Contrary to some initial promises about all of the great punk rock albums Trump’s election was going to produce, the last several years have been (occasional bursts of ingenuity notwithstanding) rather tepid across the board in terms of producing well-executed satire, not to mention artfully articulated outrage. Perhaps it’s because people simply can’t come to terms with the levels of willful cruelty and purposeful ignorance on display. Maybe everyone is just too busy looking at their phones.
Regardless, it all makes the release of Josh Cotter’s infinite ©uck that much more remarkable. In this slim comic, Cotter manages to cut through the usual “oh let’s point out the obvious hypocrisy and make fun of the dumb thing they said” nonsense that makes for bad memes these days, and instead tries to survey the full wasteland that the U.S. (both online and off) has become, especially in Middle America. As you might expect, it’s not a pretty picture. But what makes ©uck worthy of praise is how it effectively uses satirical exaggeration for both humorous and horrific effects.
Serialized initially on his Instagram account, Cotter self-published the comic as an 11" x 17" newspaper broadsheet last fall once it was completed. The front cover stylistically resembles your typical daily newspaper (no doubt a wry nod to a swiftly-vanishing medium) but contains headlines that would not be too far afield of what runs across the ticker tape on Fox News, full of promises about dire, horrible things coming for you and yours. ARE YOU THEIR #1 TARGET Most Likely So Yes; Terror Designation Forthcoming; Warn The Elderly If You Even Care, reads one. FENTANYL TABLETS FOUND IN YOUR CHILD'S BREAKFAST CEREAL AND THEY ARE OKAY WITH THIS, reads another.
There’s a pretty obvious line to be drawn between this and the reams of text Chris Ware used to stuff in the pages of The ACME Novelty Library back in the day (Ware’s influence has loomed large over Cotter, most notably on his first major project, Skyscrapers of the Midwest). The actual 'articles' on that front page, however, are more like the jumbled half-speech typified by his 2009 graphic novel Driven By Lemons, mixed with the sort of buzzwords you see on certain Internet sites. For example:
“Hate crime classmates signal an embargo on why Religious Freedom still matters in this country. Late-term abortions question whether we should enforce vengeance on those who do ‘Good Stuff’. Honestly, you may as well have trouble from the state AG and their aggressive congressional flipflopping.”
As the lower right-hand corner notes, “But no need to worry, reader. Unlike Them, you’re free. Pure freedom. Pure. Freedom. An entire world, made in your special likeness. Everything is fine.” Consider it all a warning: when you turn the page, you will be heading into some very paranoid territory.
Let’s get to the story. After reading that “things are going to wrap up sooner than expected,” Cotter—distinguished by his beard, glasses, and abnormally large forehead—decides to take a stroll along his rural Missouri property looking for a lost goat. Along the way, in true Alice's Adventures in Wonderland fashion, he encounters a number of bizarre and increasingly unsettling characters. And, as in Wonderland, these characters can be more than a bit hostile and don’t take kindly to anyone questioning their worldview.
Neighbors and former classmates seem to not recognize Cotter, and accuse him of being “indoctrinated,” or worse, a “cuck.” An increasingly militarized cop (Officer Babypants - subtlety is not a quality to be found here) keeps threatening bodily harm. And there are even more sinister characters lurking about, most notably UNCLEAnon, a bug-eyed, spindly-limbed, salivating figure clad in the stars and stripes but more akin to Slenderman than the embodiment of the United States. The “real” Uncle Sam does make an appearance, but he becomes too entranced by smartphones to be of much help.
And help is needed. There is a horrendous fire across the river that no one seems to be willing to acknowledge. People watch the news on “Folx” television until they’re literally frothing at the mouth. The “Stuf” everyone consumes (shades of Larry Cohen!) is flooding the landscape, although no one seems to care too much about that that either. People cannot get Band-Aids for their gaping wounds. Anthropomorphic chicken fast-food workers must carve off pieces of their bodies to feed customers, all for the greater glory of Stuf Corp. Not to mention that you can’t get an actual person on the phone if you need to call a company about a problem these days.
I fear my summation of the plot makes this comic sound a little too obvious and on the nose. What makes infinite ©uck work so well, however, is that it happens to be very funny. Part of the key to that is Cotter’s portrayal of himself as a bewildered, Candide-ish innocent, a cartoonish gee whiz type who never really realizes the danger he’s frequently in and refuses to believe that authority figures wouldn’t have everyone’s best interests at heart, despite his pet goat's constant attempts to prove otherwise. (Goat: “Meh.” Cotter: “No, I refuse to believe a corporation endowed with legal personhood would deceive us.”)
Occasionally Cotter’s naïve mask breaks. In one section, he shuts down the spouting UNCLEAnon to question how the people the culture and people he grew up amidst have changed so drastically, so quickly. “How,” he asks, “do you turn a strikingly enormous portion of a population, millions of people, uniformly paranoid & viciously minacious?” Later on, he compares to society to a car driving off a cliff, which he then proceeds to spin around, Fast & Furious style, only to wake up in a hospital for his pains. Cotter is clearly very aware he is howling into the void here, lest the newsprint format didn’t give that game away already.
The humor here is pitch-black and frequently shifts to another tone Cotter is well versed in: horror. UNCLEAnon, who also poses as a Colonel Sanders American businessman type, and eventually Christ himself, constantly shifts between being a comical figure and something truly frightening, especially towards the end, when we see his true form (as it were).
Not all of it works. There’s a messianic figure, Yeshua, who serves as a passive observer throughout most of the proceedings, speaking Aramaic but not performing very many miracles until the next-to-last page. He’s obviously there as a reminder of what “true” Christianity represents—not to mention this country’s own knee-jerk racist attitudes—but he comes off as more a hanger-on than anything else (at least until that admittedly striking page), and a bit superfluous given the way Cotter’s goats serve as more effective foils. And, as a middle-aged man with ever-failing eyesight, I feel compelled to say that while I get the reasons behind publishing this on newsprint, the smudgy, low-res format, each page jammed with 20 or more panels, frequently forced me to ditch my glasses and hold the thing up against my face in order to make out what folks were saying.
Cotter is one of the sharpest cartoonists working today, from Skyscrapers to Lemons, and further cemented via his excellent ongoing sci-fi saga, Nod Away. infinite ©uck might end up becoming the side note he already seems to largely regard it as–an angry, confused rant at selfish, greedy forces beyond his control–but it gets to the genuine horror of living in post-Trump America better than any other comic to date.