The first story in the comic The Adventures of Tad Martin, #Sick Sick Six (Teenage Dinosaur and Profanity Hill. 2015), by Casanova Frankenstein, “the artist, formally (sic) known as Al Frank,” is entitled “Tad Martin Vs. Popeye Rape-Whistle in The Secrets of Corpse-Fucking.” The publisher believed me the perfect person to review it. One week later, a journal editor had the same idea. I was flattered by the attention. At the same time, I thought, How the hell did Creative Writing 101a get me here?
Actually TM 6 had no character named Popeye Rape-Whistle. No corpse was fucked, and no secrets about corpse-schtupping were revealed. The whole title seemed to have been a marketing decision. Which did not make me feel any more ready for the trip Frankenstein’s pages promised. I was, after all, a guy who had swallowed his publisher’s defense of the omission of the word “Pornographers” from my title Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers, Pirates &... by arguing it might scare off shoppers in Walmart.
But at lunch with a literary novelist friend who had just authored his first crime book, I complimented his concluding slash-by-slash scalpel-vs.-straight-razor fight, as well as the detailed description of the racoon-ravaged, dismembered, naked maid found beneath his protagonist’s home.
“Strangely,” he said, “most readers thought I went overboard there.”
So maybe I had under-estimated my chops.
Tad Martin was named for a character in the soap opera All My Children. (Wikipedia states that, despite plot lines which had him a car thief, con man, and womanizer nick-named “Tad the Cad,” Martin represented “the good.”) Casanova Frankenstein was the evil genius who opposed Captain Amazing in the comic Mystery Men. Popeye Rape-Whistle seems to have no direct predecessor in the popular arts, though the felon who ravished Temple Drake with a corncob in Sanctuary does come to mind. Casanova Nobody Frankenstein had been Alfred Martin Frank, III, until changing his name in Texas District Court, on June 13, 2013. He was born near the Chicago municipal incinerator, whose cadmium and lead-laced emissions, he says, endowed him with the “dual super-powers of drawing-ability and sickness.”
Frankenstein created Martin “as a person to live through.” It blended his life with fantasy, which, come to think of it, is probably true of all fiction – and not a little non-. Caliber Press published five issues, between 1991 and 1993. Fans, mainly in the UK and Australia, kept its reputation alive, and when solicited for a new issue, Frankenstein drew it in a year (2011), while walking around on his job.
The earlier books focused on Martin’s relationships during high school and college. (I speak primarily of issues #1 - 3. I could not find #5; and #4, which is nearly entirely text, plays out within a William Burroughs-ish nightmare that, while compatible with Martin’s earlier experiences, does not mirror them.) If Martin is Frankenstein’s stand-in and these tales are autobiographical, his adolescence makes Robert Crumb’s look like Archie Andrews’s. Classmates, treated him as a “misshapen monster.” “Normal” people shunned him. He wore depression “like a coat.” If his alter ego is an accurate portrayal, he was menacingly slim, appealingly brooding, with slick-backed hair and dark-ringed or dark-shaded eyes. He wore engineer boots and leather jacket. He carried knives, mace, brass knuckles. He was into pot, robe, freon, and crystal meth. His fantasies ran toward beheading girls and incinerating guys. His only friends were the “drugged and undependable.” For a sliver of his generation, like Marlon Brando did for a broader swatch of mine, Martin rode as a lone Black Rebel, rejecting all temptations of the straight.
In particular, Martin damned women as “roaches.” They were ignorant of “what’s good for them.” They forced men to lie. In #4, they scooped eyes out of living men with Bozo the Clown spoons and smoked brains from the skulls of dead ones. In the earlier books, one girl, Tricky, gives Martin the clap. He revenges himself upon Betty Jo, who dumped him, by leaving her last-pictured comatose, on life-support. When Kathi drops him, he drugs her and her parents, pisses on their bed, and ties her cat to his bumper and drags it to its death. (“A true story,” Frankenstein writes of this bit of psychopathology.)
