The Man (1972), by Vaughn Bode. Print Mint.
Comics history is full of stops and starts. More artists than any article could mention have shone the way toward futures that never happened, put forth ideas that never found enough thinkers. You could argue that's been the case with anybody who's actually used the medium to do something good. Just as interesting, though, are the ones who hinted at things that did happen much later. Look at the number of guys who invented the graphic novel in the first half of the 20th century, the proto-undergroundings of Boody Rogers and Basil Wolverton, the Watchmen blueprint of Robert Mayer's novel Superfolks, the hints of costumed-heroism in Frank King's Motorcycle Mike. Given these prefigurations and coincidences and about a million others that fill up comic art's apocrypha, it's not such a crazy thought that there are certain things comics were always meant to do, the demands of the medium itself imprinting on a progression of artists until they were finally met.
Talking about progression, maybe the biggest one American comics have made in the past quarter-century is the development of a non-genre mainstream. The lit comics that fill the Barnes and Noble displays and New York Times bestseller pages have a pretty well-documented history of antecedents, from the early freedom of Krazy Kat through the rebel yell and stylist perfectionism of the ECs and the newly literate, medium-expanding transgression of the undergrounds, to a culmination in Maus -- if not the first adult graphic novel (cause who knows about terms like that, really) then certainly the first one people noticed in the way these things get noticed now. Those are the high points, and if you could somehow extract those comics' essences and blend them all together (warning: don't actually try this) you'd probably come up with something fairly close to Acme Novelty or Love & Rockets. Fairly. But not quite.
There's a certain temper that most all of the lit-comics high points share, a passionate and yet slightly detached impulse toward using the medium's toolbox to dissect human feeling. Of all the big graphic novel stepping stones the historical roll-call above mentions, Maus probably comes closest to this place, but even that book is more interested in the narrative than the psychological. It's also nonfiction, which means bravura performing on the level of Jimmy Corrigan or Ghost World, that scalpel-made-of-panels thing that really brings you inside, gets sacrificed for verisimilitude and the uncertainties of real life. No, for the first entry in the modern lit-comic's full scale interior examination of cartoon characters, we've got to go back further. Back to 1972, when the superhero and underground booms of the '60s had both decidedly run their courses, when the future of comics with spines and the direct market and Alan Moore and Raw was still undreamed of, when the closest the stuff got to excellence was maybe a Kirby issue of New Gods, or a Rand Holmes Harold Hedd book -- or, best of all, a Vaughn Bode comic.
Bode is something of a forgotten figure these days, but that's not to say he didn't loom large or leave traces. Unfortunately, circumstance -- a short career that spanned some of comics' more prominent "dead years", a dodgy reprint catalogue, a style that's aged rather bizarrely, and a decidedly outre, untimely death at the height of his powers -- has conspired to keep him more of a formative influence in graffiti art than comics. That's less true of late, with the "fusion" garde finding revelation in his earthy tone and punk-funk stylistic gestures, but of all the '70s greats whose work packed the debut issues of Heavy Metal, Bode is decidedly one of the lesser-knowns. And lord, just try finding one of his comics somewhere! The truth of it is that Bode isn't visible enough for the magnitude of his contributions to be fully recognized. And that's a shame, because one of them is writing the book on emotional, human comics in The Man's 24 pages.
The Man is one of the simplest, most straightforward comics you're likely to encounter, a Stone Age-set character piece whose space-filled four panel grids move deliberately from fast motion into slow as it marches from a stark, craggy beginning to an end that looks exactly the same. If that sounds like a metaphor for life, well, it should: what begins as a Ralph Bakshi-cool version of The Flintstones ends up in the blurry black wasteland of Camus and Beckett. Unforgiving existentialism, void, despair. We begin, appropriately, with the Man, a squat, bearded, rubbery little creature who picks what at first appears to be a completely ignorant way across gorgeously minimal, thick-lined, zipatoned landscapes in search of food. Bode's austere, elegant, at times nearly engraved looking backgrounds form a bracingly effective counterpoint to the richly kinetic figure of the Man, whose constant hopping, falling, and dragging abjects him even from the other pictorial elements he shares his panels with. Though truly beautiful, this scrabble of rocks and trees and mountains is just as much a dead world as our skyscraper-haunted concrete jungle, never moving, blanketed in the cold grandeur of mechanical dot screens, unconscious of the life that skitters across its surface. What we take for bone idiocy when the Man first begins talking to his wooden spear (named Stick) soon slides into focus as a haunting desperation, the word balloons that hang above the barren landscapes a creative act by a mind that knows on some level it cannot be alone and survive on these endless plains, between these chunky-inked boulders and Herriman pebble sprays.
