Tuesday, March 9, 2010
by Brian Maruca and Jim Rugg
AdHouse Books 2010
Garrett Martin: Hey, Afrodisiac, I am not too troubled by you. I am instead entertained by this send-up of the utterly ridiculous level of racial discourse in the genre comics of the ‘60’s, ‘70’s, and ’80’s (and beyond.) This is not a “graphic novel” in any sense of the horrible term, but a collection of scenes from a hypothetical comic book that apparently dallied with every possible mass market popular comic genre of the last fifty or so years. The title character pops up in each excerpt as the most stereotypical blaxpoitation character possible. It wouldn’t be too hard to accuse Maruca and Rugg of some kinda racism, be it intentional or unintentional, but I don’t think that’s the case. Afrodisiac is obviously commentary mixed with a little bit of nostalgia, albeit one tempered by realizing how wrong-headed and offensive the past could be. It’s basically just a single punch-line with a couple dozen different set-ups, but Maruca and Rugg pretty much nail the tone and look of each different genre so well that that doesn’t even bother me. Perhaps they should’ve been more pointed in their satire, or take a stance other than “man, shit was goofy back when”, but Afrodisiac’s a clever piece of low-stakes pop culture tweaking. I don’t know, is this problematic? Can we really say?
Hillary Brown: Well, of course we can't. You're a white dude, and I'm a white lady, and we come from relatively privileged backgrounds, so anything we might conclude, whether it's that this book is or isn't racist or problematic or whatever is inherently going to be wrong. And that's okay. People can take this with plenty of salt. All of which is to say that, basically, I am as untroubled by this book as you are and probably equally entertained by it, despite my lesser knowledge of the history of comics conventions. It makes an interesting comparison to something like the two Fletcher Hanks compilations we took a look at or, perhaps even more so, the Zak Sally comp Like a Dog, in that it's a mish-mash of full stories with isolated art pieces, and it shows a lot of development over the course of a career. Of course, this one's entirely a joke, and it's more enjoyable for it. I think your use of the phrase "low-stakes" is especially warranted. Yes, people still get upset when a bunch of fratty idiots throw a "pimps and ho's" party and some of them decide to show up in blackface, and they should get upset about that, but this is a very specific target and it's a fairly loving parody at that. Plus it's really pretty. The coloring and the linework throughout are just about as clean as they can be. The covers are particularly nicely done, but even the panel layout is clear and a pleasure to read. And it's short! If this book were 200 pages, it might be a lot easier to get tired of it, but Maruca and Rugg have a pretty good idea of when to cut off a joke.
GM: For real, being quick and breezy is key. I hit the last page just as I was getting tired of the joke.
I feel like there's not a whole lot else to say, which is ridiculous, as we've barely said anything. How about this: this kind of high-concept nonsense could easily be a disaster without the proper follow-through. As much as I love comics with robots, Draculas, and Richard Nixons, the Internet is this close to permanently killing whatever joy I used to find such winking Silver Age homages. Afrodisiac's hijinks stick though thanks to hilarious art and comically awkward captions and dialogue. Afrodisiac wouldn't work at all If it was just a bunch of goofball ideas being ticked off a list.
Man, whaddya got? Say something brilliant. That's your job.
HB: I suppose I could make a Tarantino analogy here, in that this book is smart enough to be sort of educational at the same time as it's a genre parody, which means you don't have to know a ton about the genre to get a lot of the jokes, and it's entertaining enough and smoothly done enough to pull the less knowledgeable along for the ride without making us feel like idiots. That's really no small achievement, and I feel like I've seen this kind of thing done badly far more often than well. Okay, here's another point: is a parody like this often better than the real thing because it's more self-aware and because it's more committed to entertainment and is more flexible in what its goals and methods are? How do you like them aesthetically philosophical apples?
GM: I'd say it's better than something like Marvel's original Luke Cage / Powerman / Hero For Hire comics from the '70's. Unlike Cage Afrodisiac is neither boring nor blissfully unaware of its own racist under- (and occasionally over-) tones. One reason those comics are ridiculous is because they try to be poignant and work in social commentary while also serving up the mindless violence and reductive stereotyping that make superhero comics so awesome. Instead of Luke Cage's frightening mix of offensive "Pay It Forward" pathos and unwittingly semi-racist boomer patronizing Afrodisiac is a pure piss-take on the entire damn concept. That might keep Afrodisiac from being genuinely great, but it also keeps it from turning into a drag.
HB: Right. In other words, there's something to be said against sincerity. The best art is often sincere, and a fear of being so often keeps much art (and, indeed, human interaction) from achieving greatness, but the worst art is also deadly sincere. Do those "Christian Side-Hug" kids mean what they're on about? You bet they do, and it's horrifying! So let's say Afrodisiac stands as a fine example of both the benefits and the drawbacks of parodic art and leave it at that.