Cover Not Final

Cover Not Final

Max Huffman

AdHouse Books


64 pages

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Right off the bat: damn, I can’t believe the book is called that. It takes admirable chutzpah to title a book in such a sense-derailing way, to immediately elicit a reaction of “haha what” from onlookers, and a grimace from people who work in book sales. A closer look at the drawing on the cover shows the tire marks to have done the impossible, and we have a greater understanding of the sense of humor alluded to when the masked and suited figure on the cover says “crime funnies”. That this explanatory subtitle comes couched within a word balloon is yet another indicator that the humor is one where symbols -- of cartooning, of book design -- are manipulated until they short-circuit. The reader is intuitively making sense of elements which the artist juxtaposes against each other to reveal themselves to be nonsense.

This is Max Huffman’s first work to come out through a publisher other than himself. His last few years of minicomics have been funny and filled with fun drawings, but their approach to narrative is sideways enough that resolution never felt like a priority. Plot threads are introduced constantly, simply because the phrasing that suggests them is funny in its own right. Endings are abrupt and cryptic. Dialogue can feel nonsensical, even when characters are just introducing themselves, because their names have a Pynchonesque tilt that make them come off grammatically confusing when rendered in the all-caps of cartoon lettering. All these traits are present in Cover Not Final as well.

You might not expect this level of constant détournement of visual language and narrative expectation to accumulate into world-building or character detail, the same way one would be skeptical about whether or not their favorite Weird Twitter jokester could write a screenplay. While over time it feels like the pace of what is considered funny is accelerating, so that things from the past seem sometimes excruciatingly slow, with jokes emerging too intermittently to bring a modern viewer to a place of continuous laughter, it remains an open question whether today’s sharpest comedic voices could slow their pace enough to tell a joke that requires the gradual build of a set-up. Being able to make jokes so fast, so recklessly, suggests an opposition to the gentler work of pacing, which provides its own pleasure - one that’s necessary if you’re going to spend any time in a work’s company. Similarly, aside from all the gags, there’s a Cubist quality to Huffman’s cartooning which is constantly visually engaging, but might not allow the reader to explore a consistent physical space, which is some ways one of the great pleasures of reading a comic.

I’m happy to report: the comic’s great. It’s constantly delightful, and the pleasures accumulate with each new short story, building out a world around such premises as: live music is illegal. Every joke made seemingly at the spur of the moment -- like naming a character “Doctor Website,” who is not a doctor, but a musician -- remains part of the tapestry of the world, even if it’s a world where the exact physics of how space is organized is unclear. There’s an excursion to a Ditko-esque alternate dimension I did not see coming, but follows perfectly from the logic of drawing seen elsewhere. The weird names end up functioning as perfect landmarks that help to map the social relations of an absurd world. The man in the mask seen on the cover serves as a running thread, teasing the reader with brief appearances in two stories before he shows up as the major focus of a concluding story that’s practically a parody of Michael Mann’s Collateral, presenting the Career Criminal as an Uber passenger. Then the character of a private detective seen in an opening story is reprised for two single panel gag cartoons that call for a detective figure. Every pageturn brings a new set of surprises, but nothing undercuts what preceded it, and each addition provides something the book needed.

One such thing would be some sort of reckoning with the concept of physical space, which gets taken care of late in the game, with a two-panel reverse shot sequence of Career Criminal pretending his fingers are legs “running” across the skyline he views from the window as the passenger of a car. This sequence is, frankly, incredible. At first, I didn’t know what was being depicted - and then, in the moment where I did understand what I was seeing, I remembered that I have done the very action being shown, perhaps unconsciously, but had never seen it captured before, and then I realized that this small gesture, the product of an entirely internal thought process, was captured with remarkable economy: just two panels, as dialogue is unfolding, while literally moving our characters from one place to another. This is the sort of combo that I can’t help but respond to hyperbolically: it's one of the best things I’ve ever seen.

Beyond situating the figures in space, this one page fits perfectly into Huffman’s oeuvre because the very thing it depicts captures something of a consciousness shaped by the mechanics of platform video games, made subject to industrial development’s transformation of the landscape, and placed within 20th century car culture as a helpless child riding in the backseat. Comics and cartooning are themselves close bedfellows of all the consumer culture that makes even the aging balding criminal men of us into a kind of children, though it takes a collage-style repurposing of language to show it.

The closest comparison points to Huffman’s comics I can think of are Tim Hensley and Michael Kupperman. However, those artists base their work around the recognizable form of older comics, situating their gags within a tradition of parody, even as they go further into the unreal. There is less of a foothold in shared cultural nostalgia here. It’s more chaotic, more molten, and potentially more accessible to people who aren’t familiar with the EC and Dell comic books those older artists grew up on. (Concurrently, it could, like the Netflix series I Think You Should Leave, feel so aggressively absurd as to be alienating to anyone above a certain age.)

Take, for example, Huffman’s decision to name a series of minicomics “Funky Dianetics” : There’s a reference to A Tribe Called Quest embedded there, punning against Scientology, with the cumulative effect, whether or not you get the reference, of a ridiculous absurdity. There’s a character in this named “Whitney Bionicle” - Bionicle, being (and I guess this an intentional reference?) a now defunct Lego toy line with a mythos and spin-off direct-to-video movie. Describing this type of humor like it is even reliant on “getting the reference” does it a disservice - these jokes don’t refer to anything, they make a collage of cultural detritus that becomes its own system within the bounds of the comic. It doesn’t take a decoder ring to understand these comics, just a willingness to accept the high velocity by which a new moving part can jut out and brain you, based around comedic rhythms that at one point existed in a context where they were more intelligible.

This comic is very funny, but more importantly, its humor feels fresh. It’s the first time in ages I’ve read a comic book that seemed to articulate a comedic voice that was new and unique to itself, rather than leaving the work of humor to people who write for television or post online.