Superwest (1987), by Massimo Mattioli. Catalan.
I often think the comics medium's aesthetic history is for more critical readers what character and continuity are for superhero fanboys -- a really fun game running underneath our favorite texts, inviting us to engage multiple works by multiple artists as a single body, encouraging a buildup of mental connections that gets downright indexical if you read enough. Comics' artistic development is especially interesting to follow because of how much it relies on the constant reconsidering and reconstituting of genre tropes. Many of the same stock story setups (not to mention formats) have stayed with us for the better part of a century, and though new ones do occasionally emerge, it's rarely more than a few years before they become as ritualized a set of conventions as the average Fantastic Four issue. Strange thing; in comics innovation rarely takes the form of total novelty. Instead it's the slow build of new structures onto the old structures, the rote stories never disappearing but beginning to be done in slightly different ways. That's where the game aspect of looking at comics comes in. Pretty much everything good -- and certainly everything influential -- can be considered in the middle of its impact radius. Who exactly is a work drawing from, and who, in turn, drew from it? It's all right there on the page to be extracted, and there is no small joy to critiquing a medium in which "this looks like Hal Foster" can be a valuable insight.
Where playing the game gets really fun is with the books that didn't hit so hard. Seeing a little Kirby in your Kyle Baker is a great thing to pick out, but there's a little Kirby in at least half the sum total of American cartoonists. His influence extends, where plenty of others' don't. Take Massimo Mattioli, for example. Never seen the guy's work in a comics shop, and were it not for my memory of a single sentence about "he draws like a Disney animator on crack" in the indispensable Slings and Arrows Comics Guide, I would have passed it right over in the used bookstore too. On the one hand, it's whatever. I've probably passed over a lot of good comics without even pulling them off the shelves. Who's got the time? But on the other hand, the good-but-silent work that leaves no visible trace of itself a quarter-century down the line is valuable precisely because of that lack of communicated influence. It's impossible not to read a little Chris Ware into Frank King, because you know how indebted one man's work is to the other's. Superwest stands on its own by comparison -- it certainly has a basis in past cartoonists, but those influences simply culminate on its pages, because lord knows I've never heard of anyone taking up Mattioli's frantic, near-Dada blasting as an influence. It's a dead end, or maybe a trail blazed as far as it could possibly go. Heaven knows they don't make 'em all like this.
What's really fascinating about this book's total non-presence in comics history, though, is just how jacked into -- even emblematic of -- a very specific, pivotal time in the medium it is. The six strips that fill out Catalan's slim, sharply designed hardcover collection were drawn in the early '80s (two of the middle ones are dated '82 and '83, though the rest aren't timestamped so it's rather vague -- not translated until '87, in any case), and they are fiercely of their time, maybe even out ahead of it a little. The early '80s: superhero comics were still A Silly Thing, though the seeds of "maturity" had been planted and were germinating fast, Heavy Metal and Epic Comics had brought sleazy adult-oriented Eurocomics across the Atlantic, and Raw had sprung from the underground to redefine the medium for survival in the third millennium. And... there was Superwest, sitting pretty at the intersection of all those things, with an aesthetic that borrowed equally from the hokey grandiosity of yesterday's hero strips, the alien throb of the weirdest Euro sex farces, and the cutthroat ambition of Spiegelman and Panter. If anyone at all had internalized it, it would work pretty well as the defining comic of its moment. There's a very "eighties" feeling to the book, where boundaries are unquestionably being pushed but just as unquestionably still being worked within. It's a picture of a medium moving toward transcendence, not quite there yet.
Mattioli's aesthetic has its deepest basis in Robert Crumb, whose influence was definitely the strongest connection between the Continental fantasists of Heavy Metal and the furious scratchers of early art-comix. It's Crumb pared down though, the waver and texture of his rapidograph marks traded in for the perfect machine economy of Mattioli's marker line. What makes it into the comic are all the bits of Crumb that weird people out, minus the sensitivity and grace that elevate them. There are cartoon animals with erect dicks and nipples, there is a grossly sensuous roundness and wobble to the characters' forms, and it all takes place against a disturbingly fractured urban background, the hard corners and rectangles of flat sidewalks or buildings jabbing out at the eye, forcing the overwhelmed onlooker back into the stories. And make no mistake: these are overwhelming comics, page after page sending tides of flat color and squiggly line and cartoon hyperbole to crash against its readers' perceptions. After Crumb, Mattioli slaps on a sickening-sweet amalgam of what seems like every vintage funny-animal animator's style, pushing every gesture into a contortionist freakshow, every facial expression into some outsider-art parody that borders on derangement. It's all the wildest, most outre potential of cartoons distilled and ground into the broken glass of transgression, every panel an exclamation point, the only logic leading from intensity to greater intensity to the end.
I mean, he actually goes there. There's a fearlessness smacked down all over these pages, and not just the ones with close-up photos of dicks either. Mattioli uses every tool at his disposal -- subject matter, collage, painted color, flat color, and a huge does of pure, overstated comics grammar -- to keep you on your back feet, never letting his pages settle into a rhythm, or even a cohesive style. The ante never stops upping, the familiar never emerges from the strangeness. That's saying something when the shapes and configurations are as basic as these. It's the same things we've seen so many times before, whether in Disney movies of the funny pages, in thrall to such a shockingly different grammar and set of rules that it's a battle just to hold on. A battle, however, that's never conceded; Mattioli is just enough of a storyteller (and writes comics with just enough of a story) to keep things permanently comprehensible, even occasionally forcing nervous laughs out of the jaws his heavyweight cartooning so effortlessly drops.
