Transgression: Squeak the Mouse

What’s your problem? Life’s a breeze.
First you run, and then you eat.

-Nomeansno, "Predators" (1995)

At first blush, it seems like Squeak the Mouse has one joke: Troma’s Tom and Jerry. What if ultra-slapstick and ultra-violence were rendered indistinguishable in a cat and mouse chase? This is no bad thing; many comics have survived on one joke for decades. That said, to effectively assess a joke, you first need to pinpoint exactly who the joke is on.

Squeak the Mouse was created by Massimo Mattioli in 1982. Mattioil was a towering figure in Italian comics, contributing deeply weird, transgressive and groundbreaking work to the infamous alternative magazine Frigidaire while also producing 40 years of Pinky, a comic which remained defiantly experimental while still aimed squarely at young readers. Mattioli’s career is too momentous for an explanatory paragraph; Simone Castaldi’s fantastic obituary is a more fitting look at his life and career.

On a fundamental level, Squeak the Mouse looks and reads great. You’ve got to know the rules to break them and, unsurprisingly, Mattioli’s total understanding of slapstick gag strip logic is evident on every page. Hands get unzipped, characters are beaten with word balloons, and backgrounds regularly disappear, replaced by a solid brick of color to emphasize the action.

The dizzying space battles of the last of this book's three collected albums are a particularly impressive balance of pages that flow easily panel-by-panel and become overwhelmingly riotous when viewed from a distance. The violence itself is compelling, oscillating between cartoon bounce and crime-scene-photography bluntness. The aftermath looks great too, falling somewhere between the foamy gore of Jose G. Angeles’ Psycho Shit Fuck and Abraham Díaz’s mastery of greasy viscera.

Yet, almost none of Mattioli’s giant body of work has been translated into English. Why then, instead of a collection of Joe Galaxy or a reissue of Superwest, is Fantagraphics releasing their own edition of a wordless comic which already had an release in English terrains?

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The writer Rafael Campos Rocha opens his introduction to a 2019 Brazilian edition of Squeak the Mouse with this statement: Não existe nada mais equivocado que dizer que um artista está à frente de seu tempo. There is nothing more wrong than claiming an artist is ahead of their time. This goes doubly so for transgressive humor. Nothing is more of its time than jokes or shock. It’s pretty obvious that Squeak the Mouse is an ultra-violent take on Tom and Jerry-style comic hijinks. This commentary by way of transgressive acceleration is a common approach in pop culture. It’s usually signaled by someone eagerly declaring it to be akin to a well-known piece of media on a drug they’ve never taken.

Again, a question arises. In 2022, what’s to be gained from an adult reading something as quaint as hardcore cartoon cat-and-mouse aside from the notional upset it could cause one of my four dead grandparents?

I don’t think the answer lies in the scant information provided about Squeak the Mouse in this new collection. Mattioli gets three words, “legendary Italian cartoonist,” and no more. In fact, aside from the comic looking great, the back cover only offers two other selling points.

The first is that Squeak the Mouse is “the missing pop cultural link” between, among other things, Tom and Jerry and the Itchy & Scratchy Show, the latter being The Simpsons’ recurring parody of Tom and Jerry. This excites people for the same reason shoplifting Life in Hell when I was 12 excited me. It’s difficult to make a piece of media “yours” when it’s popular, but if you know one of its secrets you win some of it back. This tactic was easier to defend when it prompted interesting stuff to be translated or reissued, but less so now that it’s the dominant paradigm for how all media is discussed. With corporate consolidation, more and more media is becoming obscure, and the only chance obscure media has to be noticed is to allow itself to be shrunk to the size of its alleged influence.

Tom and Jerry... but gnarly” is an easy idea to have; many have had it before. However, mere months before his death, Mattioli was still fielding questions about his potential status as a footnote in alternative comics’ biggest bank balance. Google Translate tells me his answer ended with “I don't want slavery, neither money, nor psychological.” This is good advice in general. It’s difficult to think of a more boring reason to read any comic than “The Simpsons was popular.”

In addition to shoplifting Life in Hell, I was also 12 when I realized I could look up murders on the internet. This means 12-year olds have been able to see murders on the internet for at least 20 years. Reddit, the 19th-most visited website in the world, had an active subreddit accurately named WatchPeopleDie until 2019. Still today, a cottage industry of YouTubers pumps out content for teenagers on the rumored terrible potential, some kind of Murder+, of the dark web. They publish these videos on a website that underpays masses of people to delete the thousands of crimes against humanity uploaded there daily.