Tad Martin sees no future. He links “life” with “youth,” despite how misery-ridden he has portrayed his. He concludes all is “lost” when you grow up. Sex leads to visions of “babies smothered to death with their heads trapped between bars of wooden crib.” Aside from drugs, his only pleasure seems to come from hot-rodding into a black night. “It’s not that you have any place to go. It’s better just to drive... searching for some final freedom that began with your first bicycle... as the rubber hums along the blacktop. A 3 A.M. adventure that begins and ends behind that steering wheel.”
That’s a good line. So is the one about the dead babies. They wring negatively so tightly that nihilism shines. The hole at Martin’s center yielded an anthem others could sing.
When we meet Martin in Six, it is 2004. He is about to tell us about a single, extended relationship with Leigh, a woman he married three months after picking her up in a bar. The years have been unkind to Tad. His hair has thinned. His eyes have sunk. His leanness, which had carved out satisfactions for his earlier audience, has shriveled into a heavily tattooed replication of Mary Shelley’s monster after a stint in Beuchenwald, or macro-biotic diet. He suffers from bad teeth, low testosterone, hypertension, chronic depression, and incipient m.s. He is divorced from a “hypersexual, cheating coke-whore,”and, having lost 35 other dead-end jobs, works as a security guard, while drawing cartoons.
Leigh is a skin-head “tweaker,” on SSI because of mental illness and impaired vision caused by her stripper/prostitute mother’s having shot speed while pregnant. Leigh, who’d been sexually and physically abused throughout childhood, is an ex-hooker, ex-swinger, into self-mutilation and staying out all night in “crotchless tights,” that facilitate her having sex with strangers in toilet stalls. This marriage lasts four years.
In most relationship-centered works, one expects to connect with one or both parties and to be uplifted when these characters come together or mournful when they part. This is difficult with TM Six. It is not simply due to the queasy-making nature of Tad and Leigh’s lives. One can care for a double-murderer (See: Gary Gilmore and Nicol in The Executioner’s Song). One can care for scumbag junkies (See: Marion and Harry in Requiem for a Dream). (I even recall sympathizing with a woman who, seeking skag, had sex with her connection’s doberman in a novel by Iceberg Slim.) But Frankenstein offers little reason to care for his central characters. There seems no explanation for their staying together four hours after their hook-up, let alone four years. Neither Leigh’s scamming or Tad’s need to feel protective seem capable of surmounting the shitpile their personal baggage stacks. During their near 60-pages together, we get frustration, rage, mistrust, and Leigh “feeding on (Tad’s)... soul”; but, aside from Tad’s offer to stop smoking if Leigh stops shooting up, there is not one moment of caring or affection between them. Their sole effort toward overcoming their difficulties is a Tad-suggested joint mescaline trip, a mode of intervention unlikely to have occurred to most MFCCs.
By book’s end, Martin has found he prefers being alone. He will “be happy with me.” He has relegated relationships, as he has his job, to a “con,” in which the untrained and unprepared pretend to be capable of making others “secure.” But they can not provide security. Teeth crack. Disease attacks bodies. Unfaithfulness and betrayal prevail. Life’s absurdity strikes “in a wave... of absurdity.”
The question arises. Is solitude a prescription or a characterization?
I mean, is Frankenstein advocating a cloistered life for everyone, or is this assertion a defining detail to be borne by Martin like, say, a nose ring?
Look at it this way. Frankenstein has made Martin the narrator. So all we know is what Martin tells us, and all Martin can tell us is what Frankenstein’s conception of him allows him to express; and if you conceive of a character who can only speaks Urdu, he won’t parlez much French. Y’understand what I’m saying? So what is Martin’s language? Well, while containing many ways to catalogue Leigh’s depravities, it seems to lack the vocabulary to depict their smiles and laughs together or allow her to explain or defend her behavior. This need to be “right” and lack of empathy on Martin’s part may be as much a reason why this relationship failed as any explanation Martin gives. More tellingly, he does not account for why he stayed with Leigh. He can not explore the hole in him she must have filled, or the guilt his supporting her must have expiated, or the thrill her beyond-the-pale behavior excited. We are left to guess at what-about-her connected to what-within-him. The point is Martin may not be an aware enough character to speak for more than Tad Martin. We need not follow what he says about relationships so much as wonder why he says it.