Superwest is ostensibly a book full of superhero tales, and it does observe the bare minimum of the genre's requirements. Though he's some kind of weird cartoon dog (or maybe a mouse or something?), there is a hero, and he does change identities to battle evil, and the day is generally saved at the end of each episode, with evil undergoing some form of punishment or other. It's only innovation in that comics way -- new takes on an old formula. Mattioli may go from point A to point B in his stories, and he may even do it in neat four-to-eleven-page bursts, but he certainly takes the scenic rout through some bizarre territory on the way. The plot mechanics' underpinnings are as vague and dislocated as dreams. A city's entire road system turns to quicksand, a communist spy starts exploding people's heads at a public weapons exhibition, a hundred hot dogs go mad and begin attacking people... it's got the cotton candy-light sensicality of the best Silver Age comics, but the whimsy of that material is replaced by a cynical, paranoid darkness, a constant reminder that the flat reds and blues in the panels are also the colors of blood and suffocation. It's all so relentlessly twisted that there's no choice but to give in to it, to forget the sunny innocence usually associated with cartoon animals and really buy the idea that these Picassoesque caricatures are no less than bent realities, subjects of a world so nightmarish and surrealistic that it rips amusing antics right out of their hides.
Of course, it doesn't take much to conceptualize cartoon stars 'n' anvils as real pain, or the blunt-force bizarrerie of early Looney Tunes as disturbing fever dream. The axiom about simple ideas being the best ones only works in comics when the art is there to back it up, and Mattioli is no exception. As I said, Crumb and Tex Avery are the big points of departure, coupled with an intent to shock and disrupt. Mattioli has an obvious interest in the minimal forms of cartoons, stripping away any traces of rendering in favor of smooth hard surfaces, sanding the shapes of his characters down and down until they ride the bleeding edge of abstraction. It's great to look at, and it really blasts the eye across his gridded pages, but more fascinating is the way these most basic of forms' interactions with one another peel back the layer of familiarity we're so used to with cartoons, revealing the underlying nonsensicality of the poses and gestures we force our brains to read as fight scenes or chase scenes or handshakes or screeches. This stuff is so deep in age-old comics grammar that it carries meaning no matter what, but there's a constant consciousness of the fundamental absurdity the Disney/Warner Bros. mode of cartooning carries. From the panel compositions to the facial expressions, everything is just a little bit skewed, asymmetrical or overblown, and seeing such imperfections so willingly integrated into stock cartoon worlds is a severely weird experience.
No less weird is Mattioli's storytelling sense, which is spot-on as action comics, but less so in the context of his animation-art style. We're used to seeing characters that look like this in perpetual motion on a screen, not frozen in panels, and the transposition from one to the other (which I've written about before) can be odd enough. But Mattioli is using comics to do comics, taking up only the drawing conventions of animation, and his sequencing creates a very different kind of perpetual motion. There are huge gaps of time swallowed up in pretty much every panel transition, and the mind races to simply keep pace with the pages. Mattioli draws each picture to carry the individualized strength of a painting, everything happening so fast that mere story comprehension is about all one can salvage at the first read-through, each panel barely even coding as part of a sequence. If the pages hang together as single units at all, it's visually: Mattioli's colors, incredibly striking from frame to frame, interact beautifully at the full-page level, the simple shapes of pure blue and pink and green so strong that their dialogue extends across the panel borders, forcing a little sequentiality back into the individual panels by forcing the eye to perceive whole pages as single things.
If there's a single panel that codes for Superwest as a whole, it's this one. The icky maturity of Mattioli's cartoons is on full display -- that Donald Duck lookalike looks as though he's on the verge of a heart attack, and notice his rumpled shirt and the hair on the drooped-Mickey counterman's arms (gross). There's a great simplicity of shape and line, circles and squares and cylinders, so simple, even crude, that it would be easy to believe a somewhat talented kid had drawn them were it not for their perfect, assured placement. But what really blazes off the page is Mattioli's treatment of the panel as a canvas, his color work willfully obscuring clarity for pure impact. Again, its smooth shapes lend a veneer of professionalism, but the color on this page looks is more slapped over than integrated, the abstract forms and pop-art dazzle more important than the panel's actual pictorial content.
Never in my life have I seen anything like the color of that superimposed table shape slammed over the drawing itself, making a much louder, more immediate point than any linework could hope to. And then there's the single blue tile at the bottom right, just as illogical in itself as the table that makes transparencies of everything around it, lending a curt little exclamation point to Mattioli's declaration that the purity of color matters more here than any representation his lines might be attempting. It's still cartoon because it's loud and bold and supremely simple -- but it's the flexible sense of cartoon worlds applied to the making of the picture itself, the form that contains the form sagging beneath the weight of such experimentation. And yet, through it all, the panel's perfectly readable, never even hinting toward a lack of clarity.
So that's this comic, maybe too weird for success, maybe translated and put to the American market a few years past its time... ignored then and forgotten now, regardless of the reason. But as a document of a moment in comics, it's pretty much without peer. It's got Spiegelman's formalist bent and interest in subverting funny-animal cliches. It's got Joost Swarte's drawing style nailed, with a straightahead viciousness of both form and content that anticipates what Paper Rad would do with their comics a good two decades down the line. It's got plenty of Clowes urban nihilism, and it's not too hard to see Chris Ware in its concerted transformation of low-art immediacy to highbrow concept. If the book has a failing, it's that it's only those things, all the weird and shocking aspects of the best comics that have come since, and none of the the broader, more reader-friendly elements. Reading Superwest is like visiting a weapons test, or an exceptionally curated modern art gallery. It may not always be pleasant, but it's the future. And it flat-out refuses to apologize.