Review of Caricature, Apollo's Song, Master of Reality

I'm posting this semi-recent review that I wrote for the Comics Journal until they tell me to take it down. A review of Dan Clowes Caricature, with Osamu Tezuka's Apollo's Song, with John Darnielle's Master of Reality.

More pics to maybe follow


Review of Master of Reality by John Darnielle, Apollo’s Song by Osamu Tezuka and Caricature by Dan Clowes.

A series of books about angry, isolated, lost misfits came my way in a coincidental cascade this week (all via the Alachua County Library, Gainesville, Florida): John Darnielle's Master of Reality, Osamu Tezuka's Apollo’s Song and Caricature by Dan Clowes. All are about loners: isolated, lost, some delusional, some dangerous, some occasionally clear-headed but hurting.

Darnielle's prose book marks the first work of fiction as a part of the 33 1/3 series of non-fiction books deconstructing or reporting on the making of various famous rock and jazz albums. Darnielle's book takes as its catalyst and focal point Black Sabbath's 3rd album, Master of Reality. The story is told in diary form by Roger Painter, lost soul locked up in a juvenile mental ward, trying desperately to communicate to one seeming reasonably accessible therapist what hearing his heavy metal tapes would do for him. But the ward has locked up his tapes in the nurse's station (and Roger can SEE them, he knows they are there, and he just wants to listen to them!) In his diary entries to Gary, he pleads to hear his tapes again, specifically Master of Reality, and he attempts to write, in depth, what that music means for him: “So it's like me and the band are in a hidden cave and they are telling me horror stories and if I even try to tell someone about it there is no way they could understand, because they don't even know there is a cave...”

All throughout Dan Clowes' Caricature, isolated loners narrate to us similarly from deep inside their own existence. Some show us mere static windows into their world (Rodger in “Blue Italian Shit” and “Like A Weed, Joe”), some wind up in stories that they don't themselves quite understand (Carmichael in “Immortal, Invisible”; Mona in “Green Eyeliner”, The Superhero in “Black Nylon”) and some find themselves suddenly glimmering an understanding of who they are, of what they are really about (Mal Rosen in “Caricature”, some of the minor characters in “Gynecology”.) Most of these characters share a consistent disbelief in the world as it is. The nameless character in “MCMXLVI” believes in only the aspects of the world that he deems genuine and pure: “...this old bar called THE OWL... Nobody goes there, but it's pretty authentic.” and “It used to be you could walk around the city and once or twice a year you'd stumble on a view that was exactly as it was in like 1950...” This character is so driven by his need for pure, perfect experience that he has become twisted, obsessive and utterly friendless. He ends the above reverie with: “Now there's no way, luckily I don't have to leave the house except to go to the post office...”

66 (let's give the character that moniker) has something a lot of the Clowes characters have: the luxury and freedom to indulge in their thoughts. His “Sometimes I hate everyone so much I can hardly stand it!” segues into mental, aesthetic indulgence: “There were more great songs recorded in the summer of 1966 by bands than nobody has ever heard of, than in all the years since!”

Darnielle’s Roger Painter would never say like Rodger Young does, “I was mesmerized by its threadbare earnestness.” These characters are left alone with their thoughts too much and seem to prefer it; they have created comforting, if isolating, shelters there.

Roger is the opposite: he’s dying to evade his own thoughts and the hospital won’t let him. He’s left to hear his own madness constantly. He has no recourse or ability to explore his hatred, no one to hear his opinions and none of the perverse tools the Clowes characters have to wrestle it around. “What I need in my life is to be liberated into feeling bad... What I need is a place where I can spray anger in sparks like a gnarled piece of electrical cable. Just be mad at stuff and soak in the helplessness.”

Tezuka's Apollo’s Song is about Shogo, a loner who is unable to love. He hates to see people and animals in love or in coitus; he wants to kill them. Trying to cure Shogo, his doctors give this loner shock therapy. He hallucinates versions of himself trying to love, falling in love and losing, so many times that by the end the reader doesn't know which version is real. Shogo is glib early on: “I don't care if you think I'm dangerous. You can't change me. This is just how I am.” Echoes of this are in Clowes' work. Mona, in “Green Eyeliner” says “Actually, I hate everybody... I really do... I thought I'd soften up when I got older, but really, I'm getting worse.” The image in this panel is of Mona applying eyeliner, looking deeply at herself in the mirror. Or the lead in “Black Nylon”: “I'm a violent person by nature but I don't let it preoccupy me. I get my revenge whenever possible and the rest of the time I let it go.”