With everything out in the open for so long, this need for something, anything, to be illicit and inaccessible has become an intoxicating sales pitch: see something “they” don’t want you to see.

In this spirit, the second back cover selling point for Squeak the Mouse is that it was “seized and deemed 'obscene' by US customs” in 1985. This also appears in the same sentence as the phrase “[r]arely accessible in the United States.” The implication is clear: somehow, you’re holding contraband material. Twenty years after the seizure of Squeak the Mouse, I sat at the US/Canadian border and saw another kind of contraband get seized and destroyed by customs. It belonged to my dad. It was blueberries. It’s always good to have a little more context.

Upon learning the full details, Squeak the Mouse’s seizure by customs becomes a lot more interesting but, admittedly, a little less tantalizing. After a two-day jury trial, Squeak the Mouse was found not obscene insofar as it did not appeal to prurient interests upon application of contemporary local community standards, and the books were released to publisher Catalan Communications. “Except for one distributor who cancelled an order, others increased theirs," remarked Catalan head Bernd Metz in Comics Interview #35 the following year. Catalan had increased the price of the book to offset court costs, and applied a sticker to each previously-seized copy detailing the trial and assuring the reader: “By purchasing this book, you have supported the fight for rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

Image from an eBay listing.

Of course, it’s still worthy of discussion that there was an attempt to level censorship of this severity at the book. But 'unanimously declared to not be obscene by a jury shortly before sales were boosted by this attention' puts something of a damper on the promise of lawlessness. Meanwhile, my dad never got those blueberries back. When will Fantagraphics have the courage to reissue them?

* * *

It’s impossible to talk about banned or censored books at the moment, especially one with “Mouse” in the title, without recalling how Art Spiegelman’s Maus was recently banned by a Tennessee school board. It doesn’t matter that it’s still easy to buy Maus. It matters even less that the sales of Maus went up after the ban. This is a fucked, insidious action undertaken by people who know exactly what they’re doing.

Last month, a variant cover for an upcoming issue of a Fantagraphics comic called Red Room: Trigger Warnings was published online. This cover parodied Maus, adding tortured prisoners in restraints. Maus is about the Holocaust. People pointed out the cover was a bad idea. Fantagraphics and the artists involved, who had previously mutually agreed to publish the cover, immediately mutually agreed to unpublish the cover, and issued an apology. The other variants will still go on sale.

In that apology, cover artist Jim Rugg claimed he “did not consider how this would affect people.” Maus is about the Holocaust. Rugg's statement seems especially strange when working on a series called “Trigger Warnings” which notionally seeks to offend everyone. Considering the tone taken by the comic’s marketing, it is stranger still to completely give in to the offended within hours of the initial complaints.

This immediate unconditional surrender made Red Room’s glib cover claim of being banned in an arbitrary number of countries somehow even more embarrassing. Ed Piskor, the main creative behind Red Room who initially tweeted the cover with a popcorn emoji, has issued no apology. He instead settled for silent, total capitulation. This difference in response could relate to each artist's more mainstream work. Piskor's solo Marvel series, X-Men: Grand Design, is finished and collected. Rugg’s Hulk: Grand Design is still running, so he's likely to be more mindful of public backlash.

A few years ago, there was another take on Maus. It was called Katz. Its cover listed no author or publisher. In Maus, Jewish people are depicted as mice and Germans are depicted as cats. Katz is identical to Maus in every way aside from depicting all the various animal figures as cats. Flammarion, Maus’ French publisher, uncovered who was responsible for the book and sought a court injunction against them for copyright violation. La Cinquième Couche, the Belgian publisher responsible, couldn’t afford to fight the case and pulped the rest of the books.

Interior sample from Katz, from artist Ilan Manouach's website.

Katz was a deliberately provocative act of art as criticism. It engages a work that is widely revered as a touchstone for comics-as-literature in a way that explicitly indicts the original. It is in critical dialogue with Maus’ status, for good or for ill, as a canonical work of art about the Holocaust. The Red Room variant cover was designed to remind people of a thing. Only one of these works benefits from the Listserv libertarian approach of flattening all “banned” and “transgressive” literature to somehow include Maus, Red Room and Katz in one vague category.

