The fifth in a series of posts on my favorite pamphlet comics of the decade
The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror #15, by various, edited by Sammy Harkham. Published by Bongo Entertainment, October 2009.
One of the joys of reading comics is that the medium’s artists are allowed to release their individual visions free of compromise or committee. Even in a medium that so far has skirted the serious corporate oversight imposed on movies, TV, and pop music, comics can feel so samey and regimented sometimes that it’s nice to get your hands on a corrosive piece of personal expression, on something that is the conception and execution of a single mind. There don’t have to be any co-stars or assistant writers in comics, not if the artist is talented enough.
Perhaps the best way to find the mad expressions of visionary auteurs in the past decade was by exploring comics like the anthology Kramers Ergot, a kaleidoscopic delight edited by Sammy Harkham that got more and more unbelievable with every release. The loose-knit crew of regular Kramers contributors specialize in style over content, letting their aesthetic senses and artistic instincts guide their frequently brilliant stories. The Kramers way is almost a “free jazz” approach to making comics, one in which the artist, unmoored from all surroundings, all discipline, all that is not his inspiration, revels in his own creativity without any guidelines. Of all the ways forward for the comics medium, Kramers points to one of the most promising.
The other way to find galvanizing art actions in comics is to watch the superhero mainstream and wait for something different to bubble up out of it. This is a much less fruitful method than diving headfirst into art comics like Kramers, but it can be rewarding nonetheless, and was especially so this decade, as art and the mainstream coalesced often in projects like Frank Miller’s work on Batman, and the Solo and Bizarro Comics anthologies. There is a slightly different joy to be had from reading these works, from seeing familiar characters and locales plunged into the utter disarray of some mad genius’ creation.
There were indications that the Kramers crowd understood this joy, and their own exploitations of it appeared in things like Paper Rad’s hallucinatory “Seinfeld” adaptation in Kramers #6 and Josh Simmons’ Batman minicomic (Exhibit IX in this series). But they didn’t dive full-bore into it until the very end of the decade, when “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening offered Harkham the chance to guest-edit the latest issue of the annual Simpsons Halloween comic.
What resulted was a landmark in more ways than one. Firstly, it was in many ways the most purely commercial package any Kramers creator had ever been offered: an affordable pamphlet featuring characters with a nationwide following. This was a breakthrough for artists whose most available work had previously been seen in high-priced, limited-print run art comic books. The Simpsons issue would be sold everywhere, conceivably even at places like Wal-Mart. And secondly, it promised mainstream infiltration on a scale that had not yet been seen, its use of the “Simpsons” characters a hijacking of icons with much broader followings than any superhero character. A show on Fox, for god’s sake! This comic is a fusion of the ultimate in subversion and the ultimate in commerciality, and it would have been a surprise if its contents had not been magic.
Treehouse of Horror #15 whips through ten stories in 48 pages, showcasing vastly disparate art styles and approaches, from Jordan Crane’s R. Crumb-quoting formalist blast…
… to the almost fine-art darkness of Kevin Huizenga, melding Bart and Lisa with a Lovecraftian apocalypse in a story that flirts with topicality but ends up in utter strangeness…
… to the sinister primitivism of C.F., who brings nightmare to the so often dream-logic “Simpsons” storytelling style...
… to the star of the show, Ben Jones, and his perfectly on-model psychedelicizing of the usual “Simpsons” tropes.
Jones’ story is also notable for bringing up the kind of copyright issues that would usually dog this kind of production, populating Springfield with a host of “black market, bootleg, illegal” character take-offs. Indeed, Treehouse #15’s closest cousin is perhaps the infamous work produced by the Air Pirates collective of the early 1970s, which took a similar warped approach to Disney characters and landed its creators in an epic, debilitating lawsuit. That Groening and Harkham were able to organize the same kind of extravaganza and get away with it shows we might just be getting somewhere as a species.
Everyone involved gets to have their own kind of fun with no holds barred – pushing their own versions of the characters as far as they can go as opposed to just enjoying doing “The Simpsons”. It’s like they decided to go for broke, because this was their one chance and it wasn’t their characters being destroyed anyway. One of the best things about the Simpsons is that nothing really matters and everything always goes back to the status quo in the next episode without being tethered to superheroish continuity, where all that happens has to be dealt with over and over before anything can move forward. Here, eight of the ten stories kill off characters, and there are plenty more beloved icons that meet with the obligatory fates-worse-than. One is moved to an appreciation of the Simpsons franchise along with the issue’s artists itself. We are reminded again and again that everything can happen in Springfield.
Treehouse #15 is too full of comics for me to give each one its due, each fabulous alt-dream version of America’s favorite family the credit it deserves. Better instead to simply say this: it’s the Simpsons like you’ve never seen them before, and it’s also a collection of fiercely unique, individual, unpredictable works of art. If there was ever a comic that anybody could love, this is the one.
And I mean, it’s got:
And that’s enough for me.