Darnielle's Roger is only dangerous if he doesn't get his tools. He's hurting and gets no help. Shogo is a sociopath, but lucky him, his doctors believe in him. Among Clowes' outsiders, Mona is weirdly dangerous, and like many estranged characters, she needs to be in the middle of something enormous to feel anything at all. Clowes' “Black Nylon” main character is more straightforwardly unhinged and dangerous: “First I put the boy out of his misery and then I dealt with the hag. I just wasn't ready to confront a scene like that so I got violent.” Clowes' characters have too much access to tools, and the wrong tools. The superhero of “Black Nylon” should have shock therapy; instead someone gave him a gun and a job.

Tezuka's Shogo when not feeling hatred, is thrown into situations where he must be guided by self-preservation. His internal damage is subverted and controlled by circumstance. Darnielle's Roger wants to harness his strong feelings. Keeping himself alive and unhurt are not for him similar priorities. He’ll take one pain over another: “We learn not to mind getting punished if we can just keep what we found on the way to the punishment... If any of this is at all surprising to you, Gary, you should hand in your counselor's license.”

Clowes traffics in unfeeling characters. Most of his characters, who all share an obsession and access to media, choose their emotional tools at the last moment of their story. Mona buys a fake gun and waves it around. Mal begins to draw the darker sides of his subjects. Epps, in the centerpiece story, “Gynecology”, chooses blackmail and begins his own downfall. His characters, having the freedom to indulge in their thoughts, act in order to switch on their otherwise stalled emotions. They have no natural predators, but in the end choose fight over flight so they can participate some grander story.

The world of the spiritual winds through these works. Carmichael in “Immortal, Invisible” uses the word “spiritual” three times, looking for a spiritual something, but never sure if he's finding it. This story about a set of Halloween rounds ends on a dynamic image: “I didn't eat any of the candy. I removed the dollar and put the bag in the closet, where it remains, next to an unbroken piƱata, from which the abdominal bounty had been claimed by hand through a tiny hole.” Both the story and final image are about subverting ritual. Mona, too, behaves similarly: she subverts the ritual of cinema to end her story. Subverting ritual is ritual for many of Clowes' characters – they don't believe in anything, especially the things most believed in by others in society.

Darnielle's loner is different: an older Roger from Master of Reality stumbles into a Latino Church:

I feel like there's a shadow moving around inside of me. And I know right then, I can feel, that between “Lord Of This World” and the whole scene in the church, there's a connection for me. Circuits start forming in my head. Inside the building, the shrillness of the church music is really coming alive- it's mostly women, and they're all singing as loud as they can, and they get so totally into it: tears roll down their cheeks and their mouths open really huge. There aren't any breaks, no time to rest or think about what's going on. You can't even believe it's reality after a while.

Tezuka's Shojo believes in nothing, and seems only self-serving. (We don't see much of him before his visions start.) He finds himself before a giant, scolding goddess, who tells him that he will find himself loving and losing until he truly has learned to love, echoing the “fake it til you make it” brand of spiritualism. Believe until you can no longer disbelieve. His tasks in the rest of the book are designed to give him perspective as a valuable, feeling creature in the grander story.

Shogo is redeemed in the end by finally being able to love, and for giving himself to his beloved. Roger Painter never needed redeeming, and his story is of a good but completely mangled person trying desperately to untie his own knots. What Roger Painter wants is the same thing the Latina women in the church want: to be free of the pain and anger and resentment and fear for just for a little bit, or at least to commune with others to make something special out of those feelings for as long as they can. To see and feel themselves, in the grander story.

The “grander story” disgusts the Clowes characters, but they have no connection in lieu of it to anything comparable. They seem too to want to believe in something other than what the see around them, they just don't want to use the earthly tools of ritual and shared experience to do so. In fact, they hate ritual (other people's) and cling to their emotional uniqueness more than anything. Roger Painter's message is the opposite: I just want to commune with people who feel like I do. His is the story of a character unable to reach souls like his. Clowes’ stories are those mostly of characters uninterested in reaching other souls. Meanwhile, Tezuka forces connection onto his characters, and they in turn are pacified.

Carmichael stands out among characters from Caricature in that he seems motivated to fill an emptiness. Circling around using the word “spiritual”, he wants to believe in something unlike the day-to-day misery and boredom he sees around him. Many of the Clowes characters are frustrated by this, but they don't want to change. They don't want redemption, and as narrators of their own stories, rarely see the need for it. Even the few characters who have valuable earthly jobs (Mal the Caricaturist, Dr. Ten Boom the Gynecologist, the “Black Nylon” hero), wind up subverting their own social role for the sake of an emotional jolt.


