Where Demented Wented: The Art and Comics of Rory Hayes
Rory Hayes, writer/artist
Dan Nadel and Glenn Bray, editors
Fantagraphics, August 2008
I do a lot of reading on a crowded Long Island Rail Road train into and out of New York City. Since I am still a polite, people-pleasing elementary school kid at heart, this made it impossible for me to sit back and enjoy the section of this book that reproduced Cunt Comics #1, you know? So what I ended up doing is skipping that stuff and reading everything else, saving the Cunt material for a time when it wouldn’t be inflicted on unsuspecting commuters. Stripped of that almost indescribably vulgar middle section, the work of the live-fast-die-young underground comix legend Rory Hayes as collected in Where Demented Wented comes across less like that of a knowing, Crumb-style provocateur–or a novelty-act modern primitive, for that matter–and more like that of a wild-eyed innocent who’s seen far too much. I guarantee you I’m the only person who’s going to make this comparison, but do you remember the scene from Stephen King’s science-fiction short story “The Jaunt” where (SPOILER WARNING FOR ANYONE WHO FALLS INTO THE PART OF THE VENN DIAGRAM WHERE “RORY HAYES READERS” AND “READERS INTERESTED IN THE SHORT STORIES OF STEPHEN KING BUT WHO HAVEN’T YET READ THEM” OVERLAP) the kid holds his breath when they dose him with anesthetic prior to teleportation, so he comes through the other side having been driven bugfuck insane by the infinity of time and space his mind experienced during his instantaneous travels? Sort of like that.
It doesn’t necessarily start that way. In the first, comparatively crudely drawn stories from Hayes’s Bogeyman Comics #1, Hayes crafts surprisingly deft and tightly paced homages to the macabre twist-ending horror stories of EC Comics. In addition to those ’50s classics, Hayes’s emphasis on decay recalls the weird work of Lovecraft and Bierce, while his inventive staging and attention to environment anticipates work by far more surface-sophisticated genre artists, from Josh Simmons’s House and Jessica Farm to Clive Barker’s “The Midnight Meat Train.” While the mood here is certainly one of impending doom, it is at least a doom that suggests through contrast the possibility of making it out alive. I can’t decide whether Hayes’s trademark teddy-bear protagonists–whose incongruity and iconicity serve to instantaneously (and rather amusingly) anchor even his most outlandish and savage stories to a dimly remembered time of childhood playfulness–make things seem more hopeful (innocence exists!) or less (innocence is destroyed!).
It seems as though when Hayes’s drug use became dominant enough to start finding its way into his work on an explicit level shortly thereafter, however, a switch flipped. Skip past the Cunt Comics interregnum as I did and all of a sudden you find a Hayes whose work is far more artistically refined–with an almost Drew Friedman-slick stippling effect at times–while his conceptual framework has expanded outward almost infinitely, to far more threatening effect. In between cynical semi-autobiographical accounts of tweaked-out excess and gross-out humor-ish strips with a bitter Country Joe “Whoopee! We’re all gonna die!” tone, Hayes’s protagonists are now more at risk from contact with eternity or the destruction of the entire world than they are from creatures locked behind cellar doors. Perhaps the most memorable of these later strips involves one of the teddy bears traveling to a dead world filled with abandoned towers and forgotten artifacts, its sole surviving inhabitant scrawling the enigmatic, haunting phrase “WE TRIED” on the ground, reducing the doomed explorer to tears. Seen in the light of material this powerful, Cunt‘s onslaught of castration, bodily fluids, and vaginas drawn as though the artist had hardly even a passing familiarity with the form seems like a necessary mental enema, a way of throwing off almost any kind of restraint self or society could impose so as to better access the frightening truth, if that’s what it is.
Towards the end of the book, during an essay of remembrance written by Rory’s brother Geoffrey, a short, early comic by Rory called “Lost at Sea” is discussed and reprinted at a reduced size. Based on an 8mm film Rory made, it features a teddy bear in a tiny boat, adrift in an enormous and storm-tossed sea. Finally, after a particularly frightening tempest, the bear finds himself and his boat safe on the sandy shore. The final image is simply of the bear’s footprints, leading away from the water back home. In a way, this collection is that trail of footprints.