Recently unveiled in the Stupid Comics wing of the Mister Kitty Galleries, an exhibit entitled "The Nuclear Spawned Martial Arts Frogs" is already causing a stir among the more adventurous culture-seekers in our midst, as well as a corresponding and widespread questioning of the worth of sequential art, and indeed, of the existence of symbol-making humans in general. But before you self-administer that frontal lobotomy and return to the brutish, precivilized state of our genetic forebears, let us examine the work in question.
Already we see, in its use of stark black and white imagery, a compelling and uncompromising vision on the part of our creatives. Half-finished figures, their outlines barely visible, lurk like ghosts near clumsy iterations of popular comic strip characters - paging early Warhol! - as crime and lawlessness are on display in one half of our bisected picture plane. On the other side, resplendent in order and kanji someone copied out of the back of a package of instant noodles, is Japan, a nation seen here as the reverse image of an America in decline, imagery that conjures up both the mid 1980s anger against Japanese imported cars and the mid 1980s lust for Japanese consumer electronics, ninjas, and high-tech science fiction cartoons.
The juxtaposition of past and present is heightened by this sequence in which either harnessed or harnessing ("harneses" is deliciously unclear) nuclear power is vaporizing, mutating, melting, and puberty-izing a whole cast of characters, merely a prologue to our story.
With our title emblazoned across our splash page, our narrative is allowed to begin, and the viewer pauses to admire the painful attempts at approximating Japanese syntax while pondering at length upon what, exactly, the object in the far right is meant to represent. Surely that can't be a tree.
Asians as represented in Western popular imagery were consistently portrayed as squint-eyed, Moe Howard-coiffed individuals with poor eyesight, protruding teeth, and a predilection towards beginning every utterance with "Ah so." The Nuclear Spawned Martial Arts Frogs are no exception here, and the jury is still out as to whether or not these racist stereotypes are actual honest racist stereotypes, or merely using racist stereotypes to highlight the absurdity and inherent falseness of racist stereotypes, or a third possibility, which is, intent be damned, these are racist stereotypes, what is this, 1944, cut it out already, you creep.
Boldly dispensing with logic or consistency, The Nuclear Spawned Martial Arts Frogs introduce contrast with the simple expedient of making the background suddenly a solid black, and then, again defying common notions of comics narrative, returning to blank white space in the next panel. The doors in the hallway of this supposed nuclear power plant, a hallway already reeling from the severe perspective suddenly introduced into our picture plane, are placed so close together as to render the rooms they supposedly serve nothing more than narrow corridors useless for any nuclear power generative purpose, and are scrawled with commentary on the thoughts of our own ostensible main character, Dr. Haaansaan. Truly, The Nuclear Spawned Martial Arts Frogs live in a world freed from our arbitrary dictates of sense or good taste.
Like the firey hand of The Lord inscribing "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" upon the walls of Belshazzar's feast in the Book of Daniel, the walls of our Japanese power plant are positively teeming with important messages for all who know to look. Truly future generations will themselves gaze at "This Was (sic) To Reactor Core Monitor Room" and puzzle over its meaning just as we puzzle over Belshazzar's dictum to beware the Persians.
Wallace "Woody" Wood, star SF artist for the EC line of comic books in the 1950s, went on to influence a generation of artists with his work both in the advertising industry and in MAD Magazine, itself a mid-century youth culture icon. Across the Pacific, Godzilla, the rubber-suited monster star of dozens of Japanese "kaiju eiga," would himself be emblematic of both a nation's fear of nuclear destruction and a nation's insatiable lust for films starring rubber-suited monsters exploiting that selfsame fear of nuclear destruction. When all of these cultural touchstones are referenced in one sloppily-inked comic book panel, well, it can still be an awful failure.
Just as many fine artists direct assistants in the production of finished pieces, The Nuclear Spawned Martial Arts Frogs is the product of several hands. Here in this carefully delineated series we see one of the more figurative draftsmen involved in the project bringing all his - or her! - technique and skill to bear on the task of really bringing emphasis to this buck-toothed, four-eyed Asian caricature that insults West and East alike.
