When I was nine, my father, who had just directed a play at the college where he taught, gave me the gag gift which had been presented to him by the cast. It was an over-sized coloring book depicting the days of the American Revolution — tri-corner hats and men in powdered wigs filled the pages, with captions beneath claiming that these black and white line drawing accurately illustrated such moments as the signing of the Declaration of Independence and Ben Franklin’s shocking the nation with his spare key. My father gave me this huge coloring book, probably without having thumbed through it himself, because if he had he might not have given it to his pre-pubescent son. His student’s had altered the drawings, adding in balloons with “R” rated dialog and altering the physiques of our founding fathers so that they were more… let’s just say Benjamin Franklin’s reputation with the ladies would have been easily explained by what some creative college sophomore did with a felt tipped pen.
I was captivated by the dual layer of the coloring book. The original story was still there, and the fact that George Washington was now cutting down the cherry tree while badmouthing his mother with a gleeful Jack Nicholson face a la “The Shining” added for effect didn’t alter the fact that there he was, ax in hand, mid-swing. There was the original tale. There was the ironic, sarcastic, sardonic second layer plastered on top, commenting, challenging, but evocative of the very past that it was supposedly masking. I was fascinated by this and returned to it, never adding to it — I felt the book was perfect the way it was, and I would study the additions and laugh at jokes I wouldn’t really get for another six or seven years and then I’d slide the whole thing under my bed. This is how I felt as I read Borin Van Loon’s The Bart Dickon Omnibus. This graphic novel, constructed out of multiple “borrowed” images from various sources and cut-and-pasted together by Mr. Van Loon is an astounding example of surreal riffing on culture. It’s smartly juvenile, crudely polished, and maddeningly simple. This book hits the right notes in many different ways.
First, the collage technique used here affects the overall presentation of the story by being a visual pun on one of the through-lines of the book. Bart is the “ideologically sound secret agent” with an oddly communist agenda that forces him to remain in protest of Thatcher’s administration. The pun that history has ended, as all good communists aspire to prove, is illustrated by the use of decades worth of images. It collapses history and continuity, it evokes the past while being very contemporary. The styles of the drawings (and there are many, I can’t even begin to guess how many sources were used; the copyright page includes a note which claims that some of the art reaches back through the past two centuries) and the constantly changing appearance of Bart and every other character as a result, is a constant reminder that you are looking at history mushed together, that this is artificial, manufactured. Bart’s actions are standard heroic daring-do, but patched together from every imaginable angle and style of pulp art. Some graphic elements are obviously silly ads (I was sadly excited to find a chapter which uses the “dork on the beach gets exercise instructions and kicks the bully’s ass” ad from the back of comics circa 1975), others may be Buck Rogers comics, Lone Ranger style westerns, romantic boudoir shots, or even illustrated medical journals (as is used in the chapter on Bart’s refusal to be born).
The difficulty of all this is that while the book’s hyper-awareness of the past, the use of and playing off of the antiquated views of women, school, war, art, death, etc., invites smart critique, it is unrelenting in its mocking of criticism and intellectualism. It’s like taking a film course being instructed by the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew (not the cast, but literally the characters), or a writing class by Thomas Pynchon. There is more interest in the telling than in the story. Despite all this, there is some story here, and like Pynchon it may require more than one sitting (a little can go a long way while deciphering what is going on when it takes so much effort just to know who you are looking at). The use of any continuity is impressive. How long must it take to get panels that flow when every image is from a different source? One way that Mr. Van Loon provides structure is by breaking the book into chapters which involve specific elements of Barton’s life. This breaks our culture (the real subject of the book) into digestible parts for lampooning: birth and medicine, war, exploration and masculinity, sex.
But, in the end, who cares about plot, characters, evolution, conflict, resolution, or even continuity? There are puns to be made, jokes to throw at the wall, and the time for counting to see what has stuck will come later and be done by someone else. Inevitably, that someone else is the reader. When everything looks different from panel to panel, when the dialog or captions sometimes speak directly to the reader (pointing out a bare nipple, for instance, as acceptable on “artistic” grounds) who else can provide the context and continuity? You have to say, in other words, “I’m in on the joke.” Like Mystery Science Theater or meta-fictional writing the reader is responsible for “getting it,” as jokes are thrown quick fire at you (and some may be lost due to a difference between Brits and Americans) you can’t merely wait for the man in the cape to swoop in and rescue the damsel, you have to be aware that drawings of capes and drawings of damsels are beyond swooping and saving, unless we find room for them in the stories we create for ourselves.
It’s been said that comics are like watching a movie with the sound off. In this case, Bart Dickon is a little like watching the news with the sound off-important stuff is happening, nothing necessarily leads logically to the next, and there’s a good deal that’s disturbing, but the stories march on, and who the hell knows what they’re about. There are some surreal games and texts in the Omnibus as well, but the real joy is the main story, a graphic novella entitled “A Severed Head.” Like the pulp art that the work is pulled from, “A Severed Head” is filled with stereotypes and cliches, but when the simplicities of these are put together, they create a complex whole which is compelling and hard to ignore.