The facts on the ground – or rather the ink on the page – lead to the same conclusion. The Martin who proclaims the benefits of being alone has already been married once, and one would think his experience with his “coke-whore” might have already scared him off personal entanglements. But absurdly soon after meeting Leigh, he’s exchanging vows with her. And after they split, Martin isn’t, strictly speaking, alone. He’s replaced Leigh with a hairless cat.
My wife, the writer/psychotherapist occasionally known as Ruth Delhi, points out that people tend to get involved with people – or, for that matter, cats – who fit them. If you are troubled, you probably need someone with troubles to accept you. If you’re drawn to someone whose troubles exceed your own, you may need to feel more powerful than she is. If you are an artist, turning this experience into a negative portrayal of this person is a way to demonstrate this power to yourself and her and others. And if you emerge from this mix of troubles weak and wobbly, you may be drawn to a relationship which makes no greater demands upon you than the ability to open a can of salmon-fortified Friskies.
So I don’t think TM Six negates the human need for relationships. And I wouldn’t be surprised, by the time Seven rolls out, to see Martin paired up again.
TM unloads like a dump truck upon a charnel ground. While unappetizing, it is an achievement. Frankenstein has committed to the page material others could, or would, not. Their lives are too controlled for the experiences that fed him. Their fantasies are too managed to approach his. Their inhibitions are too intact to have allowed their expression if they had. (I certainly speak as one of them.) But Frankenstein’s content should not repel readers from appreciating his artistry.
His panels – rough, scratchy, unfinished seeming, defiant as an ink-on-safety-pin tattoo – serve his grim tale well. Beauty is not a consideration. Flattery is beside the point. Consistency is no virtue. Some panels choke upon details; others barely bother to exist. Vacancy vies with completion, attentiveness with why-bother. The point of the art is to capture Martin’s mind. The panels spin upon distortion. They cage the grotesque. Blankness and blackness rule, not clarity or glow. Sometimes the panels appear as a page torn from looseleaf book, or restaurant guest check, even (I think) a restroom wall, to emphasize the valuelessness of art, its disposability, its utter trashiness.
Eyes are important though. In panel after panel, Frankenstein draws the viewer to them. They are woeful or enraged or vacant. They bulge from and pop free of orbital bone. They float in a void. They appear as the bulbs in table lamps or street lights, or the nails on fingers or toes. “Hold on a sec,” Martin says to a friend, on page one, initiating conversation after a separation of years, “...I forgot to put my eyeballs in.” Though he is referencing dark glasses, Martin emphasizes the visual is key. His story can not be told, sense can not be made, order can not be imposed nor narrative flow, until observation occurs.
But visual renderings of the observed only take you so far. To fully express a world view, the artist needs words. And Frankenstein’s are sharply pointed and poison-tipped. His captions and word balloons induce neither groans at their clumsiness or gags at their cliches, like those of the less gifted or less careful. (He positively glistens in an interview conducted by Tom Goodyear at the book’s end. “TG: What hand do you draw with?” CNF: “The one not holding my penis.” Now there’s an exchange you are unlikely to find in The Paris Review – or even The Comics Journal.) Frankenstein knows his characters, and their words ring true to their supposed personalities. Of course, nearly all the words are Martin’s, [In fact, Leigh gets fewer words (74) in the entire book than her sister gets (91) in one panel – and all these denigrate Leigh.]
But hey, the book is not about fair play. It is a howl from a damaged soul. Forgiveness is not an option. Sympathy is a card lost from this deck. My favorite line, delivered half-way through by Martin about Leigh’s refusal to look at his comics. It was, he says, “like trying to keep a dog’s nose held down into a puddle of piss.” That is fucking brilliant! First off, it is original. (Like the description of the raccoon-ravaged body, I had never read it before.) Second, like the best similes, it has a double-whammy effect. While nailing the habit analogized to (the not-reading), it simultaneously spikes the non-actor and the non-acted upon. Leigh is linked to a beast/bitch/cur, and Martin’s art to a urine stream, which he implicitly recognizes, in some quarters, if not sometimes by himself, it is undoubtedly viewed
Like I said, fucking brilliant. In its singularity and unique and ucompromised vision, the whole book is.