'Apologetica', a Nihilistic God, and a Plastic Landscape

It's as if the objects of consumption have consumed their consumers in Ben O'Neil's absurdist Apologetica.

Ben O'Neil

Popnoir Editions

May 2019


Comics artist 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 2x2 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.

(courtesy of

The ten-page "Trash Culture" is the most defining. Global warming 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 plastic crust across the planet. Though prophetic, the absurdist parable is less about the future and more about the US 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, Koyama Press, 2019). 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.

(courtesy of

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 upon 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.






'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.