Dan Clowes' Caricature is 10 years old at this point, compiling works almost 15 years old in places. These stories represented at the time the growth spurts of an already original and powerful artist. His consistency of theme makes the book a rewarding whole, but certain single stories stand out. “Gynecology” is particularly ambitious. It's the only story told in a third person narration, and offers a variety of creepy characters that work to create a complete moral world. Meanwhile “Caricature” stands out as offering a semi-complete circuit of dialectic in theme. The secondary character Theda (is she 15? 22?) offers an opposing dark and random force to Mal's benign and consistent normality. It's accident of circumstance that puts Theda in Mal's story and leads him to question his own behaviors, making for one of the most fulfilling reads in the collection.

“Black Nylon” stands out as the story where the inner world of the character becomes most manifest (Omitting “The Gold Mommy” which seems fully a dream narrative.) He’s the only character to have a psychiatrist, and he gripes about her in his monologue:

She said I was living in a self-created world; that the world isn’t the way I think it is at all. I told her: “Reality is a meaningless consensus. I’m trying to get at this inner reality you’re talking about.”

This story is so full of subconscious weirdness, that the world that he inhabits by the end is one he is almost calling into existence himself. The bizarre clues, the gunshots, the nemesis in the cave. In fact, the whole story stands as an analogue for artistic creation, complete with the call of Hollywood:

One part of me is thrilled to do this TV bit… but another part of me is drawn to this cave, hoping even though I know there’s no chance, that I can somehow achieve a spiritual epiphany in time to catch a six a.m. shuttle to the airport…

As it was I had painted myself into a corner and taken the easy way out… I decided right then to devote all my energy to my career and to impressing those producers in the morning… This thought was interrupted by two more loud bangs…

Quoting the text of this story sadly omits the rich, dripping, surreal imagery of the drawings in this section. “Black Nylon” stands out in Caricature as the most direct and clear vision of its protagonist.

Vertical Publishing's series of new Osamu Tezuka translations has been such a boon to us English readers. Those of us who knew him as the creator of Astro Boy, Princess Knight, Kimba the Lion and other clever child's fare had no idea the darkness and wild ambition he was capable of in Ode to Kirohito, MW, and this book. He is so capable at this stage in his career that he runs like a marathoner through his gigantic themes of our solitary eternity, the existence of evil, the value of love and altruism, and our repetitive but redeemable worldly circumstances.

The visual hand of Tezuka is so deft and so completely actualizes his exact vision. It's a seamless delivery system of the story, which is at turns wild, maudlin, erotic (love those copulating chickens!), violent, funny, etc. His experiments into page layout and symbolic rendering always gets me: characters rendered flatly and filled with 2-d abstract shapes, a chase scene that turns vertical or causes you to read upwards. All these experiments seem easy, and enable the parts to flow right into your story brain. Tezuka's weaknesses are only visible to adults: his occasional triteness, over-simplification, and reliance on the tools of excitable teen adventure comics.

John Darnielle is best known as the sole (usually) member of the Mountain Goats, and has written, played and sung hundreds of short, fiery songs. His strength as a rock and roll performer has been the percussive force of his sometimes amateurish guitar playing, the ability to tell stories in song about emotionally mangled people, and his need to force those songs out of his lungs. He addresses as his themes the explosive power of mistrusting intimacy, and the grace, beauty and (again) explosive clarity that opening your senses and heart can sometimes offer. He's at his strongest when his songs address the fatal fact that you can completely love and hate at the same time.

This is the message Roger Painter in Master of Reality was trying to offer to his therapists, and according to Roger, the same message Ozzy is trying to send to his listeners in “After Forever”: “I spent hours every day trying to get you to let me listen to some guy sending me the exact same message that Blue Cross was paying you to sell me all day.”

I imagine mixing up the circumstances of these books, and I long to force the luxuriating characters in Clowes' world to experience Roger Painter's pain. What if we took 66's Batman collection away from him, and didn't allow him to yard sale- where would that character wind up? Violent on the streets? Screaming in a mental ward? Working as an angry pent up restaurant manager? (This is where we see Roger as an adult.)

Or I want to force Clowes' Mona to run for her life a little. Shipwreck her and see how much time she has to hate everyone. Or see if she'll save an object of adoration if it's being taken to its death. Or let's force the “Black Nylon” hero to do good, but for god's sake, take away his ability to choose for himself what that means- that guy is deranged.

