Teratoid Heights, by Mat Brinkman. 176 pages, 5 x 6, b/w. Published by Highwater Books. $12.95. Buy it here.
I’ve never seen a comic like this before.
Cartoonist Mat Brinkman is the most compelling member of the Fort Thunder art collective, which was formed by a group of RISD students in Providence, Rhode Island. He combines the whimsy and chops of FT’s most commercially successful artist Brian Ralph with the weirdness and choppiness of FT experimentalists like Brian Chippendale and Jim Drain. And in his little book Teratoid Heights, he’s created a minor sequential-art masterpiece.
This nearly silent, black-and-white paperback has no real narrative to speak of. Rather, it’s a collection of short adventure stories, in which a variety of monstrous, faceless creatures explore their respective environments with alternately hilarious and chilling results. Like Jim Woodring’s Frank stories, Teratoid Heights uses scary-funny black humor and unexpected surprises as its stock and trade. But it eschews Woodring’s familiar funny-animal tropes for something new, eerie, and original. The art, which simultaneously possesses the starkness of woodcuts and the manic detail of the 60s undergrounds, quite simply looks like a transmission from Another Place. It suggests a mental soundtrack wherein all that can be heard are the grunts and squeaks of these strange beings, and surrounding that, the low whirr of desolate lunar-landscape winds. It’s a means of transport as much as it’s a graphic novel.
The book is divided into several sections, each chronicling the adventures of a particular creature or colony of creatures. The first section, “Oaf,” starts the book off right: An exciting sequence shows the titular giant storming a well-protected tower, but what he does when he fulfills his quest is far from the damsel-rescuing or king-slaying you might have expected. In other, less humorous stories involving fear, danger, and death, it’s truly surprising how well the simply delineated and childlike Oaf is used to convey the pathos and occasional senselessness of his wild world, and how well Brinkman navigates the spaces of that world. The sense of geography you acquire is as clear-cut and visceral as your mental map of the fortress in the climax of The Two Towers (Tolkien, incidentally, being an obvious inspiration here).
These complex worlds are not all Brinkman has to show us, though. The book also features a collection of Brinkman’s “micro-minis,” 16-panel backgroundless showcases for a variety of simply drawn creatures. In “Cloudbank,” a chubby fellow devises an amusingly simple method for curing his ailing tummy; in “Creem Puff,” a marshmallow-man type figure has a jolly time proving that two heads are better than one; in “Dissector,” an arachnid monstrosity learns too late the price of his own curiosity. What’s fascinating about these stories, if you can call them that, is not just how well they hit their respective funny or grotesque notes, but the way Brinkman teases a plot out of the simple mechanics of drawing. Each creature’s actions flow naturally from their own design. It’s almost as if you’re watching a wind-up toy–each event makes perfect, almost automatic sense, yet ends up being totally unexpected. There’s a joy of drawing–one might almost say doodling–here that’s exhiliarating to behold. In “Cridges,” the book’s final section and the only one with written dialogue, Brinkman has similar fun with wordplay. Rhyming, big comic-book-y word effects (“NO”), and a monster-driven pastiche of slacker-dude rock-concert enthusiasm show Brinkman to be as able and witty a manipulator of language for its own sake as he is of art.
The book’s real tour-de-force, though, comes in the section called “Flapstack,” which concerns the subterranean realm of little creatures that look a lot like pulled teeth. That section’s story “Sunk” is, I think, the single best comics sequence I read all year. Three of the teeth creatures, each bound to the other by a length of rope, fall into a winding labyrinth. As they try to navigate this incredibly complex maze, Brinkman intercuts between them as though multiple cameras are involved. The three creatures are indistinguishable but for the corresponding numeral which appears each time they come back “on screen.” Before long we have a sense of exactly where in the maze each creature is, and it’s the intense concentration required to keep up with Brinkman’s byzantine constructions that attaches us to the creatures as surely as their frustratingly short lengths of rope attach them to each other. As they attempt to overcome the obstacles they encounter, the tension is, almost stunningly, an edge-of-your-seat affair. The powerful end to this thriller–which, again, stars three silent and indistinguishable walking teeth–is testament to the power of the medium when deployed in new and sophisticated ways, and to Brinkman for having the vision to do this.
The whole Fort Thunder crew shows a commendable interest in the physical aspects of alternative cartooning, rather than just the verbal. In a way it’s equivalent to modern-day dance-punks like the Rapture and DFA, who are trying to reintegrate mind and body over on the indie-rock side of things; I’ve also suggested it’s akin to the glam and prog acts of yore, who refused to sacrifice excitement for intelligence. Teratoid Heights is the best thing the group has produced so far. Though startlingly original, it evokes an array of comics that saw viscerality as a route to creativity: Woodring’s Frank, Panter’s Jimbo, Kirby’s New Gods, Ware’s Quimby the Mouse–I myself was also reminded of Mignola’s Hellboy and Miller’s Elektra Lives Again. A deceptively simple book, it packs a wallop you’ll be thinking about long after you finish reading. When the residents of Teratoid Heights finish exploring their own lands, don’t worry–they’ll be wandering around your brain soon enough.
(Special thanks to Chris Allen for pointing out that not enough people know this book is out there. It’s out there!)