Following up a masterpiece is always a tall order, regardless of the medium — just ask Francis Coppola, Michael Cimino, Harper Lee, and Pink Floyd, among others — but following up an ACCIDENTAL masterpiece? That’s almost wholly uncharted territory.
All of which is to say that I don’t think Alex Graham set out to make the DEFINITIVE comic of the COVID lockdown era with Dog Biscuits, but I’ll be damned if that isn’t what it turned out to be, both by dint of its topical subject matter and its daily-via-Instagram delivery method, form and function coalescing into something as close as we’re likely to get to comics’ ultimate statement on the most consequential period of modern history — although, in fairness, hard-core fans of Simon Hanselmann may beg to differ. But I’m drifting (just a bit, as is my custom) away from whatever slightly dubious point I’m attempting to make here, I think.
Before I get too lost in the weeds, then, it occurs to me that Graham had three possible routes post-Dog Biscuits that she could have taken : do something just as “big,” only this time by design: pull inward and do something more small-scale: or just do whatever the hell she felt like. Wisely, she went with the the third option, and the still-developing result is The Devil’s Grin, a strip she is serializing at something more akin to her own self-dictated pace via her Substack (hey, times change), the first part of which has just been collected and self-published by the artist in a magazine-sized package bearing the subtitle of “Milk.” For the record, it clocks in at 52 pages and this is only the prologue.
So, yeah, maybe she’s going the “epic” route here again in terms of sheer length — it remains to be seen — but in terms of scope, this feels more like pre-Dog Biscuits Graham, with a tight ensemble of admirably bizarre anthropomorphic and/or downright ALIEN characters dealing with issues that are more personal, rather than societal, in nature, and navigating a path through terrain that is hitherto uncharted chiefly because it’s hitherto UNIMAGINED — unless you know of any other stories set in 1948 centered around a mutant prematurely-delivered baby (or perhaps it’s an accidentally-aborted fetus, it’s kinda hard to tell) that’s flushed down the toilet, captured by a demonic entity, and fed until it’s the size of an adolescent by a lactating rat in the space of a couple of days. Annnnnddd I guess that’s me revealing most of the plot of this opening salvo in entirely offhanded fashion. Sorry.
In any case, as you’ve no doubt surmised, tonally this thing is all over the map — grimly humorous, deeply disturbing, deliberately sickening, and classically surreal, Graham’s own authorial POV somehow remains admirably clinical, even dispassionate, throughout : there’s a real sense that we’re not being “clued in” as to how we should THINK and FEEL about any of these personages (loosely speaking) and proceedings because the cartoonist HERSELF hasn’t come to any firm conclusions about any of that yet. It’s an organic work that is feeling its way forward, and in a very real sense both reader and author are in the same boat — one that’s floating through the municipal sewer system of Henryville, Idaho some 75 years ago.
In a pinch, I’m tempted to call a lot of what’s happening here “confusing,” but that seems like too narrow a term — it’s INCOMPLETE (hell, barely begun) to be sure, but there is an internal sub-logic to what Graham is doing that doesn’t exactly “make sense” in any conventional (or even UNconventional) definition of the term, but it’s just as true that at least everything FITS TOGETHER. Events proceed in linear fashion, but the question of whether or not our as-yet-unnamed protagonist is “moving forward” or simply falling into a deeper hole is very much an open one. Just about anything could happen on any given page here, and that makes this comic an inherently EXCITING one.
As for Graham’s cartooning, its trajectory isn’t in question in the least : with each successive project, she continues to build upon her already-established strengths, her linework becoming more expressive as it thickens, her body language becoming more articulated, her character designs becoming more unique, her facial expressions becoming more animated. It’s all rough-around-the-edges stuff, no doubt about that, but it’s the kind of roughness that feels authentic bordering on the EARNED. This is a hardscrabble world she’s drawing and it LOOKS that way — as it damn well should.
Obviously, its far too early to say whether or not Graham is crafting another masterpiece here, but there is every indication that she damn well COULD be — and that if The Devil’s Grin does indeed become one, it will be an entirely DIFFERENT SORT of one than Dog Biscuits was. If that turns out to be the case (hey, no pressure here or anything), then I think the debate over who the most interesting, imaginative, and NECESARRY cartoonist of our times is might just be over with.
The Devil’s Grin #1 is available for $12.00 directly from Alex Graham at https://www.alexngraham.com/TDGcomic.html
This review originally appeared on my Patreon site and is presented here as part of a dubious gambit to get new subscribers by offering free preview content throughout the course of the week. In any case, should you feel inclined to discover more, you can join for as little as a buck a month and I post three new essays/rants/ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics every week. Here’s the link : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse
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