Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 223 (9/14) -- Elephant Man #1 by Greg Houston

Every generation, and every art, needs wild men. If an art is lucky, it can get one every generation -- but it can't count on that. Comics, still an outsider form eighty years later, has more wild men than most -- Fletcher Hanks, Bob Burden, Jim Woodring, Tony Millionaire, Marc Hansen -- but that never means that there isn't room for a new one.

Greg Houston is the newest wild man of comics, with plots that nearly out-odd Burden and art that rivals Basil Wolverton or Drew Friedman in its taste for grotesques. (Though Houston has a looser, more modern line than either of those; he's a generation later and harsher than Kevin O'Neill and probably also influenced by the newer independent masters of the gross-out: Ron Rege, Jr., Johnny Ryan, David Heatley.) Houston's first graphic novel, Vatican Hustle, came out last year [1] to generally positive, if confused reviews.

And now Houston is back, with what may be the first in a series of stories about a new grotesque character -- if the "#1" on the cover isn't just part of the joke, which it very well might be. Elephant Man is one part twisted version of the Superman story -- down to the mild-mannered print reporter with glasses, his tights-clad alter ego, and the tough brunette reporter caught in a love triangle with him -- and one part Greg Houston parade of grotesqueries, returning to the bizarre Baltimore of Vatican Hustle (one minor character from that story makes an appearance here).

The Elephant Man is Baltimore's very own superhero, beloved by populace and Mayor Thunder McPeehee alike. And he's secretly Jon Merrick, intrepid scribbler for the Daily Crab. He's also utterly powerless and heavily deformed -- he's not just an elephant man, he's The Elephant Man -- but crimes still tend to be foiled in his vicinity, and he gets the credit. Several nefarious characters -- too-handsome TV newsman Dick Denton, shadowy three-headed criminal The Priest, The Rabbi, and The Duck -- independently loathe EM, and join forces to "show Baltimore the truth about him."

It doesn't work out, of course -- various things happen to ruin their plans -- and along the way, Houston can indulge his love for quirk and oddness (the loudmouth weather man leaping on air to warn viewers about a coming light mist, two be-coiffed girl gangs of different ages, competing donut shops) as his story rambles its way around his grimy but vibrant Baltimore. Houston is closest to Bob Burden among the wild men: both tell stories that start from the superhero milieu but run several miles off in idiosyncratic directions, though Burden's drawing has always been prettier and sleeker than Houston's carefully-observed ugliness.

This is a damn weird book, and it's not for everyone -- as the cover says, "Even theme criminals are screwed!" -- but if you've ever liked any of the other creators I mentioned above, you might want to take a look at Greg Houston's work. He's not quite like any of them, of course -- wild men are alike only in their wildness -- but his off-center inventiveness and gleeful squalor will appeal to those of us tired of the same old pretty punch-em-up types.

[1] I reviewed it for ComicMix then.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

No comments:

Post a Comment