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posted April 4, 2003
Various, Edited by Jerome Gaynor
Bogus Dead is the second of Jerome Gaynor's directed theme anthologies, collections of short stories built around a few simple narrative rules dictated by a very large and dramatic overriding story. The first, 1995's Flying Saucer Attack, asked its participants to submit stories set within the larger reality of an unstoppable alien invasion and the resulting last hours of human existence on earth. Bogus Dead features an equally upsetting finale to mankind's run: the relentless assault and eventual planetary takeover by armies of brain-eating zombies. Both anthologies feature a very mixed bag of comics short stories from Gaynor's circle of friends, acquaintances and comics-making peers.
The charm of Flying Saucer Attack came from gathering into one place the small explosion of emerging voices present in the mid-'90s and asking them to do comics that diverged from the very personal approaches many of them were exploring at the time. Some of the cartoonists were so new to the eye that just about anything they did was a huge step in the reader's understanding of them, such as Brian Ralph's transference of his woodcut style to an archly told story of a skirmish at a fast food restaurant. Flying Saucer Attack also benefited from the unique hint of potential Armageddon in the general cultural air of the time. This allowed for some stories that read like catharsis, as an imagined lousy outcome to end all lousy outcomes was given black and white form. As art, the larger story's assumption that everyone would die gave Flying Saucer Attack a raised middle finger quality in the era of movies and books where humanity routinely triumphed over doomsday-level odds, high-fiving each other amongst the ruins rather than assuming the fetal position over what had been lost.
Bogus Dead features generally better stories at the expense of backhanded cultural commentary and general cohesion. Rather than a group of emerging talents, the years passed have split the contributors into three basic camps: working cartoonists, well-liked mini-comics artists who have moved away from the comics spotlight if not the medium altogether, and generally obscure members of various local scenes acquainted with one or more cartoonists of the previous two types. The process with which some of these artists work seems to have changed as well. More of the cartoonists seem comfortable this time turning in whimsical pieces that have very little to do with the thrust of the given theme. Even when they're funny, like James Kochalka and Jason Cooley's piece featuring Cooley bitching about having to draw his contribution, such stories tend to work against the kind of cumulative pulpy power that emerged with the Flying Saucer effort. One of Bogus Dead's unique liabilities is that a few cartoonists turn in work that looks exactly like the work they were doing eight years ago. You notice the sameness more than the individual story, like running across an old friend still playing in a garage band at 29 years old. Additionally, a few of the stories communicate dread not of people being devoured but of a cartoonist trying to crank out two pages because they don't want to be excluded from the anthology. It's easier to understand why cartoonists would wish to be involved when one looks at the appealing invitation included in the volume's introduction. But a few more contributions could have been boiled down to a pin-up or text illustration and Bogus Dead would have gained for their subtraction.
The majority of the stories in Bogus Dead are unremarkable, dull meditations on basic survival themes, disaffected overlays on the bleak situation, or super-blunt efforts at humor. Some of these are leavened by narrative reversals of the Atlas monster comics variety, the best being Gabrielle Bell's last line, "So naturally, I ate him." But what's really missing is that there are no real breakout, head-turning young cartoonists swooping out of nowhere to capture the reader's attention. Eli Bishop's amusing pair of one-pagers contrasting zombie-filled action with light pseudo-philosophical commentary comes closest to providing that thrill of discovery that should come with an anthology like this one. Bishop's story is funny, his formal choice of dueling single-page presentations works well, and Bishop makes effective use of a smooth visual style that suggests the fluidity of movement that comes with bare-bones animation. Amongst the little-seen veterans, Zak Sally provides moody and effective visual storytelling to a fake pseudo-autobiographical story that defines slight. Editor Gaynor's "Parenting in Wartime" is the most straight-faced and grim in the whole volume, and works much more effectively because of the lighthearted to emotionally dry context in which it finds itself. Gaynor doesn't have the art chops to portray the nuclear holocaust of the story's flashback – the first, distant explosion seen from the vantage of a St. Louis backyard looks more like the neighbor's grill blew up -- but the sheer hopelessness of the situation and raw emotions of his characters, combined with his attention to family details, make for a refreshingly depressing few pages. I wouldn't want his dream life.
The best stories in Bogus Dead come from more established or regularly working cartoonists playing to their formal strengths. Ted May and Kevin Huizenga tell a very simple story of a surprise confrontation between two very isolated survivors, distinguished by Huizenga's unique panel construction and moody artwork throughout. On the last page of the story, Huizenga not only does a nice overlay of conflicting images to convey the scattered confusion of the penultimate narrative action, but he presses them into the upper left-hand corner of the page, leaving white space that frames the concluding moment and suspends the action in time. It's a nice effect, equivalent to ending a film in freeze-frame. Ted May's solo effort is the funniest in the volume. May starts "The Unliving End" with a series of goofball moments elaborating on a protagonist's completely dopey and self-involved reaction to the catastrophe. A few of the other comics go in this direction, but the frenetic energy May gives his dopey lead and the fact the story seems to start over twice makes this effort amusing rather than look-at-me clever. May's conclusion features the animal kingdom's deadpan reaction to the death of mankind ("Sweet") and God driving a large, tricked-out dragster that has a couple of the critters mistaking him for someone named Honky Kong. Tom Hart and Graham Annable depend on carefully constructed pacing to give their respective silent stories a kind of weight that many of the more hastily constructed pieces lack. Annable is working in the same mode as many of the stories in his Grickle effort, but the small-panel approach used by Hart is a bigger break from what we've come to expect from the artist. Both stories are fundamentally sound and pleasing to read.
If Gaynor puts together another, similar project in half-dozen years or so – my vote is for an ecological disaster -- one hopes that more cartoonists follow the lead of the four or five effective offerings in Bogus Dead and match their sense of play, or even continue in the straight-faced vein of the book's editor. A cobbled-together anthology like this one so is never going to have significant artistic impact, but can and should aspire to a higher level of restless, creative energy than nearly all of what appears in this volume.