Sometimes we just want to talk about old comics we found in bargain bins or antique stores or in our garages. Is that so wrong? In this installment, we look back at Dark Horse’s 1992 collaboration with The Residents, Freak Show, which brought together the world’s most mysterious band and an awe inspiring line-up of comics best, freakiest talents…
A number of comics’ critics subscribe to the theory that the current Image boom began with the publisher’s courtship of twee legends Belle & Sebastian, leading to the publication of Put the Book Back on the Shelf, an anthology that brought together indie’s reigning sad bastards and an eclectic roster of sympathetic comic creators. It’s not that the anthology was great (like most compilations it’s hit or miss) or that Image wasn’t already publishing intriguing indie material away from the extreme cape shenanigans that the publisher was founded on, but just the idea of a comics company shacking up with a cult indie group was enough to convince the right people that Image was gunning for a nontraditional comics crowd. The thing was, Image was about fifteen years behind the times, beaten to the punch by Dark Horse’s far weirder embrace of the middleground between cult music acts and comics, The Residents’ multimedia epic Freak Show.
Put the Book Back on the Shelf may have alienated Spawn fans wondering who the fuck Lazy Line Painter Jane was and why they should give a shit but Freak Show purposefully built alienation into its structure by making it a gonzo accessory to one of The Residents’ most ambitious projects yet, a combo point-and-click adventure game and an album. The Residents’ approach to marketing was, as always, incredibly forward thinking if not exactly extremely lucrative. Known for their mysterious nature (the identities of the band members remains up for debate), The Residents have also had a hand in a number of amazing marketing innovations– the band is argued to be the inventors of the mash-up as well as the music video and Freak Show itself could now be seen as a major influence on the ambitious multimedia projects groups like NIN and Arcade Fire would later use to launch albums and tours. The Freak Show game holds up better than its resulting album does, but the Dark Horse anthology has them both beat, uniting some of comics’ greatest ever talent to bring the band’s carnival vision to life.
Featuring a cover by Charles Burns, interstitial pieces by Kyle Baker and standalone stories by Brian Bolland, John Bolton, Dave McKean, Richard Sala and others, Freak Show is Tales from the Crypt for Generation X, a handy introduction not just to the band’s weird world but comics’ masterful fringe as well. Each story focuses on a “freak” from the show, with some of the artists taking ample leeway with the material as others literally render the group’s lyrics. Though Baker’s framing kicks off the collection, a rare interior piece by Brian Bolland begins the real story, depicting the sad life and fate of “Harry the Head,” a character who is pretty much what you’d expect– a decapitated but still quite animated head who wins the affection of a beautiful, lonely woman only to turn her against him with his cranky antics.
Bolland’s short is one of the best stories in the collection but it’s also an excellent primer for what’s to come, seducing the reader with the immediate pay off of the promise of its title, yet unafraid of subtly poking at the reader’s voyeurism, the need to point and laugh at spectacle without questioning the impact it has on the subject. Bolland tells the story from the perspective of some bewildered hicks, who question the narrator about the truth of his tall tale, encouraging us to be skeptical in the process. But Bolland depicts every frame with tragedy, honing in on the sad, exhausted expressions of our heroine as well as the angry visage of the titular Harry, frustrated by his inability to function independently even as he’s keenly aware that he’s smarter than everyone around him. We feel superior to the hicks, smarter than them ourselves, but by the end, as Harry wastes away, the message is clear– great intellect is nothing without a little humanity and compassion.
John Bolton’s approach to “Wanda the Worm Woman” is less narrative, but that fits the subject matter, a lady with curious dietary habits who demands you “Watch me pick my worms up and put them in a pile/Watch me sit upon it with my Mona Lisa smile.” Each page of Bolton’s story is rendered as grotesque fine art, the Mona Lisa smile line placed within a visual riff on that classic piece. The Residents worked Bolton’s material into the game itself, making it so that when your mouse hovered over Wanda’s face it switched back and forth between her regular image and a Mona Lisa-fied version of that. We may view Wanda and her dinner as disturbing but she embraces the beauty of it, refusing to acknowledge those who would force her to change her ways, who doubt that she is gorgeous. It’s this dilemma between how Wanda sees herself and how society views her that pushes away her lover, a man who is drawn to her but retreats because he doesn’t believe it’s right…though he’s still content to function as her barker, luring in suckers who pay to be disgusted.
That disdain for the audience is also at the root of Dave McKean’s “Lillie,” though there the visuals and narrative are more directly interwoven even as they’re more disjointed and surreal. “Lillie” is either told from the perspective of a performer looking out on a crowd and fixating on a bright white space, a hateful princess who is too pristine and pure to be in the room, or it’s a narrative of an audience member losing his mind, drawn to the freak show as a way of distancing himself from his budding insanity. Whatever the case, there is a descent, the white first appearing as a rectangle standing out in sharp relief from McKean’s jagged aesthetics, then becoming more human yet also more ominous and otherworldly. McKean’s style has always been associated with dreams but in Freak Show his mastery of facial minimalism gets to take the spotlight, the panels honing in on individual features, like a too wide mouth, or innocent eyes emerging from heaps of darkness and sharp edges. Like the music of The Residents itself, it creeps you out with its hints at what could be lurking within rather than anything explicit.
As intriguing as these cerebral moments are, the heart of Freak Show comes courtesy Richard Sala’s “Herman the Human Mole,” a life’s story in miniature, revealing Herman’s origins as regular ol’ Eddy, a piano playing janitor with an apparent allergy to the sun. Where Bolton’s art is inherently grotesque, somewhat undercutting the message of sympathy hinted at for Wanda and McKean’s style is too obtuse to provide emotional stimuli, Sala portrays Herman as the most human character in his short. Desperate for friendship, nursing a crush on a woman he works with, Herman plays the piano for her as she gets friendly with their other co-worker, only to end up the victim of some vicious domestic abuse and selfishness. Herman’s tragic story might not have a happy ending when he ends up in the “care” of a traveling freak show but Sala wants us to understand why Herman’s new life and identity is more appealing to him than his experiences in the real world.
Ultimately, that seems to be what The Residents wanted to communicate with Freak Show, inviting you to partake in the spectacle but also demanding that you appreciate the lost art of its setting, to see how the freak show world wasn’t exclusively exploitative but also a community that provided a home and appreciation, of a sort, for outcasts. The bulk of the artists gathered for Put the Book Back on the Shelf were fittingly soft and inviting, near anonymous in their aesthetics in order to fit the comfy mood of Belle & Sebastian’s music, but Dark Horse and The Residents wisely went the opposite way, collecting artists who matched the alien otherness of The Residents, freakish and disturbing and alienating yet haunting and stimulating. It’s too bad Freak Show didn’t kick off quite the same indie boom at Dark Horse that it did at Image– if anything, it merely continued the publisher’s knack for creating worthwhile licensed works. Still, when you consider the legacy of outsider auteurs at Dark Horse like Mike Mignola and Eric Powell, maybe Freak Show had more of an impact than one might initially imagine.
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