Comics of protest feed on fury while comics of reportage bear witness, and Woodrow Phoenix taps the two veins at once in Crash Course for a book that wants both to testify and accuse. Coincidental timing has queued up a number of comics road trips recently: Fantagraphics reprinted the Manchette/Tardi West Coast Blues with hit men and quarry scuttling up and down the French autoroute network in the stifling heat, and the latest volume of The Complete Crepax includes Nobody, following Philip Rembrandt's meander across America as a reworked Odysseus, comics' pre-eminent continental drifter. But those comics are about the trip; Crash Course is about the road.
Drawings of those roads occupy all the pages of the book. Highways, freeways, flyovers, bridges, side roads and sidewalks, a headlight-level viewpoint of the motor car's domain and the landscape that it traverses, rendered in crisp black, white and grey. Some pages peer down more closely at the tarmac and the marks painted on it: arrows, crossings, center lines, lane borders, instructions, permissions and prohibitions. This empire of signs, sometimes in context in the landscape but just as often in tight closeup as items of graphic design, turns the book's universe into a single work of engineering construction - lacking only two significant elements, the cars and the people themselves. Vehicles and drivers and pedestrians are all absent, leaving the traffic signals issuing orders to nothing.
Phoenix's intentions in Crash Course probably did not include making modernist art, but in practice he has taken several strides towards it anyway. When the motor car originally belched and backfired its way into art around 1895, it was pulled in by the mildly mind-blowing changes of perspective it allowed an artist to experience in their own seeing, before becoming a full conscript in a central modernist enterprise: a conflict between the avant-garde of engineering and the avant-garde of art. As well as inflaming the imaginations of several dingbat Futurists, the car allowed exactly what the modernists were chasing after, a poetic experience of modern phenomena. Woodrow Phoenix arrives somewhere similar in a modern setting, through a rolling sequence of roads without any of their natural inhabitants or intended routine purpose. On top of which, Crash Course is a study of metropolitan exploration, setting off down roads at random which never quite connect together or conclude; and so it's not far from another number high on the modernist hit parade, the détournement, a deliberate loosening of reality's screws to see which way it falls. From Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus's book following modernist threads through art and on into the Sex Pistols: "To drift through the city, allowing its signs to give up routes that never existed before...would be to live a truly modern way of life, made out of pavement and pictures." Crash Course is made out of those two things too.
But this is not utopia and Crash Course is a furious and despairing book. It howls with outrage at the death toll that accumulates on the roads of the supposedly civilized world, and at the behavior of drivers being neglectful or incompetent. The book's text captions are a jeremiad, discussing (with citations) the fatality statistics for pedestrians and cyclists, the lethal mistakes of autonomous vehicles, the unequal medical consequences of a metal car colliding with an organic creature, and the sheer mind-boggling human cost. The art neatly contextualizes these feelings with some memento mori - a crushed soda cup, or the cartoon pedestrian from a crossing sign now horizontal and broken on the road. One sequence draws a visual parallel between the regular rectangular segments of an empty parking lot and the layout of a graveyard.
Sometimes Crash Course's dim view of (implicitly male) drivers is visually sardonic - a list of aggressive masculine brand names is put next to a classic Spanish Toro de Osborne with its pendulous cojones - but the text views driving as an enabling act, fomenting arrogance and contempt. It decries road rage as simply "people who...can't control their sense of entitlement...encouraged by unattainable ideas of personal fulfillment through driving cars fast...stoked to boiling by an inability to handle the limits opposed by reality." This, over images of road markings finger-wagging ever more impotent instructions, barking rules to be broken. Given the book's artistic rigor and extensive citations for its objective data, Crash Course shouldn't be too dented by noting that its feelings about human nature are drawn with a broader subjective brush. A reader might not have to look far into personal experience to believe road rage can happen at any speed, from legal down to zero, and to wonder if the cause is as much psychological as psychotic. Another piece of coincidental timing sees Crash Course arrive at the same time as Why We Drive by Matthew Crawford, a book studying motoring and the motorized society from a small-c conservative petrolhead perspective. Crawford labels road rage as "a bad spiral," vivid personal self-awareness stymied into mental dissonance by the complete lack of visual or tactile reciprocity from another person, which is not a million miles from theories about nuclear Twitter brawls too. Maybe hell can just break loose anywhere in anyone. But whether Phoenix is right or wrong, avoiding all visible human beings in Crash Course as an artistic choice has the desired poetic effect, while maybe bringing in a touch of the same syndrome, a disconnection from the individuals being described that doesn't always mesh with its insights into the built environment that the book negotiates.
Even so, Crash Course speaks clearly when it speaks for the dead. The book is a revised and expanded edition of Rumble Strip, produced for the UK market in 2008 to which Phoenix has now added many new pages, the majority of which relate to the extra bodies piled onto the mountain of the deceased and injured since then. He also brings into the picture some groups now urgently relevant to the urban driving experience: the cops, the killers, and the killer cops. The book's new text tells several stories of dubious or criminal or lethal police behavior, including some famous cases. Sandra Bland, pulled over in Texas in 2015 over a lane change violation, violently arrested and dead in her cell three days later, is here. So is Heather Heyer, run over and murdered in Charlottesville in 2017, since Crash Course angrily notes the change in the political essence of the motor car, now a potential weapon of deliberate murder. After all those years society spent attempting to restrict access to the building blocks of a neutron bomb, Crash Course reflects an era when all that might be needed to throw a city into chaos is a hired van. Phoenix lays out these incidents over the same drawings of empty towns, images whose peace and menace mingle on the page, reminders that a civilized country respects the rights of all its citizens or does not look civilized even when gracefully rendered in pen and ink.
In a turn of events unforeseen by Woodrow Phoenix or most other people, civilization has been upended by another means entirely, and Crash Course presents readers with sights that they could recently have seen in real life by looking out of the window. COVID-19 cleared the streets almost as completely as Phoenix's artistic imagination, severing people from their cars and suppressing traffic accident statistics worldwide. So the book's poetic visuals acquire a further separate authenticity, echoing lived experience and maybe its deep social unease, not to mention paralleling a fair amount of other current art. Some pages in Crash Course now look like structural cousins of shots in "Ride It Out," Ana Lily Amirpour's cycling tour of a (fairly) deserted Hollywood in the Netflix pandemic portmanteau series Home Made. This final twist of coincidence turns Crash Course towards the genre of comics journalism, even if inadvertently. The book's phantom rides have become actual phantom cities, the urban bloodletting throttled down by drastic limits on legal behavior, and these roads of threat and promise suddenly abandoned by people going nowhere fast.