The latest releases from AdHouse books I’ve read are both beautiful examples of books-as-art-objects. They look nice on a bookshelf, a night stand or a coffee table. You’ll look cooler and more attractive while reading them on the train or in a restaurant. Both suggest narratives beyond themselves, as if the books themselves are chronicling or representing something else bigger and more important, but outside the confines of their contents.
One of them is a lot of easily accessible fun, the other one is nigh impenetrable fun…which I suppose isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. In either case, they make for great conversation pieces. So let’s talk about ‘em, huh?
Let’s start with the character whose pretty, pretty face is to the right there.
Like the Quiet Bird-Man in Jamie Tanner’s The Aviary and the title character of Mike Dawson’s Ace-Face: The Mod with the Metal Arms, Afrodisiac’s first AdHouse-published adventure in 2005’s superheroes-by-artists-not-primarily-known-as-superhero-artists showcase, Project: Superior.
That adventure, in which the hero who possesses both an afro and aphrodisiac superpowers over all women to escape and electricity-themed villain’s master plan of employing lesbian hechwomen, is reprinted in AdHouse’s recent book Afrodisiac, along with a great deal of original material.
Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca’s book is rather curious in that it more or less functions as a greatest hits collection culled from a long-running superhero comic book that never actually existed. There are a whole bunch of short stories in a variety of styles, but they’re greatly outnumbered by the suggestions of stories—covers, posters, letters pages, concept art, advertisements and so on.
The narrative is so intentionally mercurial that each segment begins with the hero getting a different origin in his recap, each of which a riff on a different Marvel character’s origin.
This much is consistent: Afrodisiac is a sometimes-pimp, sometimes-superhero who works and protects the streets of his hometown of Wilkesborough. No woman can resist him, no man (or monster or god or force of nature) can defeat him. Oh, and the stories are all rather good.
The blaxploitation riffs and pimps-and-ho’s humor isn’t something I generally gravitate towards, but Rugg and Maruca give even that new life by the absurd situations our hero finds himself in. Blaxploitation parody may be Afrodisiac’s context, but each story—hell, each page—is a game of constant recontextualization, with Afrodisiac loving, living and fighting his way through most of comic book history. He may be a blaxploitation-themed superhero-type, but that’s who he is, not what he does, if that makes sense.
The character’s longevity and flexibility as reflected in Rugg’s dead-on style mimicry is the book’s best gag. Afrodisiac’s enemies include the empress of Venus, Hercules, Dracula, God, The Devil, Richard Nixon, Medusa and a giant cockroach monster. He’s in romance comics, 1970s and ‘80s Marvel-ish superhero comics, ‘80s black and white indie comics, a Dell-like kids comic, Saturday morning cartoons—apparently, different media and different genres find Afrodisiac as irresistable as the ladies do.
Once you crack the cover, chances are you’ll feel the same.
More challenging by far is Driven By Lemons, Josh Cotter’s follow-up to Skyscapers of the Midwest. Driven is…well, I already said “challenging,” didn’t I?
It’s a small, slim book with rounded corners and the basic look and feel of a college composition notebook of some kind. The insides are all homemade looking, so the reading experience often hews closer to that of finding someone’s personal journal or sketchbook and flipping through it rather than reading something that was mass-produced for bookstore consumption.
There’s a story in here, but Cotter sure isn’t spoon-feeding it to the reader. There’s a gorgeous four-page sequence in which a truck falls out of the sky, then a two page spread in which the words “THINGS WE SAW FROM THE WRECKAGE:” is hand-written in big, black block letters across the top, and below that are two dozen panels of various shapes and sizes, each containing a blue, black and red drawing of close-ups of aspects of a street scene and/or strange monsters, robots and cartoon characters.
Then it gets a bit weird.
The format remains that of a comic, but the visual information within the panels devolves into abstraction, but a purposeful abstraction—the weird little shapes are meant to represent language and information coming out of the rabbit guy thing and/or the devices it carries as it emerges from the truck and…damn, I don’t know.
It’s some weird stuff, alright? A sequence of Cotter’s meticulously detailed pencil drawings give way to about nine pages of the sort of insanely busy, every-atom-of-paper-covered-and-re-covered-with-markings I used to see filling the notebooks of people sitting up sketching while on drugs in all-night diners back when I was in college. That gives away to more panels, then similar abstraction within more descriptive panels, then just panels and words, and then panels and words and different shapes, and then a strange, feverish hospital sequence and then things get even weirder and, like a punchline, a character briefly glimpsed form the beginning of the book reappears to say something that made me laugh.
I have a hard time recommending it, because while I thought it was beautiful-looking, it left me more frustrated than entertained or enlightened—and I’d be worried whoever I recommended it to would be mad at me for suggesting they get it. I don’t like to be yelled at. On the other hand, I would like to tell as many people as possible to read it, so then can explain it to me.
You can dowload previews of Afrodisiac and Driven By Lemons here and here, respectively. The publisher has put together video “trailers” of the two works as well, with musical accompaniment, which you can watch and listen to here and here. I warn you to be careful clicking on that second one though; you probably don’t want that second song stuck in your head.