Still an all-time favorite.
Still an all-time favorite.
Julia Gfrörer’s “Phosphorous” opens with a crying young man arriving at a pond. His first words, which appear before him are “fuck you, fuck you dad”. And thus begins a short but dense unpacking and subversion of the traditional representations of masculinity in patriarchal society. It is in this deconstruction where beautiful horror streams in, and Gfrörer is able to construct a piece of sublime weight.
Male tears are something of a rare bird in the dominant fiction of our culture, and so upon their materialization you do kind of have to lap them up with a particular fervent earnestness. In Julia Gfrörer’s “Phosphorous”: our starting point is a man in the woods. This stone chucking man, with his pack of things, cuts something of an archetype of the self-sufficient capable man under whose foot nature bends in hierarchical accordance. But that image is mixed in with tears and volatile emotions. His principle struggle between himself and his father, which he expresses through sexualized obscenities, is presented here as a kind of hysteria. This is the son who cock in hand, wishes to assert his virility over his father, and in so doing ascend into adult alpha-malehood. It is a primordial struggle between father and son—and by mixing that with tears, we are presented the image of masculinity as rooted in an emotional struggle and perhaps not entirely within control of its own faculties. It is not without importance that he has left his father, to come to this pond to and meet his obscene repressed dark mother; and it is not without mirrored appropriateness that the interactions between the two will also be sexual in its nature.
What is interesting with the man’s relationship to the woman in the pond is that rather than following the mold of the dominant patriarchal cultural representations, wherein it is the woman who is regressed by sex—here we see the man turned into the cooing monosyllabic child face of ecstasy. While the former is not a truth, but a cliche, Gfrörer has inverted it al the same—and even though the woman in the pond is constantly shown beneath the man, she is in complete control of him from that position. She has him by the balls. This is still a depiction of masculinity—but there is a recontextualization from father-daughter imagery to mother-son imagery. We see this repeatedly in the comic as the woman cradles and comforts the man throughout the entire sexual experience, even going as far as to recreate the Pieta on the shores of the pond. Which now is a beautiful blasphemy of the dead white Christ and the black Virgin Mother now post incestual coitus. The transformation of the woman in the swamp from monstrous other to woman to virgin death mother encompasses a cycle that recalls very easily the xenomorphs of the Alien films.
It wouldn’t be inappropriate to introduce Alien(1979) here into the conversation because a lot of the dramatic forces which made that one of the great works of horror of the 20th century, are also at play here. In Alien, it is the notion that men can be overpowered, violated, and impregnated by the monstrous feminine that baselines a lot of the squeamishness of both Giger’s designs and Scott’s atmosphere of overriding dread. As well, we also deal with the irrationality of men in Alien; Over and over again, the men of the movie make emotionally charged and altogether disastrous decisions(the most prominent of which is to bring Kane into the ship against strict quarantine guidelines, and Ripley’s stern direction not to). In this way there are two mothers at play in Alien, Ripley, and the xenomorph—and both are disregarded by men to the peril of all of those around them. So there’s a resonance in terms of the forces at play between Alien and “Phosphorous”, and while these themes are in more places than Alien—I think that’s probably the clearest, best example of what we’re talking about here—and I bring it up, because the monster at the bottom of the pond in “Phosphorous” is operationally very similar to Giger and Scott’s xenomorph.
There is a mirror here between the young man approaching the strange glow in the pond, and Kane in Alien approaching the egg which contains the facehugger. In both instances, male bravado and curiosity has led it into the clutches of a female trap. The other main comparison here is obviously that the xenomorph represents both sex and death. The woman in the pond operates along a similar axis, and though she doesn’t kill the young man, she is as interested in his life’s breath as she is his semen.
Shifting focus onto the woman in the pond: we see that even though, as mentioned previously, she is shown below the man at almost all times (there are in fact, only three panels where she is compositionally drawn above the man), the way that she touches and talks to the man is never subservient. I think one of the most interesting sequences in “Phosphorous” is when she grabs the man’s penis and begins manipulating it curiously. Even though fundamentally we can recognize this as a hand job—the way that it has been contextualized is with the penis as a foreign object—the penis is objectified here; both by being the disembodied focus of the hands in the panel, but also in the way that it supersedes the man in terms of the importance it takes in their interaction. She orders him to show her how it works, and he immediately complies to her authority, and begins, tears in eyes, to masturbate.
