Bogeyman Comics #2 (1969), page 3 panel 3. Rory Hayes.
It's always interesting for me to think about how easily comics pull us in. The instinctive dialogue the our minds enter into with cartoon drawings as soon as we clap eyes on them is an odd and marvelous thing. We usually see comics history as extending back maybe a century, maybe into the early-mid 1800s if we really push it. But the language of comics, the basic signs and glyphs the drawings are made of, is something we've been working on for a long time. I don't really think hieroglyphics and cave paintings are direct precursors to comics in the way they've occasionally been made out to be; nonetheless, I definitely believe that comics owe a great debt to those things, and right now are probably the most visible home for the instant-meaning, idea-container function drawing has served since prehistory. All the smaller, competing milieus and historical narratives seething around inside the medium are so fascinating that sometimes it can get tough to look at the entire, international form as the one relatively small thing it is in the big picture of human artistic achievement. Comics as a whole engage in a much bigger strain of art -- the instantaneous, ancient one that makes faces out of dots and curves and landscapes out of single horizontal lines. The one that bypasses our eyes and puts meaning in our heads immediately.
Of course, all that is usually beneath the surface. Most comics come with some level or other of illustrative sheen to them, the colors or the details of the linework more obviously noticeable than the work's ability to set your mind in motion. But among the artists who deal more directly in minimalism, in the form's vast ability to suggest rather than show (Charles Schulz, Jaime Hernandez, Harvey Kurtzman, et al), there's a real, distinct visual similarity. Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but cartoon language is really quite rigid. There's always room for the mannerisms of style, but strip it down far enough and you get to the real, basic necessities of shape and line placement that keep the stuff from falling apart. There are certain shapes we recognize immediately, true, but when artists go in search of "pure cartoon" and work in basic line and shape alone, giving up the wealth of context offered by illustrative detail, the stakes get higher. Because outside the instant-meaning shapes and lines we all recognize, there are entire universes of ones we don't. Straying too far from the familiar in minimal cartooning holds high potential for failure -- the work can simply stop holding meaning if it goes far enough from the look of the real, becoming at best a Rorschach test for the different things readers assign to it, and at worst just empty.
That's the way it usually goes, anyway. But comics, from Kirby to Panter, have had a striking amount of artists whose work uses only the bare bones of literal depiction and comes out on the other side rich with subjected, invented meanings; the world not as it really looks, but as it's seen. Rory Hayes is one of those artists, one whose sequences of pictures build stories out of their own bizarre alien logic, the consistency of their utter weirdness giving the reader just enough of a solid platform for understanding to take root in. As individual, decontextualized panels, though, it's something else entirely: screaming, deformed looks into a warped existence that's been taken too far from our own to be fully understood anymore. Though the strength and simplicity of his forms qualifies him as a minimalist, there's plenty of content to chew on in pretty much every panel Hayes ever drew. He really placed a premium on filling up his boxes, and that wealth of information works in direct opposition to the total understanding most comics attempt to give the reader. While we can easily imagine the drifting, sterile suburbs behind one of Schulz's one-line backgrounds, or the neon metropolis a single Frank Miller skyscraper suggests, with Hayes everything is clearly there and clearly unrecognizable. Rudderless, adrift in the artist's own idiosyncrasy, allowing us nothing to hold onto.
There's an intense flouting of agreed-upon cartoon conventions in Hayes' work, from the dizzy grind between minimal forms and maximal texturing to the disregard for rules of light and perspective. This panel is a great example of just how vertiginous Hayes could get: the two black spheres on the left reflect the beam of light shining in through the window on the back wall, but the third one on the right is reflecting the paned shape of another, unseen window across the room, not the strip of white brilliance that dominates the picture. A flash of reflected light just like the ones on the first two spheres hangs without an origin in the depths of the blackness. Hayes puts a beautiful, meticulous layer of shading on the creature in the foreground, but spots none beneath it where it sits, setting the entire picture floating, almost totally free of gravity.
There's an understanding that highly simplified cartooning usually produces in the reader, almost a contract between artist and audience stating that work done in this mode will not actively defy the natural laws of the world in order to get over as depictive, apprehensible storytelling. Things like the human shape of the creature being interrupted by that rocky head, or the bright light in darkness provided by the abstract shapes at top right, actively defy the rest of the picture's impulse toward simplicity, working against the eye's instinct to classify everything in the panel as quickly as possible. Hayes follows his own imagination out into its furthest reaches, leaving behind the overtures minimal cartoonists so often make to the audience, instead putting everything he can into his pictures whether it "makes sense" or not. This, I'd imagine, is the reason his work inspires so many of today's farther-out, more experimental comics artists; though his storytelling was always crystal clear, panel by panel Hayes sacrificed the comics medium's traditional, cartooned accessibilities in favor of total self-expression.
Which brings us to the big question Hayes' work begs -- did he know what he was doing or not? Was he the glowering artiste destroying comics' usual parameters to achieve the nauseous intensity his work carries? Or the cracked outsider who just wanted to draw EC Comics stories and ended up with this stuff due to the limitations of his skill set? What biography we've got on Hayes seems to indicate that he was a combination of both, but looking at the work alone offers no answers, only the question louder and louder with every bit of stippled shade. Are the grotesques of the bear's facial expression and the creature's melted-human form calculated provocations or genuine nightmare visions? Are the abstract shapes and lighting regimented stylisms or random, personal firings of ink? Hayes drew psychological comics in a different sense than we're used to, but no less a valid one. The characters are as flat and inscrutable as the pop-horror worlds they inhabit, but it's impossible not to wonder at the dimensions of the mind behind this panel, and what secret flashes were hidden in its spotted blacks.