June 8, 2015

The Perks of Being a Problematic Asshole: Cutting into Aaron Lange's TRIM

**cover of girl splayed like a wet trout** WHY DO YOU OBJECT TO GIRLS BEING PRETTY.Gail Simone on Twitter, April 19, 2015

Far be it from me to deny anyone the right to enjoy the hell out of Outrage–Me, I love good outrage. especially justifiable outrage. I could luxuriate in being pissed off at a great many things… But drawings of the female form -(or even male) –ain’t one of them. Sorry. Matter of fact, I rather enjoy them.
So by all means get furious, enjoy the addictive rush of anger and lash out, vomit bile… but maybe think better of it and count to ten before pressing Send.” – Bill Sienkiewicz on Facebook May, 2015

The version of millennial social justice advocacy that I have spoken about — one that uses Identity Politics to balkanize groups of people, engenders hatred between groups, willingly lies to push agendas, manipulates Language to provide immunity from criticism, and that publicly shames anyone who remotely speaks some sort of dissent from the overarching narrative of the orthodoxy — is not admirable. It is deplorable. It appeals to the basest of human instincts: fear and hatred.” -- Aristotelis Orginos “Social Justice Bullies: The Authoritarianism of Millennial Social Justice”

Let everyone mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.” -- Henry David Thoreau Walden

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” -- George Orwell, Animal Farm

DANIEL ELKIN: I have an opinion.

No matter how reasonably well I try to justify my opinion, someone is going to disagree with me. This disagreement will lead to a measured and lucid debate which will end with me having gained either greater insight into my opinion or a new understanding of the matter. This will then lead me to refine my opinion. That new opinion will once more be challenged, leading to even more thoughtful analysis and an even more refined opinion, which will then be challenged again, and again, always ending up with a greater refinement and an even larger understanding of the matter at hand.

This is the evolution of thought and how rational and empathetic individuals work out their understanding of the world. Thanks to social media, we have even more opportunities to engage in this cycle with an even greater set of dissenting opinions. We live in a golden era where we can constantly be in the process of opening ourselves to debate and using others to clarify our understandings.  

Yet that is not happening… is it? Rather we are becoming seemingly more polarized than ever before. Heels are being dug in so far as to scrape down into the mantle of the planet. Refinement of thought has given way to echo chambers. Discourse has given away to death threats.  
From Matt Bors' Comic, Reasonable Measures

Choose a side.

Draw a line.

Gain your power by finding your tribe. Dwell among them and define yourself. Identify and stupefy. No further thought necessary. Now you just defend defend defend.

Oh. And attack those who are “wrong”. No matter what.

They wave their hands and, like the World Controller in Brave New World, as if brushing away a little dust, the group disposes so much of what underpins a true, functioning democracy. Due process? Whisk it away. Innocent until proven guilty? Whisk it away.
Art Spiegelman's pulled cover from The New Statesman

We live in confusing uneasy “problematic” times, my friend.

And this has been an enormously circuitous route to start talking about comic books.

Not that long ago I found myself reading the first three issues of Aaron Lange’s Trim. Trim is one of those anthology type comics featuring vignettes, one-offs, and longer pieces all done by Lange, much like Noah Van Sciver’s Blammo. Unlike Blammo, though, Trim stands firmly in the Underground Comix convention of the late 1960s/early 1970s, publications such as Zap, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, and Bent, which were socially relevant with their satiric tone and their breaking the constraints of censorship through their depictions of sex, drug use, violence, and other taboos and fetishes.

This was a ground breaking tradition that, until recently, was celebrated for its artistic bravery and political acumen. Hell, in 1994,Terry Zwigoff made an enormously successful documentary about R. Crumb. But in the span of the last five years or so, there has been a re-evaluation of Crumb and Comix and all that. They’ve been labeled as, to use the parlance of the times, “problematic” by a certain group of individuals who see them as misogynistic, homophobic, racist, and crude.