* * *

A real danger of transgression is the tedium when done for its own sake. Often, this can be even more miserable than an extended sales pitch. In the 2000s, Edwin Borsheim’s band Kettle Cadaver developed a small following based on how he mutilated himself on stage. He pushed bolts through his scrotum and needles through his neck. He stapled parts of himself together. He wrapped barbed wire around his head. He was motivated by his own disgust of bands preaching murder on record and good server room cable management etiquette in real life. He treated his band and his life as a project to take extreme music literally, pushing it to what he saw as its logical endpoint. Both sucked for all involved.

Thankfully, Squeak the Mouse does not just staple its scrotum at you over and over. It has a second joke, and tells its first precisely once. The opening five pages are an almost straight-faced rendering of the kind of mild peril you’d see in any Warner Brothers cartoon. On the sixth page, The Cat rips Squeak’s head off, throws it against the wall and eats his body. He cleans his teeth with a bone beside a pile of viscera. The End.

Because the best genre fiction is the skillful execution of a simple idea with a compelling ending, spinning a success into a franchise regularly creates problems. Often strange and wonderful ideas emerge from the desperate attempts to tell the same joke with different punchlines. For instance, the surreal energy of the Saw franchise stems from its insistence on creating eight sequels despite the antagonist having late-stage terminal cancer in the first installment.

Squeak the Mouse justifies itself by turning its initial joke on its head. It takes the gag strip loop of a constantly resetting status quo and brutally stretches it over some of the most base genres, so that the cat vs. mouse joke is reprised in the context of slasher and zombie films, sex movies, and alien world sci-fi. Punishingly detailed images depicting the finality of death and ejaculation are cycled over and over again, but any progression is impossible; another variation lies just ahead. Mattioli’s formal mastery is what makes this happen. The book doesn’t merely pack the signifiers of horror, porn and sci-fi into the wacky kids' comic format. Instead, it presents a glib-but-skilled interweaving of the attendant tropes, using its 12-panel grid to simultaneously show anticipation, event and aftermath. By never deviating from those 12-panel layouts, the comic achieves a kind of pulsing, rippling effect. This rigor allows no reprieve from the doomed purgatory of the loop. Like the art it serves to describe, Squeak the Mouse uses a massive bag of tricks to confront the reader with sameness, one which it doesn't flinch from underlining.

“Mild Peril” kids' comics and slashers still have the same format demands. Ideally: a chase you haven’t seen before (usually the most difficult); a battle of wits; and a climax you haven’t seen before. This isn’t the only equivalence Squeak the Mouse draws. It starts out with slasher cheesecake and eventually settles on pornography.

* * *

Porn is fundamental to the history of comics in the 20th century. Still, even those critical circles who take it seriously usually discuss it at a remove, as if out there a kind of Spiders Georg figure is maniacally driving up the porn purchasing average for everyone else. That anyone involved in the discussion would be using porn as porn isn’t even really contemplated.

There is a lot of porn in Squeak the Mouse. Not the kind of porn Fantagraphics puts out today: deluxe reissues of artistic, singular erotic works, overflowing with explanatory essays. Instead, the book recalls the no-nonsense functionality of Fantagraphics' Eros Comix imprint of the 1990s with titles like “Stop, or My Load Will Shoot!” or “Quizzical Cousin Gene” or “Stormy Night at Suck-Off Mountain”.

The sex scenes in Squeak the Mouse are referred to as “sexcapades” on the back cover. This brings to mind British slapstick comedies set in nudist camps or, at a push, the grotesque punchline extremity which frequently crops up in Johnny Ryan’s work. Squeak the Mouse is entirely different. Early on, in the party/slasher section, sex is in the air but is only shown fleetingly. By the end of the first album, Mattioli has gone full, standard-issue porn comics, unsparingly biological panels cycling through stock poses. Time moves most slowly in these scenes; there is an insistence on showing ejaculation. Just like the comic’s other definitive acts, the ostensible completion of orgasm is never true - rather, it is shunted into the same unceasing loop as death, often moments after.

It could be argued that the joke here is that it’s a cartoon cat or mouse fucking these women. However, it is an inescapable fact—even in 1982 but especially 40 years later—that for a not-insignificant demographic it is, in fact, a deadly serious requirement that a cat or mouse be fucking these women.

The back cover claims the “gratuitous bloodshed is merely a warm-up” for these “over-the-top sexcapades.” In fact, Squeak the Mouse makes its point the other way around. As the comic progresses and these sexualized caricatures become more and more simplified, their murders become exponentially more brutal. Women are shown splayed in the same poses, with their legs sliced away or their heads pulled off.

