On account of the whole “busy” thing, I’ve missed out on most of the Big Books of the Year so far. And on account of the whole “$4! For what???” thing, I’ve missed out on most of the mainstream, too. Halfway into the year, I think my favorite book so far is probably GUS AND HIS GANG by Chris Blain, published by First Second. Hell, not even a 2009 book, released in 2008, already definitively and thoroughly reviewed by my betters, placing the following somewhere between drastically unnecessary and deeply embarrassing, really. Now up for an Eisner Award in the category of Best Book No One Cares Won an Eisner. The nomination is well deserved for the art alone; perfectly paced, expressive, *funny*, fast-moving. Enormously pleasurable. But: I liked the story, too, I think, in case that matters especially (it doesn’t).
The premise: three cowboys, robbing banks, getting into adventures, violently dealing with a variety of enemies. None of which ends up mattering very much, none of which the book is particularly about. The cowboys don’t really care about being cowboys; it’s a French comic— the cowboys are just interested in girls.
Westerns. Why do you think “the Western is dead”? The chattering class says that every so often, when some minor movie like Russell Crowe’s dopey 3:10 TO YUMA remake fails at the box office. “The Western is dead.”
A common sub-species is to claim some great movie ended it, usually Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN. “UNFORGIVEN ended the Western, and now the Western is dead.” I don’t know that I understand that. UNFORGIVEN might say “the traditional Western story was all lies.” But why would that matter commercially? What genre fiction doesn’t rely on a little lying? They made four DIE HARD movies regardless, and even the fourth one is pretty rad. Die Hard fights evil computers in it, but he refuses to die thereby making him hard to die a death caused by computers, skyscrapers, airplanes, or terrible Samuel L. Jackson movies. Why not cowboys?
Actually, snobbier types usually blame everything on the same two movies: “STAR WARS and JAWS ended the Western. They ended the 1970’s. They ended actors, writers, directors, and parents mattering. They ended Robert Kennedy’s bid for the Presidency, cookies tasting good to children, and the myth of the vaginal orgasm.”
But I don’t know that I disagree with the premise that the Western is dead, particularly. Genres do sort of diminish in popularity over time. Screwball comedies. Point & Click adventure games. Sitcoms with super-bizarre premises. Steve Guttenberg, in toto. People used to love the Goot; I still think he’s hilarious. Go figure.
My guess: I think people’s tolerance for looking at dirty people has gone down over the years. Cowboys, all covered with dust and dirt, with deodorant nowhere to be seen? Maybe that’s all too gross for our sissified age. I remember that was a reaction I heard a couple times over to a non-Western, Kevin Costner’s box-office disaster WATERWORLD: “Why is he so dirty the entire movie if he’s living on the Waterworld? Why can’t he just go bathe in the Waterworld? He’s surrounded by water!” The Western dies around the same time as the rise of metrosexuality and lady-boy action stars— coincidence? Or just one more thing Orlando Bloom needs to answer for, besides fucking ELIZABETHTOWN.
The Western comes up among comic fans on occasion, strangely prominent on the cliché list of What’s Missing from Comics: “Where are the mystery comics, the romance comics, the Western comics?” But mysteries happen, in life. Romances happen, in life. Walk down the wrong alley at night with money hanging out of your pants, and either and/or both of those things could happen to you.
But when do Westerns happen, in daily life…?
The thing GUS AND HIS GANG most reminded me of wasn’t a Western anyways. It was SEINFELD. SEINFELD, Season 8, Episode 143, entitled “The Abstinence.” That’s the episode where Jerry Seinfeld’s sidekick George has a girlfriend (Louise) who gets sick. As a result, George has to give up sex for six weeks.
When George gives up sex? He becomes a genius.
Jerry, from that episode: “Yeah. I mean, let's say this is your brain. (Holds lettuce head) Okay, from what I know about you, your brain consists of two parts: the intellect, represented here (Pulls off tiny piece of lettuce), and the part obsessed with sex. (Shows large piece) Now granted, you have extracted an astonishing amount from this little scrap. But with no-sex-Louise, this previously useless lump, is now functioning for the first time in its existence. (Eats tiny piece of lettuce).”
I think about that episode basically all the time. And by all the time, I mean the time I spend looking at internet pornography. I could have been a genius, cam whores! All that time, lost! To the internet, magazines, flipbooks. On one confusing yet magical night, a rerun of BARNEY MILLER. Lost, so much time lost! There are entire advanced degrees I could have earned. If I had that time back? I could have easily earned a Ph.D. You would have to call me DOCTOR SHITHEAD in the comments section of this post.