Which they are.

Which is the point.

A few months ago I wrote a review about Loud Comix #4 in which I said, “These are Comix, after all, and Comix don’t take no crap. Comix ain’t for the sensitive or the dainty or the social justice advocate; they are all about tits and booze and cocks and drugs and fucking and shitting and screaming.” -- which I think sums it up pretty well.

But the landscape has changed. What was once seen as revolutionary and innovating, taking a stand, fighting the power as it were, is now viewed through a different lens. It’s now “problematic”, worthy of scorn, a launching pad for vitriol and blow back.

To my horror, Comix are now considered endemic of a system-wide sense of entitlement, a blatant expression of chauvinism and objectification, something to be singled out and silenced.

But really… is this the kind of response that this warrants? Should Aaron Lange be derided for his work. Is his art actually a threat? What is the problem here really? Who is the “bad guy”? Is it an artist creating art that is an expression of his vision, encapsulating the ideas he wants the world to react to, or is it those voices who declare him and his work to be evil and demand that he stop producing anything at all?

KEITH SILVA: “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. The bums lost! The bums will always lose!” -- Mr. Lebowski

I don’t want to micturate on your argument here, Elkin, but you’re tilting at the wrong set of overdeveloped mammaries with shell casings for nipples. This is the process, this is what happens when the outré goes 9 to 5, circle of life or what have you. As soon as some champion of misfits and antiheroes makes a movie and exposes the underground to the arthouse, it is, as we say in New England, ovah. Remember your Axl axioms: “you’re down in the mainstream, baby, you’re gonna diieeeeeeeeeeeeee!”  

Aaron Lange and the rest of the reprobates at The Comix Company have shown up when the party has been like over for like a long time. The roach’s roaches have burned down to like, you know, roaches? Self-published and underground comics are … legit. Crumb’s counter culture has lost much of its swagger when Zap Comix is now available as a pricey six volume hardcover box set. It’s one time tumescent freak flag now flies in resolution, at half staff, limp in its refractory period. Man, that’s a lot of dick jokes.

Those that carry the fire, the Charles Burnses and the Daniel Cloweses took what they learned from Crumb and others and have become the new masters of the form. So unquestioned is their cultural potency they are welcomed to “the academy.” How far we’ve come, dear Elkin, how far we’ve come.

Problematic? Sure. But only for those nerds too un-hip thirty years ago who are now forced to show their asses as they stoop to finally reckon with capital-C comix. What will it be in ten years? Twenty years? Will those better angels of our culture become nostalgic for the Superhero blockbusters as they do now for 1980’s action films? Legitimacy is a fickle beast. Crumb’s revolution is finished. The bums won, but they also lost cuz a loser is a loser. Turn, turn, turn and all that hippie shit.

And so here’s Aaron Lange, a bonafide shit shoveler against the tide of better judgement as there has ever been. A cartoonist/writer who’s still fighting to make daring and provocative comics, to challenge what the mainstream deems … acceptable. Trim is not acceptable and is, as you say, problematic. So what? How does one even make a problematic comic nowadays when so much that passes in mainstream comics continues to be regarded, especially when it pertains to depictions of women, as “splayed like wet trout,” or in a perpetual brokeback pose and unable (unwilling?) to break the arrested development of its male gaze? Aaron Lange knows. Aaron Lange remembers.

Trim is offensive. And funny. And gross. And weird. And stupid. And decadent. And juvenile. And dark, really, really dark. And really really fucked up. Lange is without interlocutor and at times without conscience. Nobody needs a story about beastiality like ‘Dog and Kitty.’ Seriously, beastiality? But here’s Lange to fill the void. Why? Is that how far we’ve advanced as a society/culture that an artist has to play the beastiality card to shake us from our consumerist stupor? Now THAT is what’s fucked up.