This is, of course, a very paternalistic and 1980s approach. The comic makes the classic, laughable miscalculation of characterizing porn and gore as somehow “not for women.” There seems to be an assumption these naked, mutilated bodies can only stand in accusation of the reader’s misogyny and could never disturb any readers who might see themselves on that page. It's totally reasonable to feel like half of the planet Earth is theoretically excluded from the audience for Squeak the Mouse, albeit in a way that reflects the time. I'd say, however, that the audience is a lot more narrow than that anyway. This isn't for people who already find this objectionable.

Right near the end, The Cat stands over the dead body of an alien nurse he had graphic sex with a page before. He spends two panels holding her severed breasts in tearful contemplation. A page later, the final sex act in the book occurs. The Cat finds an alien porn magazine and happily masturbates. The feeling of essentially watching someone jack off should be familiar to every genre fan.

* * *

The further I read Squeak the Mouse, the more it conjured a sense of de-idealization, a concept posited by novelist and essayist Bruce Benderson in his introduction to Diary of an Innocent, a novel by the militant pro-pedophile, anti-matriarchal author Tony Duvert. Benderson talks about how idealization is an essential component of human life, a “reluctance in almost any discourse (excluding vulgar satire) to discuss or provide examples of certain activities we engage in regularly, such as defecation.” Benderson’s contention is that art that seeks extremes without a wink or apology begs the question “and how pretty would you look with your soul bared to this extent?”

In Squeak the Mouse, obstacles are destroyed; families whose bland bowdlerization is signaled by their fatness are immediately dispatched and all women are not just sexually available but sexually available right that second. Mattioli compresses pitched space battles, slasher violence and wacky hijinks to show their pacing, execution and meaning are interchangeable.

Mattioli’s pre-gore pop culture references extend to some Disney characters. But as the violence gets more adult, so do the cultural touchpoints. In the slasher/party scene, characters listen to alternative records like Heaven 17's Play to Win 7" and the Shock Treatment soundtrack. This eventually evolves into The Cat being confronted with real stills from The Exorcist, Videodrome and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Being an Italian genre artist interpolating slasher logic, it’s natural Mattioli’s cat-and-mouse gore is often compared to Fulci and Argento. It’s worth noting, however, that all of the stills come from North American horror films.

Porn stills and porn magazines also make their appearance. The cat’s horniness is briefly reflected by his eyes turning to photographs of vulvas with the familiar muddied print of porn at the time. In a particularly inspired sequence, a duck brings Squeak back to life by putting a previous issue of the comic through his 2D to 3D machine. Squeak’s resurrection is incidental - the duck immediately runs to his porn collection, illustrated by the pasted-in cover of a real magazine, and picks a model to make real.

Mattioli’s head-spinning comics logic takes off here with the cartoon duck running this photograph of a real woman into his 2D to 3D machine, rendering her a cartoon. Their sex gets too loud for Squeak and he shoves the lever the other way, freezing a mournful-looking duck and model forever in a single image. More annihilated progress.

This encompassing of not just tropes but genre images from other media only amplifies the accusation at the heart of Squeak the Mouse. Every few pages I was haunted with the knowledge I’d spent a large portion of my life seeking out fringe genre fiction. Worse still, I’ve spent a similarly significant portion of my life thinking embarrassing, overwrought things about genre fiction like “The further I read Squeak the Mouse, the more it conjured a sense of de-idealization...” Sometimes I even type these thoughts out and put them on a website.

Jaime Hernandez drew some of the most classically beautiful romance comic characters ever and then let them get older while insisting on their beauty. Lale Westvind wrote one of the greatest action comics of our time while depicting no combat. Both Love and Rockets and Grip upended the basic assumptions of their ideal readers and did so while still being excellent comics. Though it may be marketed as a mere shock book and, briefly, a former victim of puritanical mores, Mattioli’s insistence his form be as perverse as his subject matter means Squeak the Mouse is also in this pantheon.

The real challenge of this book is not leveled at people who would be offended by the violent or sexual content. There’s nothing but money to be gained from their theoretical shock. Squeak the Mouse is most useful as a provocation in context. It levels a challenge at people who actively seek out grotesque violence and barbaric sexual content for a transgressive thrill. We’re not pioneers or firebrands for habitually consuming this stuff. When you get right down to it, we’re still wading in the dopamine rush of the very first media we consumed. That’s all, folks.