Almost 20 years ago, the small, quirky Bay Area post-punk publishing house Re/Search released what would improbably become one of the most influential art texts of the past quarter-century. Pranks! was 240 pages of melon-twisting interviews with iconoclastic trickster-artists like Survival Research Laboratory’s robot-destruction guru Mark Pauline, archetypal media prankster Joey “Cathouse for Dogs” Skaggs, obsessive Outsider artist and explosive provocateur Joe Coleman, and Canoga Park’s own Jeffrey Vallance with a too-short précis of his early, pre–“Blinky the Friendly Hen” oeuvre.
Pranks! included anecdotes from (eek!) Earth First! ecoterrorists, proto-Borat comic interviewer Mal Sharpe and the Church of the SubGenius’ Paul Mavrides, plus bite-size essays on everything from pranks in literature to guerrilla tactics of the Viet Cong. The book was a bit of a shambles. Some interviews were barely relevant while a lot of obvious subjects — Andy Kaufman, for example; or Chris Burden — were skipped over; but that, as opposed to some dry academic treatment, just added to its feeling of cultural immediacy. Those with their hearts and minds set on tenure might cite Slavoj Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology or Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon, but over the past two decades the single most common volume in the libraries of young practicing artists interested in actually exploring the boundaries of creativity has been Pranks!
Many of those artists show up in the long-awaited just-released sequel, Pranks 2 (Re/Search, 196 pages, $15) — The Yes Men, with their inspired absurd-extremist versions of global business agendas, for example, and monochrom, who jiggered the 2002 Sao Paulo Biennial with a completely fictional avant-garde Austrian artist named Georg Paul Thomann. Editor V. Vale checks in with several of Volume 1’s luminaries — Realist editor Paul Krassner, the always incisive Jello Biafra and, of course, Joey Skaggs (though to learn about his latest “legitimate” enterprise, the Universal Bullshit Detector WatchT, you’ll have to visit www.bswatch.com) — and rounds up a decent array of new faces from the Billboard Liberation Front to hacker chef Marc Powell to urban explorer Julia Solis.
Solis, the author of New York Underground: The Anatomy of a City, is the culminating interview in the series that forms the core of Pranks 2— charting the adventures of the ’70s-’80s Bay Area secret society the Suicide Club, its much more public spinoff the Cacophony Society and subsequent activities of the principals thereof. Under the surface of the familiar (and eventually tiresome) 100-drunken-Santas-in-a-mall spectacles lies a compelling saga of deep and subtly disruptive investigations on the borders of reality, from the infiltration of cults to the exploration of abandoned mental hospitals and crumbling industrial infrastructures.
With the same sense of journalistic immediacy, Pranks 2 follows its predecessors’ model in patchwork coverage — there are no essays here about flash mobs, A®TArk or the Museum of Jurassic Technology, and still no Andy Kaufman. There is, however, an expanded sense of urgency — even desperation — to the interviews: How do you disrupt the monolithic spectacle in a context where the visual and rhetorical vocabulary of anticonsumerist culture jamming has been completely subsumed by the advertising industry, where cranks are yanked, asses jacked and celebrities punk’d in the comfort of your home theater every day through the good graces of Viacom?
And as Biafra and several other commentators observe, the past two presidential elections and the war in Iraq are hard to top for mischievous sleight of hand. But the bottom line remains that a good prank doesn’t just entertain, it interrupts mass slumber and invites individuals to think critically for themselves. While it could never be the revelation the first volume was, Pranks 2 could easily be an equal inspiration for the next generation of tricksters — whose work will undoubtedly be featured in Volume 3.
One category of prank that didn’t make the cut is the subject of an entire volume unto itself, from the always-hip Gingko Press. The self-explanatory Cry for Help: 36 Scam E-mails From Africa (Gingko Press, 80 pages, $17) rescues a sampling of the obscure-but-ubiquitous literary subgenre authored by this or that close relative of this or that assassinated Nigerian warlord offering millions of U.S. dollars in commissions to helpful Westerners who will assist in the bank transfer of even larger sums of undocumented cash. Beautifully illustrated in faux off-register woodcut style by Henning Wagenbreth, Cry for Help belongs on the shelf of every lover of modern literary peculiarities, somewhere between Annie Dillard’s Mornings Like This: Found Poems and Alfred Jarry’s Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician.
Gingko, in cahoots with Dan Nadel’s PictureBox Inc., has also produced an ultradeluxe compilation of a dozen or so short works by Quebecois artiste Julie Doucet, whose Dirty Plotte kicked fanboy ass to Seattle and back in the ’90s. Those expecting a collection of her feverish, clotted postfeminist graphic narratives are in for a shock. Her latest work, Elle-Humour: Julie Doucet (PictureBox, 144 pages, $40), ranges from pop media collage to Tomi Ungerer–style illustration without missing a beat or straying into comic book storytelling conventions.