Lange’s greatest gift as a storyteller is his authenticity which is Dutch, I think, for “doesn’t-give-a-fuck”. With few exceptions there is … let’s call it a taint of cultivation -- ‘taint the truth and it ‘taint a lie -- to any autobiographical comic. Not so with Lange, he’s a self-debaser and the baser the better. A what you see is what you get kind of storyteller, in other words, a real asshole. I believe him in the same way I’d believe any recreational junkie who once let his drug dealer (Dog) and his drug dealer’s girlfriend (Kitty) grow pot in his basement. And yet, I was sympathetic when Lange reports Dog and Kitty broke up. He muses, “If Dog and Kitty can’t make it, who can?” Amen, you sick fucks.

And that’s the true meaning of Christmas, Elkin, the “problematic” comics of yesteryear may be mainstreamed to the point they’ve (again) fallen out of favor to engender new criticism. Good, because as you say, that’s the point. Lange draws from a similar cesspool of the illicit and the arrested. Comics like Zap Comix or Trim will never be straightforward or easy to parse. And neither will those few brave and stupid souls like Lange who keep trying to be problematic, thank God.

ELKIN: There you go, Silva -- here I am trying to talk about the ironic fascism of millennial social justice advocacy and you wanna talk comix (and make dick jokes).

You’re the better man here. I just need to learn to keep my opinions to myself. Nobody is really interested in what I have to say about what others have to say anyway. I’m in the way of progress. I need to find a way out. Way out west there was this fella … Curds and whey.

Crumb and his peers got attacked from the Right, Lange and his buddies get attacked from the Left. Turn turn turn, I hear you Silva. The more I think about my purpose for writing this, the more emotionally dead I become.

I stand in-between, straddling the harbor like the Colossus of Rhodes, micturating on the boats that pass beneath. The old man told me to take any rug in the house.

Nothin more foolish than a man chasing his hat.

“So what” you ask? So what indeed. Maybe as an educator I worry about the idea of the louder voices drowning out quiet debate -- but they always have, haven’t they?  Even thus we continue to progress in our empathetic understanding of the human condition. The edges may be a cacophony but, unlike Yeats’ assessment, the center does hold. Practical. Caring. Heartfelt. As a nation, we are a horseshoe print embedded into the limestone, all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, each panic subsides as a new one rises, yet we retain that longing to be good to each other, a shining City on the Hill, boats against the current and whatnot.

So what indeed. I always am on guard against censorship of any sort, especially when it comes to art. There is a place for every expression, all reactions are valid, all statements lead somewhere -- go moan for man, go sing for every child -- celebrate, denigrate, offend, delight -- but please don’t be quiet and never tell an artist to shut up (It gets even more weird when we are talking about “punching down” and #JeSuisCharlie -- or something like a Muhammad Cartoon Contest being held by armed bikers).

Then again, nothing helps sell art like someone getting upset about it.

I want comix like Trim to make me uncomfortable, but not because someone wants me to be based on their agenda. I don’t want to have to justify my response with a fucking hashtag.

So what? Let’s just jump right in at the deep end here because that’s where I’ve put us. I draw your attention to the last page of Trim #3, a full page drawing of a dead, shirtless woman lying on a table or a couch or something. She has a hand saw firmly ensconced in a bleeding slice through her throat. There is a flat head screwdriver shoved violently through her left breast. A cigarette is snuffed out on her breast bone. A belt is around her left arm, so there is the implication of IV drug use. A liquor bottle and a small smoldering pipe take up the foreground along with a used condom. She wears peace sign earrings, military dog tags, and has a flower behind her left ear, juxtaposed by a headband holding back her Farrah Fawcett hairdo. Two men are sitting in the background, the inference is that they have done these things to this woman. One of them says to the other, “Why’d you put that cigarette out on her, man?