As she pulls him under water the imagery turns from that of purely sex, to also that of death as we see both semen and life breath being extracted from the boy. This idea of the female extracting sex and then bringing death is all through nature (and for what it’s worth it is also how the xenomorph functions). It is an intensely erotic idea because it plays with our ideas of sex as something of a life force that is done to reproduce ourselves continuously through time in opposition to the finality of death; so to present sex also as the cessation of one’s life, and rather instead, present it as a reminder of death creates taboo. And through the transgression of the taboo, we get the energy of the obscenity from which we feel the push and pull of our gaze throughout this work.
There is something else happening here and that is sex as connection. The young man in his disconnect from his father, is here, whether explicit to his knowledge or not, to connect with both his mother and his repressed childhood. He is having this experience to break down the walls between his present identity, and these separated refractions of self spread throughout his subconsciousness. By introducing death play into the sex, those barriers are even further eroded, as identity weakens alongside life’s waning assertion. This gap allows for the identity of the other, in this case the dark mother, to flood in and fill—In doing so, the man becomes the boy becomes the fetus becomes the mother. This regression becomes complete once he has died. Two circles rotating in opposite directions, meeting at a singular incestual point joined through the mirror.
It is the culmination of these densely layered motions and counter motions which give “Phosphorous” the mesmerizing strength that it has. It is only a six page comic nestled at the back of Gfrörer’s Black Light collection, but it follows you away from the page in a way that few comics being made currently by anyone else can claim to. I actually showed this comic to someone at my day job, and they were completely transfixed. It happens quickly, but it happens powerfully, and the work as a whole is quintessentially what I mean when I talk about my own interests in the horrible beautiful. For me Gfrörer’s work is absolutely at the forefront of comics being made today, and however poorly they translate into my ability to write about them, these are the kinds of comics and creators which should be struggled with, not the regressive toy shit that dominates the weekly controversies. You can put Julia’s work up against other top works in other mediums happening right now, and it can absolutely trump them. It’s extremely exciting for comics.
Most of my spx haul! Great stuff by Katie Skelly, Meghan Turbitt, Julia Gfrörer, Eleanor Davis, Meredith Gran, Farel Dalrymple, Liz Prince, Inio Asano, Roman Muradov, Sophia Wiedman, et al
— Friedrich Nietzsche (via caucasianboys)
Attributed to Jan van Eyck, Netherlandish (active Bruges), c. 1395 - 1441 - Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata
With the Poverello, it’s hard to know where to begin. To him, it’s possible to attribute much of the romance of abjection as we know it now—he who rolled in mud and thorns, laughing, overcome with joy—he who went blind from weeping—he who professed passion only for lack, personified in Poverty, his object of chivalric devotion—he who invented the chrèche so that even the most ignorant among us could understand the glorious abasement of the manger—he who fasted for thirty-nine days because forty would have been showing off. (This latter feat is a masterpiece of humility, multiplied exponentially by denying even the satisfaction of perfect self-denial!) Francesco Bernadone is perennially famous and beloved because he forever shifted the narrative of Christianity by replacing Christ the King with Christ the Pauper, and whether or not this is more accurate to the historical Jesus, that unlikely and largely irrelevant person, the innumerable devotees for whom religion is a balm against unrelenting and infinite struggle urgently needed a king with blistered feet. The church’s embrace of Franciscan doctrine was politically adept, perhaps cynically so, although Francis sought it desperately—he never considered himself a revolutionary. Yes, he did rebuild the house of god. Yes, he preached to birds and other outcast creatures. Yes, he was the first stigmatist.
By deeply meditating on the five wounds of Christ at his death—nails through the hands and feet, and a spear to the side—religious mystics occasionally manifest identical injuries to their person. In September of 1224, while fasting and praying in an isolated mountain cave in Tuscany, Saint Francis was visited by a six-winged, crucified angel, and after that he developed the stigmata. The marks on his extremities first appeared as puncture wounds, then formed scabs which resembled iron nails. The gouge over his ribs sometimes leaked blood.
Hundreds of stigmatists have been reported in the centuries since, most of them women, and most practice other forms of what in laypeople would be termed self-harm. Often they consume no food other than the eucharist, often they bleed when they receive it, often they suffer most severely during the days of the week when Christ was tortured. The stigmata sometimes emit a distinctive floral odor, and they are immensely painful. Padre Pio, a 20th-century Franciscan monk, when asked whether they hurt, replied curtly: “God did not give them to me as a joke.”