Tezuka's Shogo isn't much of a character. He was unloved, and in turn doesn't love, but we don't know how he manages. What Clowsian world might we see if we followed him around for a few days? Let's see the creeps he winds up sharing apartments with. Let's see the rituals he tries to subvert, and the facades he appropriates to communicate his specialness, to pervert his inner pain.

Two of the weaker stories in Caricature stand out to me now as more compelling than I thought: “Blue Italian Shit” and “Like A Weed, Joe”. Both stories are about a loner and loser, a guy who moves around within personalities a bit, a character who doesn't seem to like his friends or his family and typically doesn't really believe in anything. In these stories (especially “Blue Italian Shit”), unlike some of the ones cited above, nothing really happens, and we don't see the character move through his mental circumstances at all. We just see glimpses. Only when I realized they are the same character and that we are seeing portraits of a younger and older version of Rodger Young, did I feel compelled by what I read. There’s the “arc” that I originally wanted and couldn’t find in the single stories; I now see they are there when read together. Now we can compare, contrast and roll around in our minds the growth and changes of this character. He starts out isolated and confused but still open. Witness the great moment where he and Bemis are at the circus. Rodger hoping Bemis won't wisecrack and the only exchange between them is one of adulation: “That red-haired chick is sweet.” Yet, one moment of real openness in childhood isn’t enough and Rodger still winds up pretentious, aimless and angry. The two stories make a satisfying complete whole.

Darnielle's Master of Reality uses a similar narrative strategy. Divided into two parts, we hear from Roger Painter at 16 and then again 10 years later. The changes he documents are profound: in the beginning he is desperate for one thing- his tapes, which were never given to him. In the end, he is able to reflect -somewhat unclearly, very angrily and very high- on his experiences and how it has created his current situation. He's not happy about it, but he can see it.

Weirdly, Darnielle's Roger Painter is arguably a better person for having gone through all this misery. Deprived and forced to articulate himself to the world, he has become smarter, kinder and more able to see reality and to pierce non-reality. His teenage years were sacrificed, but he has grown emotionally and spiritually stronger: he's still furious and mangled but he's less broken. Darnielle know this, and so does Roger, who voices it:

It was like I had a secret that only people who couldn't do anything to help me could understand... In a way it was you and everybody like you who put the final binding signature on my contract with Black Sabbath. You sealed the deal. Now when I hear them I hear you disappearing into the meaningless passed. [sic.] Too high to write anymore. Still angry. Can't go back…

Darnielle’s shattering, white-hot understanding of what it is to know what you need but not be allowed near it is so humane and explosive that I can’t imagine reading it and not sobbing for the void of compassionless humanity the book reveals.

If “Caricature’s” Mal reaches the point of revelation that Roger reaches, it will only be after the last point in his story's narration: “...for some reason, I couldn't move. All of a sudden, things got deadly quiet. The only sound I could hear was a baby in the next room. Outside, the car was loaded and running-ready to go- but I just sat there breathless, starting ahead at my sorry reflection.” Mal has to make something happen, like Roger made his diary happen and made his job happen, both of which in turn gave him the tools to really know himself.

These books are about missed connections or incomplete circuits, gigantic and life-shaping.

Shogo, like Roger knows now that if he's being punished, he can at least to try to keep what he found on the way to the punishment. His last line is “Can I at least see Hiromi one more time?”, It’s easy to imagine Roger Painter asking “Can I just hear Master of Reality one more time?”

But Clowes' characters are so isolated and full of their own ideas about themselves that for them to utter a line like that (to another person) would be giving too much away. Mona and the rest would much rather not express their feelings (or perhaps not feel at all), in order to keep us guessing.

Artistically, such a move would seem overly Citizen Kane-like. Can you imagine 66 asking for his Batman doll as he dies, or Carmichael uttering something about spearmint candies as he shakes free his final earthly costume? No, Clowes won’t allow his characters such a simplistic reveal; they’ve already given you all you’re gonna get. They don’t want to be seen, revealed or gotten, they just want life to be different. They falter when life doesn’t work according to their vision. They don’t rebel, they stumble, and a sort of dumb cruise control sets in.

Shogo, Roger Painter and the cast of Caricature all are dying –some more quickly than others- to fit in to a world already replete with horror and injustice and the dregs of sloppy ineffective human culture that doesn’t just doesn’t care who they are deep down. Rebel, cry or pull away –those are the options these characters choose from What the hell else is going to work?


Thanks for the credit in your blog! Just an FYI, Alachua County Library District also has an eBranch online at where you can download ebooks, audiobooks, and music for free.

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