmakers soldiered on, determined to complete their low-profile, micro-budgeted anti-epics—regardless of their lack of a traditionally satisfying and reassuring narrative.
Chris Cilla’s comics replicate that jarring jump-cut effect. His stories, odd at their base, take a sudden lurch away from where we think they’re going, leap to unexplained new locations and characters, and seldom conclude in a predictable manner. They mine the subconscious impulse with poker-faced aplomb.
Cilla is an old-school cartoonist—part underground grunge, part newspaper comic-strip humdrum. The short stories that comprise this two-in-one volume drift from dreamlike conflations to the depiction of an apparent status quo that defies and redefines our concept of “normal.”
Like the works of Paper Rad, James Stanton and Max Clotfelter, Cilla’s comics get on their hands and knees and savor the grubbiness of their settings. His characters sweat, shit, vomit and seldom use good table manners. Cilla does not wallow in these grotesqueries; they are a part of his world and his characters do their best to deal with them.
Some of these stories have been printed elsewhere, such as “Enough Already!” which comprises the centerpiece of this collection. This story feels something like an Archie comic book of the Kennedy era, or a strip like Our Boarding House or Right Around Home. On its level, its characters are ordinary people doing everyday things. The café setting of “Enough” offers a commune of Richard Brautigan-esque beings (human, animal and insect), and doesn’t attempt to explain a thing. Moments that other comics creators would build to a crescendo begin, impress us with their imaginative scope, then melt into another moment. Cilla grabs handfuls of dream logic and gets it on the page intact.
“Enough Already!” begins with Cilla’s warm watercolor wash tones, then switches to stark black and white pen and ink with touches of Zip-a-tone. Its fragmentary, non-linear dialogue is the first major departure from the platform of Normal. Cilla’s characters spout wonderful non-sequiturs (“Cool! They have ‘Peach Sweat!’”) but seem to communicate with one another. We’re just out of the loop enough that their dialogue confounds us in a delightful way. You reel and bob with the changing tide of Cilla’s graphic world.
These stories are great start-of-day reading. With a first cup of coffee, Cilla’s comics are a fine transition from subconscious to awareness, and they offer a reminder to treasure the things that don’t conform to rational thought. Like another favorite book of 2019, Mark Alan Stamaty’s MacDoodle Street, The Sleep Gas is best read in fits and starts.
It’s often tempting to wolf down comics. Cilla slows our intake by giving us so little to grasp. We take in the parade of short-circuited moments, which can be antic and amusing or deeply disturbing, as in another major story, “The Debt and the Damages.” This impressionistic account of a mass murderer’s social life makes us laugh, jars us to our core with its effective violence and ends with a sublime left-field post-script. Cilla is among the few modern cartoonists who can convey the altered states of his characters in a tangible way. “The Debt” captures the boozy nocturnal slog of its profane fugitives to great effect.
The Sleep Gas/Dull Buzz won’t be everyone’s cup of joe, but those able to let themselves float through its pages and images will find that life can be a dream for a few scrambled moments amidst the cold logic of daily life.