Perhaps naturally, there are frantic attempts among believers to distinguish between “real” and “fake” stigmata. Allow me to remove any indulgent suspense: all stigmata are fake. Many, probably most of them appear on the subject’s palms, though we now know it’s impossible for the body’s weight to be supported by nails through the bones of the hand. Archaeological evidence for crucifixions in antiquity is slight, and indicates the feet were nailed sideways, through the heels, which is never reflected in stigmatists. At any rate, there’s strong evidence that Pio’s wounds were self-inflicted carbolic acid burns, and Francis himself, it’s now known, suffered from a type of malaria which causes bloody purple blotches to appear symmetrically on the skin. But the supernatural tends to take the path of least resistance, and whatever their etiology, stigmata are genuine wounds. Stigmata only happen to those who obsess over Christ’s passion—in a sense, you have to want them, and, conscious or unconscious, the desire to be harmed in order to prove a point is perhaps pathological, but certainly not uncommon. This desire is, in and of itself, the disease. The wounds are a symptom, nothing more. Regardless of how they come to be inflicted on the mundane materials of the body, all stigmata are real.
I wrote a thing about Saint Francis of Assisi and the stigmata for one of my many side blogs.
|AY:||There’s a lot of imagery of the occult, and dark magic in your work. How far do you personally go with all of this stuff, belief-wise? Is it just something you explore in your stories, or have you gotten into it in your real life, too? No judging, here, by the way. I’m just curious.|
|JG:||I know more about historical occultism than most people I’ve met who claim to practice magic, but as far as my personal beliefs are concerned I’m a skeptic to the core. I barely believe in the laptop I’m typing this on.|
|AY:||Have you had any funny, or embarrassing moments being out in public at comics conventions/art shows/etc?|
|JG:||Probably the most embarrassing thing that happens at my convention table is when a man (it’s always a man) tries to “did you know…” me about something he saw in a comic of mine. It never goes well for him. Yes, I did know.|
"In the Event of My Death": A writer embedded in Afghanistan takes an intimate look at one of war’s most private and painful traditions, on Narrative.ly, with my grim illustrations.
He sent me this for my birthday. I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be me. ♡ (I sent him a California Raisins t-shirt. Our birthdays are four days apart.)
Just before our panel last Saturday.
There is a sharp differentiation between the two rooms available for SPX programming. In the larger room, the White Oak Room, panelists sit on a raised stage slightly above the audience. In the White Flint Auditorium, however, the audience looms over the panel, lecture hall-style. I don’t know which I prefer while on a panel, as I am generally scanning the room for emergency exits, but when merely attending panels it’s White Flint all the way for me, as I can sit way up in the back and pretend I am God, taking perfect notes. The room was nearly full, with Programs Coordinator Bill Kartalopoulos patrolling the aisles, pointing lost attendees toward empty seats.
Katie Skelly ran this panel as a medley of small interviews, spending roughly the first third directing groups of questions specifically to each of the three panelists, one after another, then asking group questions for the second third, and leaving the remainder to audience queries. She was way, way more organized than I have ever been, and made nice use of illustrative slides; she was practiced. As a result, I was able to arrive at my own impressions from this discussion of very subjective content prone to evoking specific, physical reactions.
I tend to see fictive violence, for example, in terms of spectacle and metaphor – to be grossly reductive, it’s all the wounds of Christ for me, indicative of the idea of suffering. Naturally, then, I enjoyed Julia Gfrörer’s description of the story of Salome over a gigantic drawing of the title dancer clutching the gore-pouring head of St. John the Baptist, “MISANDRY” splashed across the image; the Wildean variant of this tale had proven interesting to her, though I thought quickly of her Palm Ash, which struck me as story of Christian martyrdom which functions as both arguably a perspective on the insanity of the situation, as well a straightforward devotational – lines blur when you’re dealing with saints.
