Comics Time: Against Pain


Against Pain

Ron Regé, Jr., writer/artist

Drawn and Quarterly, July 2008

128 pages, hardcover


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When it comes to art, I like to be able to get everything in one place. I don’t like it when bands leave the single off the album, and I want comic collections to contain every relevant strip they can. Yet I closed Against Pain, a collection of Ron Regé Jr.’s anthology contributions and one-off comics, wishing that it was shorter and contained less stuff. Regé is a cartoonist whose work I really treasure–I consider his Skibber Bee Bye one of my formative comics reading experiences and truly one of the best books of the decade, even now–but his oeuvre has at least as many misses as hits. That uniform line weight conveys the sense that everything is equally important, which is a core component of Regé’s philosophical project in most of his mature comics; the misses tend to be instances when this psychedelic, pantheistic take on both art and life comes across as mush rather than mind-expansion. Against Pain‘s flaw is that its editorial approach is similarly egalitarian, and similarly problematic.

In my experience, Regé is at his best when being his most ambitious. For example, Skibber feels like a freaking comet colliding with your brain, so big and sprawling and heavy is it compared to the rest of Regé’s usually much shorter works. Against Pain collects several, uh, let’s call them “suites” of comics that, though shorter, display genuine thematic fence-swinging. “We Must Know, We Will Know” (great title!), recently included by Ivan Brunetti in his second Yale University Press Anthology, is a series of candy-colored, interconnected strips about, of all things, math–how the unsolvable is solved, how models of certainty give comfort and how uncertainty gives freedom. A suite of “Pain” comics, I think created with funding from Tylenol (!), mines similar territory involving the mind’s hold on how we interact with the physical world, our own bodies included. There’s a lengthy Spider-Man parody called “High School Analogy” that works quite well as just that, but also reminds us how much fun the Spidey character can be when he really is a sullen teenage dirtbag and not a babe magnet. “She Sometimes Switched to Fluent English and Occasionally Used a Few Words of Hebrew,” the minicomic about a failed, female Palestinian suicide bomber that was included in Chris Ware’s McSweeney’s #13, contains perhaps the most direct articulation of Regé’s governing philosophy in the entire book: “All of our human lives are equally valuable*,” he says, before adding the footnote “or equally worthless…take your pick” as a seeming acknowledgment of the horrendous tit-for-tat brutality of this true story. It also presents a startling insight into the culture of young suicide “martyrs”: What if you lived in a place where low-level warfare could turn everyday teen angst into tragedy at a moment’s notice, and if there were organizations that thrived by transmogrifying that angst into violence? As a counterpoint, almost, there’s Regé’s legendary collaboration with his friend Joan Reidy, “Boys,” a series of simple nine-panel sex comics that are at turns lovely, funny, disturbing, sad, angry, and hot, which I induce from experience is likely many readers’ history with sex in a nutshell.

But there’s a lot of other stuff in here, and most of it isn’t nearly as successful. Perhaps counterintuitively given the rubric I just spelled out, one of the more frustrating strips is also one of the longest: “Fuc 1997: We Share a Happy Secret But Beware Because the Modern World Emerges” kind of tells you everything you need to know about its take on young love in the title, but continues for page after page of digressions, doubled-up strips per page, background colors that turn Regé’s wire-lined characters into oddly clunky forms, and just generally not-super-interesting lovelorn melancholy. A lot of the other material feels disjointed, Regé’s unorthodox layouts and wide-eyed narration throwing a lot of competing ideas and images at you all at once, often for just a page or two at a time before shifting to an entirely different strip and resetting what’s left of your attention span completely. A naive girl from the Balkans, an odd “sound sculpture,” a nearly incomprehensible cover version of a Lynda Barry comic about getting stoned, random splash pages, three dream comics crammed into one strip you have to read in tiers…like I said, it’s a lot of stuff to get a handle on, with very little to help you do so or, at times, to show you why you’d want to. The book ends with one of the odder choices I’ve seen from an anthology lately, back-loading most of Regé’s older, rougher, less visually mature work. It’s sort of like a Chris Ware anthology that contains that thing from Building Stories about housesitting or the World’s Fair issue of Jimmy Corrigan but ends with a solid chunk of Potato Head strips.

Listen, I’m extraordinarily grateful that a big, hardcover anthology of Ron Regé strips exists. After Highwater closed down, who even thought that would be possible? Seeing Against Pain on my bookshelf makes me wonder which Earth in the Multiverse is the one we’re on, and where Superman’s rocketship landed to change history so that comics projects like this could go from “you’ve got to be kidding me” to “buy it for 20% off on Amazon” in about half a decade. And again, I’m grateful to have all the comics I listed a couple paragraphs ago in one accessible place. And since I’ve never felt that Regé’s overall career was a model of consistency, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that his career-spanning anthology isn’t either. I can do the editing in my head, and I will, because all comics are not equally valuable, or equally worthless.

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