The thing about Nathan Cowdry's Crash Site is that it makes you wonder whether masturbatory art is necessarily bad. Why define this book that is ostensibly just a surrealistic boundary-pushing crime/love story between a girl and a dog as masturbatory? First, it has numerous scenes of actual male masturbation. Second, it feels repetitive in a way designed to scratch particular prurient itches. All the women have the same face, the same tiny mouth and nose, big cheeks, smooth skin, heavy mascara eyes. They also have the same body, visible in a beach scene where three of them stand next to one another, like Barbies on a shelf. It’s in love with its women but not in a way that sees them as humans. Rosie, who is theoretically one of our three main characters, is seen mostly in various close-ups: her scratched-up legs, her groin, her armpit as she applies deodorant. Cowdry adores her, but it feels like googling “sexy teenager body heavy mascara” prior to settling in for a session with a bottle of lotion.
Let’s be clear: that’s not necessarily bad. People have itches. They need to scratch them. Much legitimate art is a process of itch-scratching repetition, even if it’s a little less obviously masturbatory. Monet painted his water lilies over and over again, and most people don't think of him as a relentless onanist. Is Cowdry making art for others or just for himself? It feels like the latter, but is there anything wrong with that? That's what termite art is, after all, a desire to please yourself as an artist rather than do something that the marketplace wants.
The other problem with the book is that it has a lot of “politically incorrect”/“anti-woke” stuff, which is off-putting. It feels like something created by an angry white dude. Maybe it’s a joke about anti-wokeness, but those are hard to land well. When a newlywed exclaims "fill my vagina with the joy of Christ" at the very beginning of the book, only to be confronted with a bound and eviscerated figure spilling blood and guts everywhere, is it satire or is it just the pursuit of lulz? When Denton (our dog critter protagonist) whacks off to a magazine called “Woke Babies” that features an “Apu Torture Fantasy” fueled by the punishment of the racially stereotypical Simpsons character, is it a statement that says contemporary folks who see themselves as woke are always on the lookout for the next thing at which to be outraged, in a neverending shame/shaming spiral? Or is it a cheap joke designed to lead to Denton referring to his semen as “white privilege”? Is the brutalization of a lifeguard who asks Rosie and her friends to cover up their naked bodies an expression of female power? Or is it another way for Cowdry to play with his Barbies as they commit violent acts and yell things like “Don’t fuck with my tan”?
I kept teetering between annoyance at Crash Site and liking it, which could be what Cowdry is striving for. Bratty is appealing to me generally, but sometimes it feels, well, deliberately irritating. The surrealism (a pair of murderous talking underpants that denies the Holocaust, half-animal/half-human characters) can feel played out. The tendency to go straight for sex and violence as a way to provoke a reaction is the same. I love sex and violence in my media. I, too, have experienced enough art that a sexy, murdery bit of it can feel new and exciting. But am I over that? Or is this just not very good? Fantagraphics is evoking Tarantino in its marketing for this book, and I’m worried that that’s true. I felt similarly about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which was either retrograde or such a convincing parody of that attitude that it was impossible to tell it apart from the real thing. After 15 months of seeing how callous a lot of people are, maybe I’m ready for some art that treats its audience and its characters more gently. Or maybe the talking underpants are just an excuse to draw a lot of close-up views of crotches.
On the other hand, there are things that are beautiful and interesting about Crash Site. The shadows feather in heavily from the sides of panels. The composition of pages is nice, although strange. I'm a little weirded out by the way Cowdry puts his dialogue balloons just outside the top of an otherwise enclosed panel, with the tail dipping down into it. The balloons themselves are unenclosed, which gives the pages with a lot of talking an unsettled look (p. 13). The lettering is creative, and there are patches of roughness, especially in hairlines, that contrast with the overall smoothness on display, producing a feeling like the forbidden fruit of pulling at a scab. There's also a hint of Charles Burns in the book, especially with the looming, Mandelbrot-ish trees all over the background, but the thing about Burns is that he is completely sincere and the thing about Cowdry is that it feels like he is not. Maybe that's the real distinction between masturbatory art that is successful and masturbatory art that is merely irritating: the artist has to be really into what they're making, and Crash Site is too invested in provoking a reaction to feel real.