Anyway, this… TOXIC GUMBO Art by Ted McKeever Written by Lydia Lunch Lettered by Clem Robins Coloured by Ted McKeever Special thanks to Maria-Elena D'Agostino DC Comics/Vertigo, $5.95 (1998)
In 1998 DC Comics published a comic written by Lydia Lunch and illustrated by Ted McKeever. In 1998 DC Comics published a comic written by Lydia Lunch and illustrated by Ted McKeever. I repeated that because it bears repeating. It’s strange enough to think that DC Comics once had a place for an artist so atypical as McKeever, but they did. Indeed they did. In 1998 he was well within a run of work for DC which would last until the noughties were exhausted. He even had a regular gig in Doom Patrol, although it was after everyone had stopped reading. Mostly though he oozed a bunch of miniseries roiling with his idiosyncratic aesthetic and some Elseworlds with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman shunted into a German Expressionism. We’ll get to those too, maybe. (No promises; promises are just time travelling lies). In 2014 DC Comics is a very different (trans: more banal) place so McKeever currently resides at Image, where his work provides a necessarily brusque corrective to all those underwritten begging letters to Hollywood propped up by fantastic artists. So, despite it looking odd that DC once had a place for someone who draws like everything is made of melting wax, it wasn’t really. Lydia Lunch is another matter. Admittedly, this wasn’t the first time Comics had felt the subtle touch of Lydia Lunch; in 1990 her work appeared in something called AS-FIX-E-8 and in 1992 there was Bloodsucker with Bob “Minimum Wage” Fingerman. Having seen neither I can’t comment, but it’s a safe bet they would have made Paul Levitz plotz. They were probably very Lydia Lunch what with Lydia Lunch having a quite distinctive artistic voice and all.
Lydia motherflossing Lunch! I’m just going to barrel right on in with an explanatory paragraph or two about Lydia Lunch because I don’t know how many people are familiar with the lady and her work. Chances are I’m underestimating some of you; you might still be having therapy to recover from that 8 Eyed Spy gig back in ’80, or still tearfully fondle your crumbling poster for The Immaculate Consumptive inbetween school runs and on-line food shops. Mostly though it’s a sea of blank faces out there, I’m guessing. Well, a sea of two, if the hit-count’s reliable. Lydia Lunch (real name: Mind your own ****king business, sunbeam.) was a mainstay of the New York post-punk No Wave scene and has stood defiantly on the neck of the intervening decades to remain an active creative force. Lydia Lunch is many things to very few people, but back when I was still actively engaged with the world her work was mainly in the realm of auditory assault. In the music papers of the time it was commonly described as aural terrorism; a winning blend of atonal dirges and vituperative shrieking which left the listener feeling like they’d just been hurled down some stairs by a scatological force of nature in female form. It’s not for everyone, the work of Lydia Lunch, is what I’m getting at there. If pressed I’d guess her stuff has its roots in the Beat tradition, but mostly it’s about rancorous anger and provocative hostility; it would probably beat tradition into a bloody mush with a nail studded baseball bat. Think neon lipstick and rat turds. Think lo-fi ‘80s NYC grot chic. Think Driller Killer. Then think about something more pleasant. When I was a Badly Dressed Boy I liked Lydia Lunch, but part of what I liked most about her was she was several thousand miles away.
Like many independently minded modern ladies Lydia Lunch likes to keep busy, she’s dipped a tiny toe into music, poetry, film, the spoken word and, according to the Internet, even a cook book. Apparently this has “sexy asides from the racy author” which just brings to mind an incensed Nigella with shit under her nails throwing knives at a cucumber while spitting sexual expletives. But that’s because I’m stuck in the past; I’m sure Lydia Lunch has mellowed and whips up a nice crumble these days. La Lunch’s work has always been marked by collaboration, so it’s neat she has great taste in confrères. Over the years she’s hitched her exquisitely bitter eccentricity to people like J G Thirwell, Sonic Youth, The Birthday Party, Rowland S. Howard, Die Haut and Gallon Drunk. It’s 2014 now and people don't hurl piss at Coldplay on sight so I realise some of you might actually struggle to place even the divine Birthday Party; if so then you’ve got no chance with the others. That’s okay; it’s not a contest. What I’m getting at is, in common with super heroes and wanton sack-artistes, Lydia Lunch does like a good team up. And comics is always up for a good collaboration, and Lydia Lunch and Ted McKeever is a good collaboration.
Toxic Gumbo, as the name suggests, is set in the Louisiana Bayou. Not the real one though. Visually this Louisiana Bayou belongs to Ted McKeever, because visually this Louisiana Bayou is all putrefaction and shadows, all tumble down shacks and tyre piles. This Bayou is populated by people who morph from panel to panel like they are made of warm tallow. If the real Louisiana Bayou is like the pestilential mess in this book then Heaven help the Tourist Board. In Toxic Gumbo McKeever certainly seems to be enjoying himself. Sometimes his pages are reminiscent of illustrated books with his queasy images silently swarming around a block of text, other times it’s more traditional comic pages but all with that unsettlingly feverish McKeever effect. In addition to his art there are also photos of some quite intricate dolls by D'Agostino which simply by contrasting with the drawn images punch up the unreality of everything around them. Most of the book is coloured flatly but on occasion the colours become deeper and more detailed before slipping back into a flat uniformity. It’s a nice touch. Basically, everything Ted McKeever draws looks like it’s just stepped out of Hell. Which is appropriate because Lunch’s script paints the Bayou as a Hell her heroine must navigate with only the briefest of lulls.
Typically for Lydia these respites seemingly exist only so that the pain burns our heroine all the fiercer on its resumption. The heroine here is Onesia who is spat from the womb when her mother goes into toxic shock after being stung by a caterpillar. Wasting no time in indulging her abhorrence of authority Lunch has Onesia raised by nuns. One of them is nice; which is one more than you expected. Like a malefic MacGyver Onesia uses a child’s chemistry set and some putrefied vermin to develop a concoction of rot which she uses to poison her overseers. Free to wander about Onesia quickly develops an interest and aptitude for swamp magic (i.e. poisons). What follows is a perversion of the picaresque as Onesia makes her way through a world of threat and filth killing people. Okay, mostly killing men. But, you know, for reasons, so it’s okay. Unlike in most male revenge fantasy narratives nothing is solved by these murders and Onesia doesn’t feel bad about them. Oh, wait, she does feel a bit bad about the guy who melts crotch first when he tries to cheer her up with his penis. She bounces back quite quickly though - resourceful. Oh, I forgot to mention that all Onesia’s bodily fluids are toxic. (Hmmm.) Which is why she finds it hard to make friends. Well, that and her friends tend to die violently. Luckily that isn’t such a big problem as most of the folk in the book are deranged shits. Of the two exceptions one gets shotgunned in the face and the other is a kind of deranged swamp Tom Bombadil singing about Jesus. The narrative’s explicit and insistent inability to see anything in any terms other than those of Heaven or Hell might be key. Maybe Toxic Gumbo is about how hard life can be if you insist on viewing it in extremes. I doubt it.
I’m going to stick with saying Toxic Gumbo acts as a satire of the lazy boner narrative, even though that’ll probably lead you to erroneously expect jokes and that isn’t really how satire has to work. I don’t know, Toxic Gumbo was definitely kind of darkly nuts and keen to stress that even when life is just endurance it’s still life. Which is very Lydia Lunch. Add in Ted McKeever and not only is it very Lydia Lunch it’s GOOD!
This one's for Teenage John And The - COMICS!!!