Likewise, Eleanor Davis noted that her own use of grotesque violence is often to externalize emotional states; she mentioned exposure to Tove Jansson’s Moomin works as a child, although she never clicked with the sadder stories until she was grown. Skelly made note of the tendency for Davis’ works to mention “good strong bodies,” which echoed an earlier suggestion that Meghan Turbitt’s art creates — despite its humorous approach — a nightmarish sensation through its heavily overlapping images, spilling out from story panels; bodies in flux. One particular set of slides depicted several pages from Turbitt’s #foodporn, in which an ugly pizza man transforms into a hunk in successive panels while Turbitt watches him make a pizza; this is cartooning, but also the subjectivity of desire, the activity culminating in the man seizing Turbitt and feeding her a slice in what could be pain or ecstasy, both of which tend to look similar, as Turbitt observed. But then, as Gfrörer mentioned, speaking for herself, there is little challenge to work that boils down to ‘sex is good.’
There was something else that united the panelists. Among audience questions as to comic book influences and what you’d do if you couldn’t make comics, one guy asked about ‘shredding’ reality in the creation of stories. Rapidly, all of the participating artists noted that their work was fundamentally autobiographical, whether explicitly so (as with Turbitt) or communicated through allegorical means. I took this moreover to mean that there was little in the way of engineering ‘concept’ with these artists, as you often see in popular comics – all is as personal as the twinges and rush you feel from sex, humor and the grotesque.
(Joe McCulloch, SPX ’14 – Ten Comics, Eight Hours, Three Panels, One Day)
Artists are vulnerable to the fantasy of self-destruction as the ultimate badge of authenticity. The work is so pure, so intense, so transcendent (so the familiar narrative goes) that its conduit burns out like an overloaded fuse. The young innovators whose creations triggered paradigm shifts in their media as they themselves succumbed to self-inflicted martyrdoms seem to us as tools which the hand of god used briefly, too forcefully, and then broke. With maturity we learn to recognize this as a fiction, written to rationalize senseless death and pain. Once you’ve been or loved an addict, for example, the idea of addiction loses its romance. But even when we should know better, in certain personalities the desire to give one’s life to something greater, something noble and true, in this case an artistic vision, persists. For them, Nikos Kazantzakis wrote this prayer: “I am a bow in your hands…. Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break.”
My second Symbol Reader column, “Internal Combustion,” was published on The Comics Journal website earlier this week. In it, I talk about comics where self-destruction facilitates self-discovery by Grant Snider, Sophie Franz, Eric Haven, and Luke Howard. And as always, if you wrote a comic, posted it online, and still aren’t sure what it’s about, you can submit it to the Symbol Reader blog and I’ll take a crack at explaining it to you.
A wedding video in which Simon is a beautiful bride and a very special boy, Michael DeForge demonstrates his trademark comedic deadpan, I’m a slouchy doofus, Sean T. Collins looks extremely handsome in a suit, Gary Groth is the king of the sexy murder dads, and Jacq Cohen is the best comics wedding planner in the business. Taken by Heidi MacDonald last Saturday night at SPX 2014.
At SPX, following the Ignatz awards, a very special wedding took place, as cartoonist Simon Hanselmann, author of Megahex, wed comics in a ceremony presided over by SPX Executive Director Michael Thomas. Michel DeForge, currently on tour with Hanselmann, stood in for comics, althuogh several acual comics were present. Hanselmann, who is a cross dresser, appeared in a lovely wedding gown, and a brass band serenaded the wedding party which consisted of Annie Koyama, Annie Mock, Jason Leivian, Sean T. Collins, Julia Gfrörer and Gary Groth.
When I first heard about this, I thought it was going to be funny but cringeworthy, but it turned out to be funny and memorable in a very performance arty way. Hansellman wrote vows that were amusing and accurate at the same time, and since everyone falls in love with comics all over again at SPX, making the union legal seemed a very appropriate thing to do.
As you’ll see, the big moment came when Hanselmann’s publisher Groth jumped up at the end to kiss the bride and kiss the two did. Which again, is usually what happens when you fall passionately in love with someone, or even comics. Brigid Alverson has some still photos and the money shot but you’ll have to go here to see that.
After the ceremony, Hanselmann cut a giant wedding cake, eventually tearing out chunks with his bare hands and giving them out as other attendees cavorted around the chocolate fountain and an equally enthusiastic and fun prom got under way a few meeting rooms down. People will be saying they were there for this for years to come. The social aspect of SPX has always been one of the biggest appeals of the show—I remember back in the day at the picnic people climbed trees and threw water balloons at each other. In a wacky way, this was the perfect update.
This was DEFINITELY an SPX to remember!