- Lange’s Zine
When I was drinking at “Dirty Frank’s,” in the mid-'60s, it was regularly observed within my fashionably depressed circle that no one ever moved to Philadelphia, unless it was from someplace smaller than Reading. Sure, things change in 50 years; but even now, learning that Aaron Lange—whose “great, funny stuff” Robert Crumb has celebrated, which, for a cartoonist like Lange, must have felt like Adam receiving the touch of God in DaV inci’s ceiling—had relocated there from Cleveland drew my attention. Lange’s explanation that the reason for his migration was Philly’s being a “grungy, drug-infested, racist, violent shit-hole” doubled it.
Lange was born in 1981. His father was a banker. His mother, following a divorce when Lange was eleven, became a secretary for a church. Lange’s younger sister works for a non-profit which aids children. His younger brother makes “guerilla videos” and works graveyard at a kennel. Lange himself, after graduating CCAD, a Fine Arts major whose illustrations had left faculty members scratching their heads, worked in a book store, record store, gay video store, and printing factory. For several years, he washed dishes; for the last four, he’s tended bar.
That bio reads like an artist could emerge. But it gives little indication what kind.
Since 2013, Lange has been on a comic-a-year jag with Trim (The Comix Company), a 28-page, five-and-a-half-by-eight-and-a-half-inch, color-covered, black-and-white of, to use his word, “transgressive” humor, which reads like a 3AM walk down a back alley, with windows you didn’t expect opening into shops you can’t quite believe were licensed, and from whose contents you slightly recoil, only to recognize enough relief at their public availability that, while stepping faster to flee, you stare more intently at each one. Then you turn around to check you weren’t mistaken. (Trim’s predecessor, Romp, reads like an alley you – unless your sensibility comes more sturdily carapaced than mine – step into, and then withdraw to spend twenty minutes scraping your shoe clean on the curb. Romp is an – okay, perhaps necessarily boundary-busting – exercise in its gleeful expression of effrontery; but I found it a positive for Lange’s maturation that, with Trim, his characters no longer discharge bodily fluids upon their sexual partners as tokens of their affections.)
Lange, though, still displays a uniquely configured, mind, capable of scooping from the cultural souk references to and “appreciations” of such figures as Damien Hirst, Georges Bataille, William Burroughs, Zoe Lund, Elliot Rodgers, and Slavoj Zizek, which, you have to admit, is quite a collection of cats to stuff into one sack. (Reading Lange, it helps to keep Wikipedia handy. Me, I knew two of those six, unassisted.)
Trim’s laffs come in varied sizes, styles and shadings. Lange’s mini-ventures tend to string together single-panel gags, like rim shots, around a unifying theme. “Do You Wanna...”?”, he may inquire, “Get a stiff drink? Puke in the sink?... Buy a round? Wake up on the ground?” He illustrates each query with a blast of gotcha, no-holds-barred art. (The blacks are bold, the lettering free-wheeling; cocks bulge and vaginas lie open.) He may spin through a series of sensitivity-probing, play-on-words pictures, like might occupy an XXX-rated postcard rack: “Ear Muff”; “Butt Plug.” You get the idea. Or he may run off a multi-page fantasy about having a “Sexy Alcoholic Girlfriend,” detailing her physical flaws, kinky sex habits, psychological weirdness, and climaxing with the lipstick-stained glass and hair-clogged shower drain left behind when she splits. Despite all it would cost, he concludes, with poignancy and candor, “sometimes I think it would be COOL...”
Lange’s lengthier efforts include “Where Have All the Cool Faggots Gone?”, which toasts Anger, Pasolini, Genet, and others for their “dangerous swagger” and “outsider perspective,” while trashing their successors who “dialed down” their art, as if for “an apology for AIDS, like Keith Haring with his “candy-colored squibbles.” Lange yearns for gays, jauntily sporting leather caps, “ready to be fist-fucked by Robert Mapplethorpe,” not homogenized for network television sit-coms or “the kinda fag yer mom reads.” Then there is “Vietnam Tom,” ten three-panel gag strips, each part of an ongoing bar conversation, the passage of time noted only by changes in Tom’s and Lange’s dress and the holidays they reference. These strips’ humor is built upon stuff-of-life remarks about Quaaludes, oxycodone, crack whores, a “gook-ear necklace,” and a “Fry Mumia” t-shirt, like they were Dagwood’s sandwich or Charlie Brown’s football. Something weightier comes from the final panel’s revelation, situated between drawings of a shot glass and peace sign, that actual “Tom” died while Lange’s had page two in progress, missing out on the recognition, even honor the story bestowed.
