(Andrice Arp / Marc Bell / Elijah J. Brubaker / Shawn Cheng / Chris C. Cilla / Michael DeForge / Kim Deitch / J. T. Dockery / Theo Ellsworth / Austin English / Eamon Espey / Robert Goodin / Julia Gfrörer / Levon Jihanian / Juliacks / Kaz / David King / Tom Neely / Anders Nilsen / Scot Nobles / Jason Overby / John Porcellino / Jesse Reklaw / Tim Root / Zak Sally / Gabby Schulz / Josh Simmons / Ryan Standfest / Kaz Strzepek / Matthew Thurber / Noah Van Sciver / Dylan Williams / Chris Wright)
The gag comic relies on the reader to connect a single cartoon and the words around it in a manner in which the absurdity of the situation provokes laughter. According to the Library of Congress: “They cover a wide range of humorous situations through an arsenal of approaches that include underscoring social discomfort over relations with members of the opposite sex, poking fun at awkward family moments, providing an outlet for laughing at social inhibitions, or conveying the perceptive and sharp observations of children.”
You've been surrounded by these things all your life, from Bil and Jeff Keane's The Family Circus in the daily newspaper to the subtle corner placements in the pages of Playboy and Esquire. These are often filler comics – quick chuckles to displace your attention from more ponderous work.
But there can be something subversive about these things.
Imagine if you will, that one bright and sunny day, Robert Mankoff, the current cartoon editor for The New Yorker, had, for a number or various and sordid reasons, a complete psychotic break. Imagine that this break allowed Mankoff to envision the world and his place in it in a completely alien way which them pushed him to approach his job as editor in a new light, where the gag comics he chose for inclusion in this storied magazine reflected his new understandings of life, humor and art. What comics would he choose? May I posit the idea that they would be almost entirely made up of the gags found in Tom Neely's curated 2010 collection Bound and Gagged from I Will Destroy You Press.
The solicitation for Bound and Gagged reads: “What happens when you ask a bunch of cartoonists, artists, and assorted weirdos to do one panel gag comics?”
The answer appears to be something along the lines of, “You break the brains of your audience.” But it will break them in the most delicious and wonderful way.
The gag comic is usually the middle of a larger story. It eschews the beginning (the who, what, when, and why), as much as doing away with the ending or denouement of the action. The gag comic lives in the meat of the moment, and, by doing so, counts on the reader's prior knowledge to make sense of the situation.
For the gags found in Bound and Gagged, the middle is a weird place to be. Most of these comics take occur in some sort of odd liminal space that places you off-kilter and grasping for meaning. It is this juxtaposition between the expected and the unknown that make these gags something other than just a handful of cheap laughs. By disassociating us from our comfort with form and assumption, we stretch our sense-making to grasp either something seemingly profound or visceral.
That's not to say these comics aren't funny. Many, if not most, are hilarious. But the creative force of the artists here (including many well-known names in the small press comics community) lead us to question what it is, exactly, we are laughing at. It is not the absurdity or the commentary, for the most part, that leads to the giggles. It is something weirder and wilder, our discomfort or our unease at the places with which we are confronted.
Here we are, quick and unfettered, cast adrift for a moment and flailing our arms. What we connect with is context – these are supposed to be gags, after all – and so we laugh, sometimes harder than we should. Sometimes maniacally or unnervingly.
And that may just be the most important thing we have ever done.