David Sandlin’s disjunctive multipage spreads seemed like an anomaly in the early-’90s confessional-narrative-comix frenzy with his vaporous nightmare tableaux rendered in oil paint, silkscreen and other unlikely graphic media. On the occasion of a survey show, Ireland’s Butler Gallery has issued an indispensable career overview titled Wonderfool World (Printed Matter, Inc., 158 pages, $25), which repositions Sandlin as a precursor to many of the current crop of experimental comic artists.
One new work that masterfully straddles the visual and narrative comix streams is Brian Chippendale’s Ninja (Gingko Press, 128 pages, $35), the highly anticipated pièce de résistance of PictureBox/Gingko fall releases. Chippendale was the prime mover (with Mat Brinkman) of Providence, R.I.’s legendary Fort Thunder collective and remains half of the cult band Lightning Bolt. Printed on the cheap newsprint of Paper Rodeo, Brinkman’s dense inkwork was often unintelligible (it doesn’t help that he charts his action in a serpentine back-and-forth pattern across the comic panel grid), and his anthology appearances have been sparse.
That’s all changed here. Hardbound and beautifully printed on 128 pages of crisp white 11-by-17 stock with more than 20 in full color, Ninja is the most revelatory graphic novel since Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan. Following — sort of — the adventures of Mr. Gold the Ninja, Patrick the Monster and a host of others across the crumbling landscape of Grain City, Ninja interlaces its peripatetic storyline with Chippendale’s video-game minimalist sixth-grade ninja comics and blown-up pages of contemporary horror-vacuii sketchbooks. The result is a dazzling and virtuosic display of experimental visual storytelling, teeming with inventive, deceptively scraggy psychedelic doodles and claustrophobic waves of highly rendered textures. While clearly and openly indebted to Gary Panter’s Jimbo and Dal Tokyo strips, Ninja — alongside his contribution to the Wunderground poster exhibit and catalog — positions Chippendale at the forefront of a new generation of graphic artists.
It’s hard to imagine a denser collection of imagery, but the Marc Bell–edited Nog a Dod: Prehistoric Canadian Psychedoolia (PictureBox/Conundrum Press, 224 pages, $25) packs about three books’ worth of trippy self-published comix into one tight book. Sometimes collecting a dozen sketchbook pages and zine covers in postage-stamp-size reproductions on a single page, Nog a Dod is a sprawling, decadent visual feast laid out by a gang of DIY fringe dwellers who imagine there’s been some mistake and they’re never going to get a chance like this again. Bell’s clean-lined überstoner work — familiar to readers of VICE’s comic page — anchors an invigorating compilation of freewheeling (and often collaborative or — ahem — “thanksgiving amoeban”) drawing, painting, collage and text with influences ranging far beyond the normal comix pantheon to embrace such worthy visionaries as Saul Steinberg, Karl Wirsum and Kenneth Patchen. It’s like what you always hoped the Zap Comix jams would be if the artists hadn’t always been saving the good stuff for their solo stories.
While we’re talking old school, Ten Speed Press (of What Color Is Your Parachute? fame!) has issued the first ever career retrospective monograph on the work of Zapista S. Clay Wilson, whose violent, polymorphously perverse tableaux of degenerate piracy originally put the seminal zine on the map, obscenity-charges-wise. The Art of S. Clay Wilson (Ten Speed Press, 156 pages, $35) is a little heavy on the latter-day colorized adventures of the Checkered Demon and his minions, but includes a healthy dose of Wilson’s classic black-and-white drawings and enough rarities to satisfy the most obsessive fan — almost.
For the true Wilson treasure-trove, check out the newest issue of Todd Hignite’s Comic Art — now a double-sized annual from Buenaventura Press, the Oakland imprint also responsible for Kramer’s Ergot 6, Ron Rege’s Yeast Hoist and Johnny Ryan’s scabrous, gut-busting Comic Book Holocaust. Alongside articles on the small ad art of the S.S. Adams Prank and Magic Company and the history of the speech balloon, Comic Art 8(Buenaventura Press, 180 pages, $20) offers a too-brief sampling of Wilson’s pencilled juvenilia. Rediscovered in a box at the artist’s mother’s house and acquired by maverick collector Glenn Bray, the Wilson “Dead Sea Scrolls” are remarkably precocious documents that stand up to much of the artist’s more self-conscious later work, and a lot of what passes for adult graphic narrative today. Their publication sets a precedent for the unearthing of similar mother lodes from the likes of Rory Hayes and the Brothers Crumb — innocent and awe-inspiring.
Finally, the best (so far) overview of many of the artists and movements that have made up the Lowbrow universe has just been published in the form of a catalogue raisonné of the Copro/Nason Gallery’s first 15 years, beginning with limited-edition reproductions of work by Robert Williams and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, and gradually expanding through Tiki, Neo-Big Eye and other Juxtapoz-friendly genres. Most of the standards are here — Shag, Mark Ryden, Von Dutch — but there are plenty of surprises, including unexpected appearances by artists like Paul Loffoley and Russell Crotty. With essays by artists Shag, Williams, and Sandow Birk, curator Meg Linton and publisher Adam Parfrey, Copro/Nason Fine Art(Last Gasp, 267 pages, $40) is a substantial document of the explosion of the Lowbrow underground through the perspective of a small but influential enterprise.