In this context even the Man's primal struggle for survival is weighted with a deep futility. An epic death-stuggle with a wooly rhino takes up no more space than the Man's near-suicidal struggle to recover a misthrown Stick. The panels shift from day to night, from black to white, without our even noticing. There's no cosmology here, no relative importance and unimportance. There is only existence at the center of a world that's far too unkind, panels of quick action and panels of slow walks through what will one day become the building stones of civilization. Nothing takes precedence, no moment is remembered. Each panel drawn at exactly the same size and shape as the last one, and as the one that will undoubtedly follow. After the rhino is killed the skies open up, and the Man's existence at the total mercy of this world is revealed in a series of frames filled with massive, cartooned raindrops and the hapless figure's hysterical, pantomime terror.
But the Man is not to be alone forever. Bode occasionally punctuates his prehistoric landscapes with other stirrings of life: fat, downy white birds whose rolling lines approach a Crumb level of grace, the aforementioned rhino, and tiny post-dinosauric lizards whose mischievous, scrambling motions endear the Man to them enough for him to experiment in domestication. Erg, the cute little critter who eventually sates our protagonist's urge for companionship is in many ways his polar opposite: his reptile brain needs none of what the Man's love offers him, and takes great exception to the leash and forced marches being a pet entails. The Man finds heartache in leaving his lizard tied to a tree during a hunt for food, while the animal itself relishes the chance to bask in the sun and stare at the butterflies without interruption. Inevitably, Erg's lazing respite and defenseless position end up sealing his doom when another hungry caveman comes lumping along, and when the Man returns his grief and outrage result in the murder of the one creature in the book who might have been capable of reciprocating his need for companionship. Once more, the Man is alone, and he will remain so.
The meat of the comic, though, is not to be found in this endless string of minor heartbreaks and meaninglessness. Twice when the solitude and hopelessness become too much, the Man takes to a tower of rocks, set against the tangible blackness of the looming sky. Here he attempts to make sense of his wretched state, to explain to himself and his spear and the deaf world around him what's really going on here. Of course, being human, we know, but could we really verbalize it any better than this? The Man catches some threads and grasps wildly for others before failing, his monosyllables sketching out an interior life in the same deep, primitive, resolutely felt tenor that Bode gives his outside world's ink lines. After his only friend is killed, the Man reflects in devastated ellipses on death and what it leaves us missing: "When Erg comes back, Stick, we will tell him how empty we are, and Erg will make us full... Erg will come... the wind is cold... it is crying... it is empty, just like us... I know Erg is... not."
It's impossible not to read a metaphor for modern life into this stuff, though one of The Man's most impressive aspects is that while it invites us to feel the panels into our own lives, there's no set reading to be found. The cold, calligraphic backgrounds are an interior landscape, our world, the Man's world, all of it, and none of it. Erg is a friend, a lover, our sense of hope, the importance we place on unimportant things. Stick is our conscience or our madness or maybe something else entirely. Read it as real life and it all falls apart. Feel what the Man feels and you'll recognize old heartbreaks and the taste of bitter days past. They are what's real here -- there are no certainties, no easy symbolisms. In the end it's only human emotion, wrought perfectly, that we can clearly recognize twisting through Bode's panels. The rest is for us, like the Man, to guess lamely at. This is far more than the fruitless drugged philosophizing of the undergrounds or the road-company Shakespearean Marvel platitudes. This, for the first time, is comics facing down the fundamental human truths of death and solitude, the knowledge that no matter what connections we make we are, in the end, all alone. Such bleakness can be made overpowering, nothing more than a knife in the reader's gut, but Bode's soft shapes, his simple compositions and boldly expressive figure drawings make it a much more human thing. This isn't nihilist declaiming, it's the cold comfort of a voice in the darkness telling us that at least we aren't the only ones living in this endless world.
When Bode drew The Man, however, he was alone: outside the mainstream, a marginal figure in a dying underground, plying a drawing style so beautifully idiosyncratic and alive that it's taken decades for anyone to really begin extracting from it, and working through a comic that wouldn't see its day for many years to come. Though an entire mini-genre of truly incredible comics work would eventually spring up around the exploration of human loneliness, Bode would never see them come. Maybe that's one of the things that makes this book so poignant, the fact that if its creator could have lived a little longer the Man would have heard at least an echo in reply to his desperate cries of solitude. But that's giving Bode's work short shrift: there's been nothing really like this since. Though he mines the same internal space as Ware, Clowes, Seth, and company so often have, he comes at it from a wholly different space -- more human, less exhaustively thought through, lived rather than experienced. This is a one-of-a-kind document of a beautiful strain of comics that found its pinnacle on these pages, but also of deep, essential human truths and feelings that have rarely been given voice so honestly or skillfully, inside the comics form or out. Unforgettable for the way it uses the medium, The Man's real draw is the way it transcends comics completely and becomes, like those grunted, lonely speech balloons, another pearl on the string of human creation. What's come since may have equaled it, but Bode's masterpiece has never been bettered.