Thursday, June 29, 2006

Into the Scrublands

This new collection debuts the bizarre, wacky and occasionally bawdy work of South African writer and illustrator Joe Daly to American readers. Most of the strips are short stories and vignettes of just a few pages in length, taking characters like the bantering Steve and Kobosh, the dog-headed boy named Dorfman and Joe through strange and mundane adventures across the cities and deserts of Daly’s native land. The more ordinary threads of hanging out in record stores, grocery shopping and making rent recall Peter Bagley’s take on slacker youth in Buddy Does Seattle. These tales slip quite casually from quick jabs of Beavis and Butthead style of humor to philosophical nuggets; the oddness of these slacker characters spouting insightful words only makes what they say all the more surprising and profound. Some storylines contain occasional drug references and hallucinogenic artwork (at one point the wall in Steve’s apartment gives birth to a small baby boy), displaying a strong influence of independent comics masters like R. Crumb. A separate storyline entitled Aquaboy tells the story of a teenager who---despite his unusual ability to breathe underwater---experiences very real-to-life problems like divorced parents and the rough but magical entry into puberty.

The centerpiece of the collection is “Prebaby”, a 70-page narrative about a spirit traveling from conception to birth, enduring bizarre encounters across a beautifully surreal landscape along the way. All masterfully told without the use of any text, Daly’s artwork of biomorphic shapes done in deep umbers, warm oranges and earthy browns give this story a complexity that’s fresh and surprising. Fans of more arty side of indie comics will love this section, but it will likely baffle general readers in its non-traditional approach.

Personally, I loved this little collection. In looking up info on Daly (he’s put together a couple other collections in his own country and has done some animation work) I found several reviewers put off by his style of humor. Admittedly, there is a ton of bodily humor, and jokes centered around sex and drug use. So if that style is too lowbrow for you, avoid Daly. But if you can get past---or like me enjoy---the humor you’ll find Daly holds a strong ear for dialogue, delivering layers of meaning in just a few words. But it’s more the rich, vibrant artwork and Daly’s unique flair in telling the story visually that will keep me reading this title and looking for others by him again and again.


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