What am I supposed to do with this, Silva? The whole thing is so horrific that it defies actual understanding. It’s disgusting and misogynistic and violent and WRONG on every level. What would prompt a man to painstakingly draw and ink this nightmare? And it comes after so much other truly “problematic” stuff, including a one panel gag cartoon (reminiscent of those you see in publications like The New Yorker), in which two business men in an office stand behind a young woman on the phone and one of them says to the other, “She can’t type, but she lets me shit on her tits.”

It’s unrelenting. How do you defend this?

It’s as if Lange has slowly, issue by issue, realized his hatred and here, at the end of the third issue, he finally explodes. Where does this put me as a reader? I’m sickened by this, yet in a way I have to understand this stuff given the larger context of what Comix are. Given this context, can I intellectually give Lange a pass? Can I screw my courage to the sticking place and actually say something respectful or positive about something that is so obviously hateful and cruel and puerile and dangerous?

Do I have the right to gird my loins for some hashtag activism and call for the death of Aaron Lange?


No I don’t.

But what do I do and how do I maintain my own moral compass when someone “takes it too far”? What is the proper critical response to this?

SILVA: Proper? Proper! Dude, ‘proper’ bit the bag and stepped out the door the minute you cracked Trim. Where’s your Jehovah, now, Elkin?

The answer is right in front of you, my friend. You’ve solved the riddle you just don’t realize you’ve solved it, if that makes sense. If Trim speaks to you on some deeper level like say Mein Kampf, Crisis on Infinite Earths or some such nonsense. The moral here is ‘if’ EVERYTHING about Trim appeals to you (to borrow a phrase) you … need … help and are probably an asshole. To say Lange takes it “too far,” Elkin means you’ve passed the test, hence Daniel J. Elkin, you sir, are not an asshole, at least not as much of an asshole as Aaron Lange, maybe. See, this brings us back to one of our favorite topics, authorial anxiety.

If Lange is guilty of anything it’s not being on the staff of Zap Comix circa ‘71. Like Brian Wilson, Lange wasn’t made for these times of cultural Puritanism and Tumbler witch hunters. It’s not his (Lange’s) fault he just draws that way. I see the appeal of Trim and I love Lange’s willingness to keep comics weird. Is that enough? Lange is, as he should be, very proud Crumb endorses what he’s doing. In Trim #2 and on his website, Lange includes pull quotes from Crumb. We should all be so lucky to have an artist we admire accept said admiration and return it in kind. But ...

How is Lange’s desire to walk in the steps of Crumb any different from Dan Slott wanting to be Stan Lee and only write Spider-Man comics the rest of his life? Laud Trim for its audacity, praise it for it’s celebration of the puerile and the disgusting, not to mention, Lange’s willingness (as an artist) to swim upstream; but is there more there there?

If Lange’s goal is to be an imitator, achievement unlocked, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Or does he, like Crumb, want to be an innovator? Perhaps it’s enough to keep this one freak flag flying, it would seem Lange feels as much. This is the problem with parody and satire, it has limits. There’s no mathematical equation to go further -- no satire-machine -- only the intestinal fortitude, the gall and the grit and the temerity to delude oneself to, at least, try.

Get in your boat Elkin, and take up your oar and beat on (off?) as ceaselessly against the unceasing current, if you must or as you must. Like I said, “Your revolution is over. The bums lost! The bums will always lo…. [slam].”

ELKIN: I guess I believe in the green light, Silva. Tomorrow I will run faster, stretch out my arms farther …  And one fine morning, social media will bring us all together, asshole and not-asshole. Artists will be kings, poets will cover the news, dancers will be in charge of Public Works organizations, and Comix will, once again, be guidebooks to a better future.

Until then, let’s let Aaron Lange fight this Rumble in the Mainstream Jungle, playing Ali rope-a-dope against the body blows of this Hashtag Tumblr Foreman. I think he knows what he is doing.

Also, thanks for telling me I’m not an asshole. I just play one on the internet sometimes.

You can pick up copies of Aaron Lange's Trim from the Comix Company HERE

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