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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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Ben O’Neil is a devotee of surreal absurdism. His Apologetica—a collection of seven short comics, ranging from two to twenty pages, plus a three-page illustrated prose story—is difficult to describe. I mean that in a good way. Though the title references a defense of religious beliefs by Roman-era Christians, O’Neil’s focus is not Christianity or even religion generally, except in a reversed sense, the absence of a meaning-providing God in a world of mass-produced plastic crap literally held together by chewing gum.

Three of the comics feature “Mr. Martyr,” a self-flagellating cartoon that has more in common with SpongeBob Squarepants than the riff on the iconographic Christian martyr adorning O’Neil’s book cover. Though both figures sport paper-white skin, the torso-less Mr. Martyr’s hose-like limbs protrude from his circle of a head. If he had an actual body, the BDSM vibe would be even more extreme. Mr. Martyr loves abuse, and though he speaks through the fourth wall of his panels for readers to spit on him, no one does. His three-part adventure is a quest for meaningful torture, but how’s that possible when no one is paying attention, and you’re just one torture-seeking fanatic in a world of almost identically drawn fanatics?

O’Neil uses a 2×2 panel layout for his Mr. Martyr pages, a very traditional format (Jack Kirby had a thing for it too) that offsets the non-traditional subject matter. Though other chapters vary layout, they remain rigidly rectangular with unbroken frames that center their content with poster-like clarity and simplicity. O’Neil’s secular hell is not crosshatched with naturalistic details but stamped in place by a blunt instrument. His lines are consistently sharp-edged and colored in undifferentiated blocks of yellow, red, pink, blue, and black. The effect is intentionally garish and so well-suited to the consumer-culture critique.

The ten-page “Trash Culture” is the most defining. Global warning results in biblical-level flooding and the discovery of a continent of floating garbage. But instead of an ark, survivors board a cruise ship, and instead of a dove returning with a land-promising olive leaf, seagulls carry back used syringes. When a couple hundred years of asylum-seeking immigration and procreation renders the island too small, new factories produce new plastic crap, eventually expanding the landmass into an all-encompassing crust across the planet.

Though prophetic, the absurdist parable is less about the future and more about the U.S. right now. Interestingly, O’Neil draws his critique of consumer selfishness with very few consumers. Occasional individuals appear in panels (the murdered cruise ship captain, three warring soldiers), but most feature distant angles of inanimate objects. Rather than highlighting acts of gluttonous consumption, it’s as if the objects of consumption have consumed their consumers. We have literally replaced ourselves with human-shaped trash.

My favorite of O’Neil’s selections is “The Sentient Loin,” a demonically pro-vegetarian horror tale in reversed white and red art on black pages (a little reminiscent of horror artist Emily Carroll’s most recent comic, When I Arrived at the Castle). Although the events unfold in standard story fashion (the main character purchases a loin chop at the supermarket, eats it, and plunges into a monstrous dream state), O’Neil’s visual storytelling works more at a symbolic register. Instead of spatiotemporal snapshots following the logic of a movie storyboard, the images represent their content from a greater, iconic distance. The microbe of meat coursing through the narrator’s bloodstream is the smiling face of the supermarket’s mascot. The perfectly round hole that the narrator digs to bury the remaining loin descends into the page in red concentric strips like a target sign. Did the narrator somehow actually dig a hole like this? No. It’s an image once-removed from the visual content it visually represents. It’s an image of an image. Like the narrator who purchases her animal flesh prepackaged in containers that obscure the circumstances of the product’s creation, O’Neil’s readers are weirdly removed from the story too.

The visual distancing approach is most extreme with the inclusion of a prose story. While stand-alone words are an obvious norm of prose fiction, the inclusion of three double-columned pages of prose disrupts the visual norms of comics, while also revealing the weirdness of non-comics visualization. When we read words in prose, we picture things, but when we read words in comics, we see the pictures that surround and so define the words. But suddenly O’Neil gives us “Entire Tinyhouse,” a story about Hubert, a dissatisfied billionaire longing for a Thoreau-esque experience of nature. Does Hubert have the absurdist body of Mr. Martyr or the human proportions of O’Neil’s cover martyr? Is Hubert’s skin the same page-bright white as all of the other characters? The answer is all of the above. Or none of the above. Hubert doesn’t exist visually in the same way as the comics characters who surround him. He’s just words and whatever vague, pseudo-images a given reader experiences mentally.

Though Hubert’s nature trek comes to a tragic end in keeping with O’Neil’s overall apocalyptic tone, Apologetica is not all doom and destruction. There’s even an undercurrent of hope under all the surreal absurdism. Happy ending might be too strong a term, but when the last oil well runs dry in “Trash Culture,” humanity does take “its first collective breath.” And though still haunted by her meat-induced horrors, the narrator of “The Sentient Loin” does escape her immediate hellscape, now apparently a fully devoted vegan. Even Mr. Martyr reevaluates his life, realizing that suffering is not divine punishment and that the pleasure of friendship has more meaning: “If only I’d noticed sooner …”

O’Neil and his readers do notice sooner—though that hopeful undercurrent is mostly swamped by the massive tide of plastic crap washing ashore the shores it creates. If O’Neil is apologizing for any God, it’s the nihilistically indifferent one who maintains our self-inflicted, capitalistic marketplace.

[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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