Trim also contains extended autobiographical stories. “Clear Autumn Day” recounts Lange’s flirtation with Scientology, adding little to an understanding of it, but providing the author opportunity to document his unprecedented amount of “DEEP negatives.” But “Dog and Kitty”, about which more later, is terrific, and “Bummer Vacation” has its moments. In it, a balding, Bukowski-bearded, Goodwill-clad (I’m guessing) Lange bails on his job at a trendy restaurant, shoots up with heroin, and walks out on his wife – about whom we learn nothing, except that she considers Lange “the worst thing to ever happen to me” – to bus eight hours to Cleveland to move in with his mother. Over the next few weeks, Lange drinks with her, He drinks with his brother. He drinks with an old friend who still lives in his parents’ basement. Lange also takes long, solitary bike rides by the haunts of his past: fast food joints, comic book stores, ice cream stands, a miniature golf course, all closed, all vacant lots or decrepit relics, all disappeared. All children, too, have vanished from the scene.
When Lange returns to Philly to find his former employer has gone "tits up," he feels "vindicated." “I had,” he realizes, "the whole world by the balls." (His drawing of himself in this moment even radiates "heroic.") At first, this reaction seems puzzling, unprepared for, not prefigured by plotting convention. But it is consistent with the moment-to-moment cosmology Lange’s art may be said to express. If, as he’s experienced, disappearance is the ordering principle of the universe, why not exalt whenever the chance for exaltation is served?
Lange works from a desire to share an I-have-been-where-you-have-not consciousness. This calling comes not from a self expanded by treks into previously unexplored geographic terrain. His mind has not been blasted into epiphany by war or revolution. Nor is he interested in recounting his triumph over tub loads of childhood abuse. What brings Lange to the page is a realization that his day-to-day doings, which would cause most folk to drop their doughnuts, are as ordinary to him as one-hour commutes are to them. Lange seems interested both by the extraordinariness of what his clock’s cycle brings, as well as documenting his, more or less, indifference to it.
Paramount among his deviancies is the H. It doesn’t seem to have led him into his life’s corners but, like Georges Bataille, was something he picked up when he arrived there. Either way, Lange's matter-of-fact acceptance of smack is a defining statement. While the sensationalistic sex-and-drugs angle to Lange's work may account for its initial appeal (and probably attract most of his audience), it is this non-judgmental aspect which gives Trim depth and causes it to linger in one’s thoughts.
Take the previously mentioned “Dog and Kitty.” Its eponymous cental characters are a “scruffy” “burn out” and his 16-year-old girl friend, drug dealers whom Lange meets through junkie friends. Dog and Kitty are into guns, Nazi porn, bestiality, and walking around in Grouch Marx glasses and false nose-and-mustaches. Their business aspirations include a basement marijuana farm, following Phish around the country to sell dope to hippies, and offering Kitty’s services for $50 (“No fag shit”) gang bangs. Dog’s proudest achievement is having killed some “Spick” who tried to rob the liquor store in which he worked. This is quite a CV, but Lange’s only judgment is that “For scumbags... (they) were pretty trustworthy.” And at story’s end, when he learns that they have broken up, his reaction is to lament, “If Dog and Kitty can’t make it, who can?”
Yeah, you can say that’s irony talking. Or you can argue Lange’s just burnishing his own deprav-cred. But I prefer a more generous response. My point is, people like Dog and Kitty are out there. (A smaller point is that, aside from the fellow robbing the liquor store, there’s no report of them harming anyone. Victimless crime ‘n’ all that, y’know; so to semi-quote Rodney King,can’t we be Libertarians together?) With that in mind, note that the way to bodhichitta, according to the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, is not to move out of the world onto mountaintops, metaphoric or literal, but to sink into its depths. “Instead of transcending the suffering of all creation...,” she writes in When Things Fall Apart, “move toward the turbulence... jump into it... slide into it... explore the reality... of insecurity and pain...” Only by taking in others’ suffering, feeling compassion for them, and recognizing one’s kinship with all beings, is spiritual awakening achieved.
I’m not sure Chodron had drug-addicted, Nazi porn-viewing, RK-47 packing, group (“No fag shit”) sex soliciting, German shepherd- wooers in mind; but Dog and Kitty seem about as depth-dwelling as you can get. Which suggests Lange just may have more Buddha nature going for him than most. At the least, he draws like the devil and writes with a key to vaults of thought that can keep you up nights, reconsidering assumptions.