The best way for me to appreciate what Zebadiah Keneally is doing with his comics is to view the work as a series of finely-crafted moments. Take, for example, the swirly magical spins of a lanky cartoon panther caught in a bubble rolling down a freeway. This lasts for a few pages, and I could see this dreamy circular motion sustained for a whole book. The point is that, in these moments, Keneally’s strengths shine.
Why can art be difficult to decipher? We often say that judging art is a subjective process, and it is. My editor presented me with a PDF of Keneally’s graphic novel, All The Things I Know. Already, I’m looking at it critically. This is not a book that I sought out. It’s not my baby. I’m not its champion. But I need to clear my mind. I scan through it as I would any other data. The look and feel of it is raw and irreverent. Alright, I haven’t had a chance to tune into the finer details. Next, I spot a scatological scene. God is depicted on the toilet dumping his scat upon planet Earth. So, literally, a scatological moment. This sort of thing can immediately turn off or turn on an audience. One artist’s pure gesture can be received by a reader, such as myself, as pure excess.
Lastly, during this initial process, I need to find out who this artist is. Art and artist, more than ever before, are inextricably linked. We hound them. We stalk them. We give them little to no time to themselves - alone to create art. We cajole and condition them to join in the fray and dance along with us on TikTok, dancing and dancing in search of validation. A case can be made for anonymous art but only a few might still listen. I find a clue on Keneally’s website. When asked to explain his art, he quotes himself in true Surrealist fashion and answers, “Lunch is very important.” So, we’ve got us a wiseguy. Or perhaps a playful artist?
On the face of it, Keneally’s graphic novel has set up a battle royale amongst the gods hellbent on a new reign over Earth. Humans are depicted as in quite a pickle. The masses are stewing, at a breaking point. Sure, these things run in cycles. It will pass. But humanity in crisis is what it is. And gods will take what they will take if they sense a bargain during a global fire sale. Here is where Keneally leans hard into the weirdness of this scenario. He’s populated his world with goofy characters with silly names, built from a rough, childlike construction. And yet, he also manages to sustain a clean and orderly style. It’s a controlled chaos which offers the reader an opportunity to engage with the work.
Keneally knows what will propel his art/narrative. I return to that goofy lanky panther doing cartwheels and the mischievous scatty God. The circular panther sequence of pages begins with the panther standing on the edge of a great cliff. Little does the panther know that God surrounds him from above and below. In no time, the panther is tossed off the cliff by God and set on a rolling path. This, mind you, is only one sequence embedded within a graphic novel that spans hundreds of pages. If the work is alive and therefore authentic, then issues of whether the work leans towards being earnest or more towards being ironic can be transcended.
So, if I’m sent a PDF of an artist that I don’t know and I then need to sift through a colossal work that provides unique challenges in style and content, I need to be mindful of making that extra effort to get the bigger picture. In a recent Instagram video, Keneally says, “if we don’t shape God, someone else will.” That sounds very sincere, and I process that accordingly. If I went in with that statement and reviewed pages from this book on a gallery wall, I’m pretty sure I’d warm up to the work sooner.
In fact, the deeper I go and give the style a chance to win me over, the more satisfied I am with this book. That said, sustaining a thoroughly compelling narrative is always a tough nut to crack, especially over the long haul with a book of this size. It reminds me of Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Belly Button, a book where you really don’t need to care about the characters as much as enjoy the overall vibe that is created.
One aspect that really appeals to me about this book is that it is very much a product of the city. Keneally offers up his reaction to city life, specifically New York City: the intensity, the hype, the grit and despair. The gods seem to have met their match with the Trump-like villain, Hamburger Vampire, and his quick fix enticement, Dope Vape. All the young hipsters can’t get enough of it. In Keneally’s dystopian New York, one tragedy begets another, reaching horrific proportions, an apt metaphor for the kind of sense of dread that can overwhelm any city dweller.
Okay, so the big question is: what do I think of Keneally’s evil villain, Hamburger Vampire? The name, the whole look, reminds me of the McDonald’s universe of characters: the Hamburglar and Mayor McCheese, all work of pure genius. Seriously, some of the best moments in the book involve Hamburger Vampire either being obnoxious or flipping out when his plans are unravelling. The McDonald’s characters were created back in the day, long before McDonald’s had to be concerned about nutrition and work conditions and could zone in to its own spooky Disney fantasy mode. The public not only accepted it, they ate it up! In an ideal world, it would be just as easy to embrace Keneally’s work.