comic strip

Howie Action Comix

I hardly ever laugh out loud at anything I read, but a few nights ago, Howie Action Comix by Howard Chackowicz made me do just that. The culprit in this case was a single-panel cartoon in which a man stands on the ledge of a building contemplating suicide while a police officer shouts up at him, “Don’t jump, you piece of shit loser… We can talk!” If, like me, this kind of thing makes you laugh (or, in my case, cackle), then you’ll love this bizarre collection of comic strips, line drawings, and gag panels. If not, then you might want to forgo this one in favor of the latest Foxtrot collection.

The range of subjects Chackowicz covers in his collection is as wide as it is bizarre. In one strip, a man gets into an argument with his erect member while a commentator in a parallel strip tries to figure out exactly what’s going on. In another, a squirrel lover dons a suit made of bread and lies out in a park to commune with nature. And in a series of recurring strips, Chackowicz turns somewhat autobiographical, depicting himself as a maladjusted overweight ten-year-old who parades around town in his birthday suit.

Beyond being weird for the sake of weird, however, Chackowicz also explores some deeper themes throughout Howie Action Comix. Loneliness is an obvious one in that all of his characters are searching in vain for some way to connect with the world at large. Yet the biggest theme Chackowicz tackles (for my money, anyway) is the meaning of life, a mystery he explores in a vertical strip titled “Sam and Tuna in: Bottomless Pit.”

In this strip, a pair of characters are seen falling, as the title suggests, down a bottomless pit, and Chackowicz depicts them at various points along the fall: two hours, two days, a week, four months, and forty years. Throughout most of the journey, Sam and Tuna are scared speechless, and it isn’t until the last panel that one finally attempts to open up to the other. By then, however, it’s too late: the other has passed away.

The strip, in my humble opinion, is a metaphor for life itself: we’re always in some form of free-fall, trying to make sense of the world around us, and afraid or otherwise unable to communicate with each other until it’s too late. To put it another way, we’re all falling through the bottomless pit that is life — our journey through time and space, through the sliver of eternity that we get to experience — yet we’re so busy chasing our tails (or anything else that the world tells us is important) that we never take the time to appreciate each other’s company.

In many ways, I have to confess that I like Howie Action Comix because it resonates with some of my own work in terms of tone if not style. In relation to more prominent cartoonists, though, I’d say that Howie Action Comix reads like something New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast might write after a night of heavy drinking — or, more accurately, over the course of a month-long binge. It’s fun and weird and crazy and sick, but it also says something about the human condition. All of this is to say that Howie Action Comix is everything an underground comic should be.

-Review by Marc Schuster

Skin Horse: Volume One

I knew I was in trouble when the characters from Skin Horse started invading my dreams — this after a long day of battling cold symptoms with various over-the-counter remedies and topping the evening off with a healthy dose of NyQuil. Even without medication, however, I imagine it wouldn’t be too hard for the characters in this web-comic-turned-graphic-novel to insinuate themselves into my psyche. They’re a little bit loopy, somewhat dirty-minded, occasionally violent, and on a mission from the US Government to integrate sentient non-humans into society at large. The only problem is that the non-humans tend to resist the team’s efforts with a vengeance. Take, for instance, the case of the helicopter with the human brain: He didn’t ask to be made into the perfect killing machine; life just dealt him a strange hand. So who can blame him for resisting a little when the Skin Horse team — which, by the way, consists of a talking dog, a rampaging patchwork zombie girl, and a cross-dressing psychologist — arrives at Area 51 to convince him to take a job flipping burgers at Arby’s? (Okay, so they don’t actually suggest the Arby’s job, but given the work that they’ve found for their other clients, which include a talking lion and a small army of killer robots, it isn’t much of a stretch.)

As bizarre as it is, Skin Horse is also funny and smart, with hints of Jonathan Swift’s keen sense of satire (not to mention his penchant for the absurd) and Neil Gaiman’s playful faith in magic of all forms. Among the sentient non-humans the team encounters over the course of their adventures are a race of opera-loving silverfish, a tribe of centipedes gifted in handicrafts, and an overbearing crystalline intelligence with a talent for political machinations. That they’ve all been living for years beneath Skinhorse HQ without any members of the team being aware of it only underscores the subtle (and not-so-subtle) jab that authors Shaenon K. Garrity and Jeffrey C. Wells are making at both governmental bureaucracy and the human condition: stuff gets done despite, not because of, our greatest efforts to do it.

Artistically, the comic strips that constitute Skin Horse are a cross between Doonesbury and Tintin, with a slight manga flare that lends itself nicely to the tongue-in-cheek violence of the proceedings. What’s more, Garrity and Wells work wonders with the daily strip format, extending the premise-setup-punchline formula of gag-oriented strips to monstrously ludicrous proportions as each day’s joke builds upon the last to create teetering narrative towers of Rube Goldberg proportions. To put it another way, as the plot lines grow more ridiculous, the story gets better and better. The only problem, of course, is that I can’t figure out how to get the crazy buggers out of my head.