Spears and Callahan’s The Auteur opens with a dream-trip sequence that might as well be the first six issues in nutshell: a naked man swims through an undersea idea-space in search of creative inspiration. “I hunt the depths for something simple, honest, universal. I seek the truth.” The man passes a literal white whale and a school of eyeballs before achieving inspirational nirvana courtesy of an ax-wielding Abraham Lincoln who cleaves his head in twain with an axe. The man is down and out film producer Nathan T. Rex and if his next film, blood and gore slasher President’s Day, isn’t a hit, he’s finished.
Resembling what I imagine is John Waters' evil counterpart from Earth 3, T. Rex is a pill popping sleaze chasing his creative vision by whatever means necessary. The dismal failure of his latest multi-billion dollar blockbuster (“That’s right, billion with a B!” an expository paparazzo jeers) has left T. Rex desperate and he realizes, courtesy of a snake venom cocktail, that what “President’s Day” needs a murder consultant. And who better than real life college coed serial murderer Darwin, currently on trial?
The Auteur is a comic concerned with the process of the creative process. And not in the way that Oscar-bait movies about movies tend to be. The Auteur’s philosophies about the birthing of art are largely merciless in their honesty. For Nathan T. Rex, creative conception is selfish, even violent. When a starlet he hired purely based on the caliber of her breasts refuses to do a nude scene, T. Rex feeds her a bunch of manipulative BS about the power of art. “Good art is never easy. Creativity takes courage. To become truly immortal, an artist must escape all human limits.” For Nathan T. Rex, making art is not a righteous act, it’s often a criminal one as he finds himself ditching a growing pile of human remains into the ocean.
As a team, Spears and Callahan seem totally in synch in their gleeful perversity. Spears’ script makes it clear that T. Rex is, almost at all times, totally balls out of his mind on drugs so Callahan’s pages are filled to the brim with eye popping absurdity. Even when awake, we watch as a frustrated and impotent T. Rex and his toady assistant swim through waves of on-set extras dressed like spartan warriors or Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz. A dead woman’s ghost attempts to steal his soul as his body transforms into a pre-war iteration of Bugs Bunny. Are we seeing hallucinations from Nathan’s point of view or are these just the laws of the land in The Auteur? It’s, perhaps purposely, never clear but it sure makes for a good looking comic. Everything on the page, whether it's a bouncing decapitated head or swimming fish, is constantly in motion. Callahan’s art has a gooey, gelatinous texture to it and, together with Luigi Anderson’s half-chewed Starburst colors, The Auteur feels like it exists in a world with its own laws of physics.
The Auteur is at its best when it embraces vile honesty. We find T. Rex compelling not because he’s especially likeable or even competent as an artist, but because making the best schlocky slasher film he can is so important to him. The biggest weakness of the series’ first six issues is T. Rex’s lust-love for black actress Coconut, who develops from a distant object of physical lust to an interested relationship partner. By the end of issue six, we learn T. Rex made President’s Day specifically for Coconut, out of love. And while there’s some payoff in his realization of his movie’s true “missing piece”, we find ourselves asking if we even know who Coconut is? The reader doesn’t really know, and it seems unlikely even Nathan knows. Given the terrible things he’s done in the creation of his film, does he deserve her love? Although this is seemingly just the beginning of a larger story for Nathan T. Rex and company, it’s a bummer that first volume of The Auteur isn’t willing (or able) to swim a little deeper in those creative waters.