Chromo Congo, parts 1 and 2 (as serialized in Mome #17), by Olivier Schrauwen. Fantagraphics.
Grant Morrison on his first experience of Jack Kirby's Fourth World comics: "It felt like I'd been mugged by the Word of God." Divine voice or not, there's something there in the feeling of getting mugged, something that transcends creator or genre and applies to the comics medium as a whole. Comics' multi-angled presentation of both words and pictures and their status as a realm for the single creator give them a power unique among media -- the power to pick readers up and deposit them deep in the visions of individual creative minds with no holds barred, no mercy.
Only the best comics can mug you, catch you unawares and drag you into something alien. Krazy Kat does it with deconstructed language and a setting that has almost no basis in reality. Gary Panter's work does it with sheer brutality. Carmine Infantino's with disarming elegance, Jim Steranko's with the power of new ideas, issues of Kramers Ergot with an overwhelming bouquet of unfamiliar flavors. Reading comics that startle you, that take you by surprise with brilliance or formal audacity or whatever else, really is like getting mugged: it's never the same twice. Everyone who can do it does it in their own way.
So this was my latest encounter with sequential-art street violence: a swirl of gonzo cartooning and fever-dream color called Chromo Congo, written and drawn by the elusive Belgian Olivier Schrauwen, whose graphic novel My Boy got rave reviews in 2006 and has since become impossible to find. As far as I can tell, this is his first work specifically for the English-language market (it's wordless, for what that's worth). The smoldering travelogue of a colonial-era explorer in what I assume is the Belgian Congo, it's extreme-impact environmental-immersion comics on the order of Panter or Mat Brinkman's graphic surveys of alien lands, but there's a much less primitive, much more fine-art elegance mixed into the potion, a purely intellectual side that counterbalances the utter savagery of the jungle climate that forms its setting.
Schrauwen's work certainly seems foreign, the product of influences vastly different than what the artists here usually get. If comparison with American artists had to be made, it would be to a couple of real oddballs. First, Lyonel Feininger, whose German-expressionist Sunday pages made him the first true avant-garde comics artist. The grimy brightness of Schrauwen's color palette recalls turn-of-the-century newspaper coloring, sure, but beyond that and a few drawing-style similarities the real wavelength he shares with Feininger is a sense of cartooning as abstract-art iconographics that have very little basis in reality. When Schrauwen's characters eat too much, they turn into egg-shaped, neckless monsters, swell into round, appendaged beach balls, vomit in Christmas-colored rivers, and only then return to normal human proportions. When ants swarm into the protagonist's tent to feast on a bar of his chocolate, they are bigger than his hands and feet, and only when he has escaped to the outside do they assume more normal, grain-of-sand proportions.
Such unbridled distortion recalls another American comics weirdo: Fletcher Hanks, whose anatomical amplifications and outside-looking-in take on superhero comics resulted in work where the real was discarded in favor of a series of haunting images unpinned from earthly physics or reason. Schrauwen takes that disdain for drawing reality and eye for unsettling imagery and crosses it with fine art. (Imagine Hanks inking Feininger on a silent adaptation of "Tintin in the Congo".) Both Schrauwen and Hanks' settings were the most arresting parts of their stories; whether it's the alien planets of Stardust or the jungle of Chromo Congo, their utter disdain for humanity in both artists' landscapes transforms them into characters of their own.
Whatever his influences, Schrauwen transcends them: in the end, Chromo Congo is his alone. The most obvious stylistic tic is the aforementioned distortion of human and animal bodies -- Schrauwen takes manga's practice of slipping characters in and out of angry, big-headed "super-deformed mode" and applies it not just to a broader range of emotion, but also to depicting human physiological reactions: hunger, laughter, sickness, fear, et cetera cause swollen limbs, inflation and deflation of the head and facial features, and always a divorce from normal reality of some kind. Then when the danger becomes too great, when the action crests into dismemberment or death, the drawing reverts to an almost empty, strictly figurative gloss. The line not being crossed is that of the grotesque -- Schrauwen's story is first and foremost a beautiful work of art, and he uses his author's prerogative to see that it remains so.
And make no mistake, through the vomiting and gangrene and rifle blasts and monkey attacks, this is a work of beauty. The unmoored, alien feeling of the action sequences carries an undercurrent of lonely sadness that comes to the fore during the slower in-between parts, as when the protagonist sits in his tent and stares through the little picture that comes in his chocolate bar, back into the world from whence he came. His journey is far from over, and seems to be taking him (and the narrative) into some strange, cartooned-Joseph Conrad territory the like of which has never been seen before in comics -- part a cartooning virtuoso's vision of the human body as a theater of the absurd, and part his evocation of feelings too strong to be held by even the best-designed eight panel grid.