The best way to look at it is, “These things aren’t distractions from work. We work so that we can afford time to spend trolling for creepy thrills in DAWSON’S CREEK chatrooms.” But I’m just not that care-free. It’s just too difficult to spend time guilt-free watching something called PIRATES 2: STAGNETTI’S REVENGE. Because I’m really not sure how Stagnetti got any sort of revenge in that movie whatsoever. Herpes, maybe, but revenge? Aah, sweet mystery of life.
Of course, a more puritanical sort would say the ability to say no, to refrain, is what separates Man from the apes. Guy on the public radio the other day, though, was saying what actually separated man from the apes is that man cooks his food. I prefer that. If we’re lowering the bar to mankind to the ability to sauté, I feel like my cause in this world has been advanced, however slightly. I can cook up all sorts of shit; suck on that, you damn dirty apes.
Success, education, upbringing— none of that might keep a person from unraveling completely, if certain launch codes are pushed in the correct order. People I've known? Lawyers, architects, engineers, all equally screwed up once they're off the clock. Rich, powerful business executives with elaborate “understandings” and "loopholes" in their relationships more sophisticated than a damn WTO treaty. Even in comics: as soon as Spider-man learns to take off his glasses and comb his hair, and he’s 5% less of a nerd socially, he’s out trying to get revenge for his high school years by hate-fucking a model?
(Rhino on the Rampage...)
The characters in GUS AND HIS GANG are similarly distracted. Blain draws what they’re thinking right onto their face: “This could all be so much easier if I could just keep my mind on what I’m supposed to be doing. Robbing banks. Shooting guns. Riding horses. Running from the law. Living a proper, cowboy life.”
But, yeah: no. Not meant to be. Blain takes the most macho of genres, and uses it to wallow in male self-pity. Blain’s cowboys are completely awesome at being cowboys; macho’s easy. But past that, they’re stumbling around in the dark, like the rest of us. I like that; that’s clever.
And I suppose that’s not a lovable comedic topic for everybody, male self-pity. I’m amused by it, but I’ll acknowledge it can be kissing cousins to a very tiresome “men are all dogs, am I right, ladies?” type of humor. Or Benny Hill comes to mind, say— not a lot of people defending Benny Hill in the world. On the other hand, they say Benny Hill was a workaholic who died a lonely, mean virgin, surrounded by cash and un-deposited checks— which, you know, there’s probably a metaphor there somewhere. At least, if you want to listen to what They say. They say the “Western is Dead” and they say “Bennie Hill died a workaholic virgin” and they say “Aliens did not insert a probe into your anus.” Well, how come my rectum is sore, you government sons of bitches? Oh, right: I was fingering my ass while watching reruns of THE BENNY HILL SHOW. That’s what I’m into now. The nervous system gets desensitized to stimuli over time, so you’ve got to up the ante now and then. I upped it to stimulating my prostate to the soulful sound of Yakety Sax. Right… I forgot…
But the older I get and the worse I get, I basically find stories about failure comforting. Blain’s cowboys struggle to interpret a lady’s conflicting signals properly. They struggle to work the bar scene properly. They struggle to keep from cheating. Fail, fail, fail.
So, I relate to that. And yes: I also relate to crying. Why do people keep asking me that?
Stories about characters deciding this or deciding that-- those are fun. When you read them, you get to pretend to believe fun things like “You create who you are. You’re in charge of how you respond to conflicts. You decide your destiny.” But it’s pretty relieving, something like GUS AND HIS GANG. Sometimes, you don't get to decide how your brain works, or control every last thought; sometimes, you just enjoy the ride. That doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to me for a comic book to be about.
GUS AND HIS GANG is divided into a series of shorter comics of varying length. I hope against hope that this is the sort of comic that’s featured by MAD MAGAZINE in France. You know how they have international editions of magazines like TIME? Is that true of MAD? Oh, how I wish MAD FRANCE were true.
American 4th grader, talking about latest issue of MAD: "The new issue, it’s like STAR WARS except Luke Skywalker is called Leaky Aircrutch. They really take the piss out of STAR WARS, man."
French 4th grader, talking about latest issue of MAD FRANCE: "Ahh, yes, the new issue is about a sexual cowboy. Sometimes, there is carnality, and yet sometimes, he is frustrated by his inability to understand women. But alas, life is sometimes like that. Let us smoke and think upon these things, then laugh as we must at the futility of trying to control our manhood. My greatest ambition in life is to become immortal, and then die."
Woody: "Hey, in France, I could run for office with that slogan, and win!"