May 2013

Martyn Pedler


Five Faces and What’s Behind Them

1. Taco Head

A man with a taco for a head stands at a fast food counter. The kid serving him says “Uh, is that your real -- is that a mask? Ha ha.” Taco Head replies “Yeah. No. Can I have the taco or what?”

Dream logic pervades Victor Kerlow’s collection of comics Everything Takes Forever. A man can’t sleep, sweats on the couch, and crashes down into a nightmare. Another wakes up next to giant versions of himself, his girlfriend, and his bedroom. The pieces are broken up with rough sketches of girls and action figures, giving the book a charming, doodled-in-the-back-of-class quality.

The Taco Head pages, though, don’t feel like dreams. One story shows him actually telling his friend Toast about a dream, but it’s mundane and pointless. (Yes, Toast has a piece of toast for a head. Why do you ask?) So Taco Head trying to buy a taco feels like odd, uncomfortable realism. “Cause my head is a taco?” he fumes. “So... so I can’t eat tacos?! Is that too weird for you?”

Seeing Taco Head stuff a taco into the open face of his own shell, meat filling spitting loose to the ground... well, it makes you wonder. Is this how he eats? By refilling his own filling? And how does he talk, or see? Are other tacos the heads of other men like him? When Taco Head flies into a rage, struggling with his jacket, yanking out his own filling, slumping in defeat, does he generate less empathy than other characters with happy mouths or enormous eyes?

2. Edison Steelhead

In Renée French’s The Ticking, first published back in 2006, a young boy is taken to a plastic surgeon. Dotted lines are drawn around his misshapen skull, intersecting where his facial features would usually be. Edison Steelhead was born onto the kitchen floor with no ears and his eyes too wide. “You have my face,” said his father, head in hands. “So we’ll go away. Where nobody can see it.”

Edison becomes an artist. His art and French’s own bleed into one: soft pencils used with loving attention. Edison sketches details of his restricted world, finding beauty in small things. The Ticking is, in the end, an uplifting story -- though it’s less “everyone’s amazing in their own way” and more, as David Foster Wallace put it, “you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”

Edison is a semi-realistic portrayal of what comic book abstraction insists is a face. His father orders Edison to wear a mask whenever anyone visits; he doesn’t understand that in comics, everyone’s grotesque. It doesn’t matter if you possess a bizarre superhero build or an exaggerated alt-comic body or just a circle, two dots, and a line for a face. The surgeon’s plans for Edison look like "How To Draw" lessons: the kind that show you how to construct humans as featureless mannequins.

3. Nitnit

I talked to Charles Burns about the first part of his Tintin-inspired tale, X’ed Out, a few years ago. Now The Hive arrives with more of Doug’s story. Doug’s recovering from a head wound, lost in memory. He wears a mask when he performs his poetry, giving him simplified features; in a strange fantasy world gorgeously illustrated à la Herge, the mask becomes his face. In both worlds, we watch his relationship with Sarah, and a third mirror is added in the untranslatable romance comics Nitnit finds for his love.

In Burns’s work, faces are often both horrified and horrifying. Nitnit is understandably repulsed when his food looks up at him, crying and terrified. Sarah takes photos of Doug as he sleeps and he hates them passionately. He remembers Sarah showing him a Louise Bourgeois drawing: “So you’ve got this big naked, anonymous woman with a house for a head... but what’s she thinking in there? Does she feel safe and secure? Or does she feel trapped?” Doug dreams of getting inside her head and finding a room of his own.

“Once you got past the gimmick of me wearing my stupid little mask,” Doug admits, “there wasn’t much else there.” I think he’s wrong. He can make his features more abstract; he can boil them down to a silhouette on his T-shirt; there’s still more. The Hive’s memories collapse into other memories, its faces into other faces. How far down does Doug have to go before he hits bone?

4. The Joker

Not long ago in the cliffhanger-obsessed universe of DC Comics superheroes, the Joker -- Batman’s archenemy, the Clown Prince of Crime -- had his face carved off his skull and left pinned to a wall. Why? Batman explained “he allowed his face to be cut off. He left it there for us. Like a message.” It’s a message poor Batman can’t understand. He’s obsessed with his Bat Symbol: he stamps it on his costumes, gadgets, sidekicks, and the Gotham City skyline.

But the Joker’s distorted face is his brand, and he’s happy to share it. He traditionally uses poison to kill by giving his victims painful simulacrums of his own distorted face. The more, the merrier. It’s almost a disappointment when he steals his face back and straps it onto his bloody skull again. I hoped it’d move through the city, inspiring mayhem, as if Clive Barker had written The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants.

Bruce Wayne might be Gotham-famous, but he’s drawn as a generic, dark-haired, handsomely-structured man. His mask -- his true face -- is all that makes him unique. Without it, he might be tempted to cut a distinctive smile into his skin, too.

5. Unnamed

Lilli Carré’s story "Rainbow Moment: folds together like origami, and it’s been justly nominated for an Eisner Award this year. You can find it in her collection Heads or Tails, surrounded by other near-perfect dreams and jokes and transformations. In the back of the book are shorter, often untitled pieces, told with the same in angular shapes. This is the entire text of one of them:

I’ve thought about you a lot... maybe 20 times... but each time you get a little foggier, as do my memories of all the people I’ve ever met, and everywhere I’ve ever been. In fact, the only thing I’m quite sure of these days is this cup I’m drinking out of right now, and how it feels to drink hot tea on a boiling summer day.

Carré draws a face, over and over, until the scribble of hair migrates south and the red lips mutate north. She draws the tea cup falling prey to the same affliction, its lines stretching and weaving and collapsing. The story ends there.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia.