Last year I took issue with, well, a lot of things in James Robinson and Greg Hinkle’s “adult” meta work Airboy. I’ve gotten so bored with offensive works because while they claim to be aimed at censorship and shaking up society, they nearly always have the same targets and the same focus on punching down. There’s not much that’s shocking about a couple white dudes suffering mid-life crises and taking their disappointment in their life out on the women around them, is there? But six months later, I’m reading Ted McKeever’s Pencil Head, another naughty Image series, with a similar set up and similar looking leads, and it’s not inspiring the same level of hatred. This isn’t because I’ve grown more complacent and tolerant towards intolerance. There are key differences despite the surface similarities.
Like Pussey! before it, Pencil Head is an unapologetically crass dissection of the comics trade, only with a heavier meta-element and a more aggressive style. Both McKeever and Pussey! creator Dan Clowes are known for their art comix aesthetics, but Clowes’ style has always been softer, more pleasing to the eye, while McKeever continues to work in the scratchy style that was so dominant in a certain area of the ’90s comic boom. Clowes also hasn’t really worked much in superhero comics as an industry but has occasionally explored the genre in his singular way, while McKeever’s superhero flirtations have occasionally moved into the realm of real relationship, ranging from Elseworlds work for DC to occasional one offs at Marvel as well as work between the superhero and art comics worlds, like Doom Patrol. Still, he’s not a chronic comics lifer like Robinson, so there is a distance to the artistic frustration in Pencil Head that isn’t as present in Airboy— the latter was a work by a man thoroughly disgusted with himself for his status as a late period hack, the former takes a curious but removed interest in the weird world of mainstream comics freelancing.
Here, the lead is the similarly perversely named “Poodwaddle,” a stumpy man with a grotesque resemblance to McKeever himself, a kind of flip of the superhuman endowment and ironic hipness Robinson had Hinkle give him in Airboy. From the start of Pencil Head, McKeever makes it clear he doesn’t really want you to like or sympathize with his stand-in, he merely wants you to view him as normal despite the abnormal circumstances surrounding him in the story. Poodwaddle isn’t a cool guy, he’s not heroic or even particularly notable, he’s just a guy working a job he hates, dreaming about greener pastures. This is in direct contrast to works like Airboy, where the authorial stand-ins are begging for your interest in them even as they desperately attempt to make it clear how “bad” they are; those desperate meta works usually come across as spineless rather than toothsome, they don’t shake up anything or break any new ground they merely reflect the too common middle aged ennui of the privileged.
McKeever is also aided by the ’90s aesthetic of his work. There is nothing in Pencil Head that explicitly states what era it’s set in, yet everything contained within it screams ’90s, not because McKeever is out of touch, but because the commentary he is making on the industry can be read one of two ways. The first is that the last time a comics artist could really make a living was in that spectator boom, but that came with some standard freelancer frustrations, like not having real control over your work, as is the case when a slimy editor inserts bombastic sound effects in one of Poodwaddle’s comics. The second is that nothing really changes. The men who make these kinds of works are frozen in amber, with Airboy existing as a green hued daddy-o throwback to a throwback, meta-meta-commentary on its co-creator’s attempts to distance himself from the ’90s swinger kitsch of his most notable work by merely jumping over to a different kind of kitsch. McKeever is more self-aware, though, and Pencil Head embraces its connection to its creator’s heyday rather than running from it and colliding with itself.
The ’90s also permeate the atmosphere of Pencil Head, making its central non-office setting of a desolate strip club more than just a titillating detour. The strippers McKeever illustrates don’t have the standard unreal comic proportions, instead they have wrinkles and parts of them sag and they have body hair. The strippers don’t come across as being punched down at because again, every human in Pencil Head is drawn with McKeever’s version of normalcy in mind. They’re exactly like the comic creators who are watching them– working a job they probably don’t like for less pay than they deserve while trying to retain their personality and independence. Fittingly, the jokes that involve the strippers make light of the surreality of their job, not their bodies or status. McKeever depicts odd performances by some of the strippers, who aren’t dancing but instead are doing jumping jacks or standing on their heads or generally not putting much effort into being arousing. Compare that to the infamous trap scenario that brought Airboy to its nadir in issue two, where a trans character was reduced to a horrible prank instead of being given any kind of real independence.
It’s weird that a comic that promises a “dead stripper” on its cover would manage to be the more progressive and interesting of these two similarly themed works but the key to understanding why Pencil Head works in a way Airboy never did comes late in the comic, as Poodwaddle is riding a subway and examining the other people around him. He’s looking at these other characters and trying to get to the root of their humanity, in order to include them in his next comic, something he hopes will bring him some respectability rather than the disappointment of the Happy Time hackery. As Padwoodle does this, he bemoans the fact that everyone thinks the characters he draws are “ugly,” when he views them as normal, interesting people. Here we arrive at one of Pencil Head’s strongest messages, which is that normal people aren’t necessarily aesthetically pleasing in an art history sense. They are sometimes lumpy, and squat, and balding, they frequently have blemishes and wrinkles and are hairy.
Airboy wanted you to view its leads as normal guys in an abnormal scenario, but it gave them stylish outfits and impeccable facial hair and huge dicks and then it forced you to acknowledge each of these things, constantly, and in explicit detail. Pencil Head wants you to question why we don’t want to see normal people in our art, why a critic like me would describe Padwoodle as a grotesque exaggeration of his creator’s own features, why we romanticize artists and love when they rebel against square authority figures but hardly ever question the homogenized humans both the mainstream and the art world covet. In other words, Pencil Head embraces ugliness not in a condescending, exploitative way but in a beautiful, appreciative way and that’s a far more shocking proposal than two white dudes on a lost weekend could ever be.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover