Creature Comforts: Hotwire Volume 3

Rob reviews the third volume of the Glenn Head-edited anthology, Hotwire (Fantagraphics).

This volume of Hotwire looks and feels very much like the first two volumes, with no surprises. Glenn Head’s stated mission (“fun” comics with great stories, not literary comics) has never much jibed with what he’s actually published in Hotwire (there’s plenty of strangled storytelling and stuff that’s not remotely comics in here), but what’s important is that Head has created an anthology series that has almost no overlap whatsoever with any other anthology. It’s a book friendly to gag cartoonists like Johnny Ryan (who has several laugh-out-loud strips in “The Cockhorns”), Michael Kupperman (his craziness surrounds the bitey tendencies of a McGruff-type dog) and Sam Henderson (who has a strip about one of his wonderful frat boy characters). It’s a book friendly to noir. It’s a book that treasures the trashier and more transgressive elements of comics. Hotwire in some ways is a companion piece to the great zine Mineshaft in the way it provides a venue for 80s underground cartoonists like Doug Allen and Mary Fleener.

Most of all, it’s a venue for things Glenn Head likes. As such, I find it to be an occasionally frustrating read. Head simply seems to be drawn to grotesque imagery for its own sake, as the interstitial images by the likes of David Paleo and Stephane Blanquet reveal. He’s drawn to cluttered, chaotic drawing styles, like Matti Hagelberg’s eye-punishing scratchy line and Steven Cerio’s story that’s impossible for my eye to grab on to. Comics like Doug Allen’s “Hillbilly’s Dun Gawn Ta College” are typical of the sledgehammer-subtle nature of underground satire. The overall effect of this book is like attending a carnival freakshow, where not every exhibit is necessarily in good taste or much fun to look at.

On the other hand, the pleasures of this book are not to be found in any other venue. The Eric Watkins/Chadwick Whitehead collaboration “Bottomless”, a story about a man who could swallow anything, had a grotesquely hilarious twist ending and stood out for its lurid orange coloring. Head’s two stories, “Candyland Clinic” and “Vulvina, the Ventriloquist’s Daughter” were both outstanding. The former used anthropomorphic animals in a story conflating Candyland and a mental asylum, presenting its protagonists with the grim choice of seeing reality for what it is (and wanting to die as a result) and blissed-out sedation. The latter story is based on the real life of German artist Hans Bellmer, reimagining him as a ventriloquist whose “degenerate” act consisted of acting out his desires on a “naughty” doll of his own creation. His frenzied obsession inspired him to take photographs of her body mutated into different poses, which caught the eye of the Surrealists’ “pope”, Andre’ Breton. Head naturally seizes on the more obsessive aspects of Bellmer’s life, removing them from their original context yet still keeping alive the key elements of his weird brilliance.

Other choice bits include a typically hilarious autobio story by Fleener, whose “The Judge” finds her entering the world of handguns so as to deal with the weirdos that came by her home (she shared one chilling anecdote of a serial-killer type who robotically droned on about getting into her home because he was with the phone company and wanted to tell her husband he couldn’t call there). Mack White’s ludicrous “Roadside Hell” is a meta-story about trashy pulp being the doom of a criminal operative, while Mats!?’ “Sleepwalker” contained all of the chaos of a favored Head story while still retaining its narrative clarity. Continuing in that vein of lurid clarity, Rick Altergott’s “Keen On A Clown” mashed together noir and clowns for what turned out to be the most unsettling story in the book. Onsmith continued to plumb the depths of midwestern plains angst while Tim Lane provided another selection from his ongoing saga of the American underbelly with a tale of a young trainhopper encountering potential danger.

If nothing else, Hotwire is cohesive in its themes and ordering. All Head is really interested in is putting on a show with the comics that entertain him, and the oversized pages are the perfect venue for his interests. What’s amazing is that he found the comics anthologies of the days to be wanting in terms of having things he wanted to read and look at, and so he gathered up a huge cast of creators and proved that there was another way to go in assembling such books that had its own creative gestalt. That’s all any reader can ask of an anthology, whether or not its contents interest them in particular. Hotwire should have some stories that any alt-comics reader would find to be top-notch (there’s even a R.Sikoryak mash-up of Hamlet and Dennis the Menace), and for a certain segment might prove to be the anthology made just for them.