Comics Time: Teratoid Heights

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Teratoid Heights

Highwater Books, Summer 2003

Mat Brinkman, writer/artist

176 pages

$12.95

Buy it from Bodega Distribution

Originally written on March 8, 2004 for publication by The Comics Journal; a longer alternate version appeared on this blog

Cartoonist Mat Brinkman is the most compelling member of the Fort Thunder art collective, combining the whimsy and chops of a Brian Ralph with the weirdness and choppiness of a Brian Chippendale or a Jim Drain. And in this little book, he’s created a minor sequential-art masterpiece. This nearly wordless, black-and-white collection of short adventure stories, in which a variety of monstrous, faceless creatures explore their respective environments with alternately hilarious and frightening results, recalls Jim Woodring’s Frank stories, in its deft use of scary-funny black humor and unexpected surprises. 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.

Each of Teratoid‘s subsections has its strengths: The wild wanderings of “Oaf” are notable for their emotional range and their visceral description of this fantasy world’s geography; The simply-drawn creatures of “The Micro-Minis” are like cartoon automatons, their actions flowing naturally from their own design as a function of the very mechanics of drawing them; The wordplay of “Cridges,” the book’s only non-silent section, 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 complex maze, Brinkman intercuts between them as though multiple cameras are involved. The three creatures are indistinguishable but for the corresponding numeral that 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 artists deploy it in new and sophisticated ways, and to Brinkman for having the vision to do.