Confounding our expectations, The Nuclear Spawned Martial Arts Frogs continues to impress. Other, lesser works might have wasted the "Asians confuse L with R and vice-versa" stereotype early on page one or two, but The Nuclear Spawned Martial Arts Frogs wisely bides its time until the precise moment of its most effective use, here in the first panel of page four, in which Dr. Nagara is "rate." And yet, the author completely dodges the possibility of turning "crap" into "clap!" A bold move indeed.
External and internal states of being both intertwine as the nuclear power plant's emergency protocols mirror the panicky shouting of our good doctor, in an uncharacteristically fun and cartoony reaction panel that merely serves to make us wonder where they swiped it from.
Decades before Murakami's groundbreaking "Superflat" movement, The Nuclear Spawned Martial Arts Frogs firmly and distinctly moves into the squiggly shape-focused visual world of polymorphously perverse forms and organically obtuse line. Big eyes, tentacles, and unidentified liquids swirl into mysterious patterns, and atomic radiation is only partly to blame.
Can a work successfully quote Decartes *and* that frog from the old Warner Brothers cartoon that sings and dances? And was the frog on the left originally doing an Al Jolson reference until somebody realized that a Jazz Singer blackface riff might be a bridge too far? Or is that asking for too much introspection from something called The Nuclear Spawned Martial Arts Frogs?
This sequence demands the viewer traverse both physical space (line) and temporal space (line + cube) to bring into the "now" four heavy English-language martial arts books that find themselves not only on the windowsill of a nuclear power plant courtesy a helpful word balloon back on page 4, but falling down to smash our Nuclear Spawned Frogs on the head, hopefully soon to play their part in turning them into Nuclear Spawned Martial Arts Frogs.
Pablo Picasso was the guy who said "good artists borrow, great artists steal," and even greater artists not only steal but insert the victim of their theft into the narrative itself, forcing the viewer to confront not only their perhaps bourgeoisie attitudes towards intellectual property, but the nature of the celebrity creative itself. When Harvey Kurtzman, over the course of decades of groundbreaking cartooning, inserts himself into his own work, does that "Harvey Kurtzman" itself become a commodity able to be bought, sold, or stolen? And was there a word balloon coming out of Frog #2 that somebody just plain forgot about? There are no accidents!
Echoes of the chest-burster from "Alien," the Eraserhead baby, and the frog-based work of Matt Furie ring through this training montage sequence that, uncharacteristically for this exhibit, demonstrates motion and something resembling "action."
Not content to exist in a vacuum, freely acknowledging the debts it owes to our shared cultural heritage, The Nuclear Spawned Martial Arts Frogs refuse to hide the forces that shape their art or to insert the very first thing that "flies" bring to mind, which of course is the performance by Vincent Prince in the 1958 horror picture The Fly, director Kurt Neumann's last film before his untimely death at age 50 from being eaten by a giant frog.
The very substance of comic art itself - using shape and line to depict the forms of characters engaged in sequential activity - begins to break down as the artist simply abandons any pretense of form, background, light or shadow. Incapable of maintaining its structural integrity in the face of this nonsense, lines get wiggly, ragged, incoherent, or simply vanish, giving this comic art the appearance of, say, a doodle sent through a fax machine and then sent back through the fax machine. Surprisingly, the fax machine is still used widely in Japan.
The most surprising element of this piece is how, exactly, it is able to remain readable as any sort of coherent structure, even as the structure we see in the imagery is smashed to pieces, allowing the reader to marvel not only at the resilience of The Nuclear Spawned Martial Arts Frogs as a whole, but to feel sympathy for whatever poor bastard was roped into lettering this piece of crap, their aching wrist being forced to fill these inane caption boxes with painfully overwritten junk.
Great art asks questions. Questions like "was this all a waste of everyone's time" and "can I get my name taken off" and "do you really expect people to pay money for this?" Leaving this exhibit filled with these and other questions, it's obvious that there really are no answers. The Nuclear Spawned Martial Arts Frogs will always be with us, etched into our memories. There are no questions, no answers, just newsprint and slowly fading ink, giving up their chemical ghosts, atomic bonds loosening, separating into their constituent elements, the paper pulp long since passed through the digestive systems of various rats, silverfish, and other scavengers, thereby gleaning perhaps the sustenance denied us, the intended audience. In conclusion: comic books were a mistake. Bring on the lobotomy.
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