Have you ever felt spiritually lost? Not necessarily “looking for answers,” the sort of weakness psychics and Scientologists prey upon, but generally adrift and numb, on autopilot the way one is when very tired. Recently I felt this way for what might have been weeks or months. I’d drifted into it so gradually I couldn’t tell you when it began, only that it seemed plausible that, once reached, it could continue indefinitely. This feeling of losing so much of the texture that once made up a life could be understood as feeling like a dream, though if so it was a dream only of the most banal aspects of daily existence, without the enervating interruption of the significant. If it were possible to die without noticing, maybe that had happened.
Mike Taylor’s book In Christ There Is No East or West begins with its lead character having what is possibly a panic attack, before the rest of the narrative unfolds in an oneiric state, where he wanders a landscape that might be best understood as a Bardo, a space between death and rebirth, though it’s never explicitly identified as such. It is from the very beginning as gripping as the cataclysm it describes, impactful as a car crash, a jolt you will remember.
Taylor’s artwork is visceral and immediate, occupying space on the Raymond Pettibon/Gary Panter continuum. It is pretty easy to see the debt to Panter on any page of this comic, but Taylor also has a substantial body of single-image “fine art” that incorporates the use of text in a Pettibon-like way. This is the lineage of the good kind of “punk art,” and Taylor is definitely the good kind of punk, committed to the exploration of diverse bodies of knowledge without entering into or replicating hierarchical systems. I recently learned, from a Twitter thread Nate Powell posted about his formative influences, that a decade before I encountered Taylor’s work he was collaborating with the now deceased zine-maker and zine-library-maintainer Travis Fristoe, to whom this book is dedicated, and had work published in the zine HeartattaCk. (The H and C are both capitalized to signal coverage of hardcore.)
I first encountered Taylor's work in his gag panel strip “Monkey Vision”, which ran on the Mothers News comics page. Brian Chippendale also had a one-panel strip there, and it is easy to relate the two artists to each other. Both of their styles are rooted in the democratically accessible medium of silkscreen printing, and they share Panter’s “ratty line,” though they have separate approaches to a comics page and how the eye navigates it, with Taylor preferring a more elastic relationship to rhythm and layout. I haven’t encountered anything from Taylor that’s seemed so otherworldly as to be difficult to grasp; nothing I've seen from him seems like the work of a total maniac, the way that Jimbo in Purgatory, Pettibon’s large-scale collages, or Maggots do. I have prints from a series he did about the use of heavy-metal music in the psychological torture of detainees suspected of being terrorists. In these, he’s able to conjure up visceral feelings through presenting things with specific cultural contexts stripped of that context. This essentially weaponizes them, which the torturers knew, and Taylor reminds us: His audience might know who Deicide is, but without the construct of the culture the band is originally designed to exist inside, we would be confronted with something beyond our understanding. In a single image, he’s able to convey this idea of the twenty-first century as a collage that is essentially hell. In his piece for the 2012 Monster anthology, such skills at juxtaposing well-chosen elements made him effective telling a story of discomfiting gothic horror. Here, the title gets taken from a hymn and applied to a story of a post-death space where a compass would be useless: The invocation of religion is used to signpost the presence of death, which religion helps people cope with.
His drawing pulls off a similar trick of recontextualization: There’s echoes of Pablo Picasso and Philip Guston, fine artists whose work can be understood in relation to cartooning. In this book’s pages, we get black ink with a painterly brushstroke, conveying both immediacy and textural depth. The world depicted has a presence that feels both real and metaphysical; the marks make a landscape to survey and a void to stare into simultaneously. There’s an implied removal of a distance between the main character and his creator: It feels spiritually autobiographical, as the wandering takes him into a world that feels conjured into being as it’s experienced for the first time. These abstracted landscape backgrounds are then set off against total loose goofball humor cartooning in the foreground, though occasionally these lines cohere gracefully into realist portraiture, revealing our nameless protagonist to not be a cartoon’s stylization at root but a possessor of a recognizably human face that caricature swirls around for the sake of expediency and emotional effect.
At points, a cubist approach provides a third eye, a clue to how his journey should be read. The character’s journey is internal, and we should look inside ourselves to make sense of it. The character is a stand-in for us, the reader and the cartoonist both. There is the energy of a sketchbook to the spontaneous feel of each page’s layout, though the words feel chosen with poetry’s authority. The rants and raves complaining about the world found in so many alternative comics here are transmuted into the self-analysis of a long walk to clear one’s head.
The book’s focus on a young man, with each page generating a new set of moods and feelings so that the cumulative effect of reading of them in sequence is one of transformation, marks it as feeling closer in spirit to Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise than anything else I’ve read. It also seems like the guy who lets the main character sleep on his floor is meant to look like Gary. Even the book’s basic premise recalls a sentiment that gets spoken aloud in Panter’s comics: Recall Henry Webb’s “I hope I’m not bit in half and don’t know it,” as a punchline to a page in the Zongo series, or Jimbo’s “Have you ever had a dream where you knew you were dreaming, but it was so real that you didn't trust your judgment” monologue at the start of Adventures in Paradise. I consider these some of the best comics ever, but they’re long out of print; and the kids, by which I do not mean actual children, but instead refer to anyone disenfranchised at the moment, a group which includes youth but is also interchangeable with “the punks” or “the proletariat,” deserve something with that energy to serve as a north star.
The coexistence of “punk” as reflective of one sort of beliefs and a hippied-out approach to spiritual journeying shouldn’t be too hard for anyone in 2019 to understand. However, it’s arguable this sort of shared subcultural allegiance has the band the Meat Puppets as its progenitor, and the landscape where this comic takes place is essentially that described, lyrically and musically, on their record Up on the Sun: it’s a desert fit for spiritual journeying, where humor and profundity emerge out of confused wandering. Taylor’s lines squiggle across the page with the clarity of melodies in the air, by my synesthetic reckoning. However, let me offset such hippie rambling with some punk-style practical advice: The way out of my personal feeling of a spiritual desert was basically to cut down on caffeine in favor of drinking more water. This advice exists within Taylor’s comic as well, where the journey of reading it is punctuated with full-page, full-color drawings of fountains, foreshadowing a conclusion that blooms and sprawls through the white space with lush and vibrant colored pencil drawings, hopefully leaving the reader to feel as renewed as the soil after several seasons of death and rebirth.