In Carlos Gonzalez's "Star Power" (2014), included in Floating World Comics' recent collection of Gonzalez's shorter works, Wasp Video Roadhouse, an aging singer sits in a small room, recording her memoirs on tape. She opens with her first moment of inspiration, when she was just a kid watching a different aging singer, far past her days of glory and brilliance, perform before an apathetic crowd. Years later, when our memoirist goes back into the studio to record a comeback album, she recalls this experience, saying: "It felt for the first time in many years, like I was capturing that feeling I got from Marilyn Rona at the State Fair. This warped balance of carelessness and poetry." This warped balance of carelessness and poetry! Sometimes a critic must be thankful for being served a turn of phrase on a silver platter. The protagonist's so-called comeback is a resounding failure, hated by just about everyone. She takes off her robe to reveal a warped, emaciated body (Gonzalez loves to torture the human figure), and speaks to a heretofore unmentioned observer, standing outside. "Where are we?" she asks. The observer looks around, distraught. "Hell," he answers.
I'm thinking of all the clichés that beg to be dispensed: (1) that Wasp Video Roadhouse is a book whose format almost defeats its own function, being a paperback of 256 pages whose neatly handsome presentation belies the decade of seediness and grime it collates; (2) that its contents are not to be understood but rather experienced, as Carlos Gonzalez is the true embodiment of that unheimlichkeit most often reduced by marketing hucksters to 'Lynchianism' (I love the man's work, but why must it always come back to him?), which many a comic creator has reached for and fallen utterly short; (3) that the scratchy immediacy of his line is an aesthetic assault whose perfectly articulated objective is to negate—nay, to annihilate!—the bourgeois anti-aesthetic of cleanliness, by which any lack of polish (or at least the appearance of such) is the worst of assaults.
And that, really, is my problem. Wasp Video Roadhouse is a testament to why a cliché is a cliché - because it is, fundamentally, God's honest truth, in so unabashed a way that we creatures of kneejerk irony must turn away. It is precisely for this reason that the book is so difficult to write about. It is often difficult book to read, especially if you, like me, tend to take in a book in one sitting. Others before me have written about Gonzalez's stylistic kinship to Fletcher Hanks, whose core artistic sensibility was a form of adolescence set to paper, a raw quality that at least partially eludes straightforward critique. The art of the true outsider, as ever, resists the assessment of an insider's lens.
This alien approach, as modified by creators such as Shaky Kane or Ebisu Yoshikazu, is certainly shared by Gonzalez. Surrealist elements are engaged through an unwavering solidity; that is to say, what the reader perceives as surreal is treated in the text as almost mundane, or close enough that its presence is, in itself, not cause for alarm. Gonzalez, though, is a far cruder cartoonist than the above, reminding me of Hariton Pushwagner. I've never liked the term "primitivism," or anything from that linguistic root that tends toward a monocultural view of aesthetic development, but Gonzalez's work is fundamentally defined by a function-minded, monotextural immediacy of style. His cartooning is resolute and unvarying in its line weight; its spatiality is planar and flattened in the absolute, and its mediating environments, more often than not, exist only as floating non-geometrical objects or blobs, just for atmospheric implication.
It can be grating, and it can be brilliant - it can be so much of both as to prompt one to wonder if there is a difference. Either way, there is, for better or worse, a lack of aesthetic compromise in Gonzalez's work; as is often the case, the work of the outsider also becomes about the outsider, often not leaving room for much beyond the very act of confrontation. This becomes textually evident in the final piece of the book, "Toy Collector" (2021). There is, to be sure, a resentment there, toward that most derided of consumer cultures of which Gonzalez is perceived as an alternative. In what can almost be described as an inverse to Seth's Wimbledon Green, Gonzalez tells the story of an adult in acute regression following a traumatic accident. He begins to take comfort in the products of his youth, with no regard for the incessant reminders of the inherent finitude of the past. A pivotal point in the story is his meeting with the writer of a favorite childhood comic of his. The writer is not impressed with our protagonist, telling him that it was "one of the most flat, inert pieces of trash I ever wrote," underscoring the childhood element as the key part. "It's like eating a cheeseburger every day. It may be comforting, but it's mostly sad and unhealthy," the writer says. "But, I eat three cheeseburgers every day," our protagonist says. Seeing as Gonzalez professes to find the bulk of his inspiration in the same comics of his youth, from Jack Kirby to Jim Starlin, there is more than a bit of self-awareness there; it reads as though these comics are an urgent warning to himself as much as to his readers.
Media and entertainment certainly play an important role in Gonzalez's world. The longest piece in the book, "Lost Canyon" (2013), revolves around the taping of a game show called Dark Territory. The host comes out onto a small indoor stage, and describes what is visible behind him: a woman on a ridge, picking berries, calm and content, not knowing where she is (indeed, the reader also strains to understand the spatial connection between the indoor studio and the woman's outdoor surroundings). "I'd like to remind her," the host says, "she's walking in… dark... territory." The host presses a button on a remote control. "She's melting!" one viewer observes, as another replies "Cool." Another asks "Is it special effects?" His cohort responds "Who cares?" Again, that resentment toward the consumer asserts itself. "Consumer," in fact, is almost too active a descriptor for the nightmare figures of Gonzalez's story; certainly there are works to be consumed, but the people are completely apathetic. A major problem with Plato's cave: sometimes those shadows on the wall are just cool as fuck.
What must an artist do under such conditions? Judging by Carlos Gonzalez's work, the answer is simple: grow more overt in one's self-becoming. Let nothing remain: only that warped balance of carelessness and poetry. Isn't that just what makes it art?