The Mystery of Woolverine Woo-Bait
Joe Coleman, writer/artist
Fantagraphics, December 2004
We serial-killer buffs are an odd lot. I think there are different ways people come to a fascination with famous multiple murderers, but one of the most common and influential in terms of the resulting art and pop/junk/cult culture artifacts is to see them as a real-world extension of Famous Monsters of Filmland. When you’ve cycled through the Universal monsters, the Hammer horrors, the BEMs and giant irradiated monsters of ’50s science fiction, Vampira and Zacherle and the creature-feature hosts, “collecting” knowledge about ghoulish characters like Ed Gein and Albert Fish can seem like the next logical step. I think you also see the earlier serial killers–Fish, Gein, Richard Speck, Albert De Salvo, Carl Panzram, right up through Charles Whitman (technically a mass murderer, or spree killer depending on how you look at it) and Charles Manson–were and are presented in much the same way that horror movies were to children of the ’50s and ’60s, as an antidote to rules and parents and conformity. The dark side of the American dream and all that.
I’m not coming to serial killers like that. Maybe I did once; not anymore. Joe Coleman, on the other hand, is the patron saint of that approach. A trash-culture outsider-art icon, his paintings treat serial killers like medieval saints, surrounding them with the facts of their often horrendous upbringings and even more awful crimes. Woolverine Woo-Bait, originally released in 1982 and here combined with a six-page continuation that actually came out five years earlier, is sort of the comics embodiment of his aesthetic. Serial killers themselves play only a small, inspirational role, representing the “conception of the psychological make-up required to survive or mutate in the post-atomic era,” but in addition to their cameos, you’ve got the aliens from Mars Attacks, acromegalic character actor Rondo Hatton, an entire old-school freak show, mad scientists, zombie Holocaust victims, crazed square-jawed soldiers, Ed Wood repertory players Vampira and Tor Johnson, rape, disembowelment, cannibalism, a woman with two functioning sets of male genitalia where her breasts should be, Jo Jo the wolf boy…if you spent some portion of the ’90s on a David Lynch/John Waters/psychobilly-inspired sojourn through the rotten edges of post-War American culture, you’ll know what you’re in for. Coleman draws it all like a man possessed, placing his panels against backdrops and borders of schizophrenic detail. The plot is negligible–suffice it to say people do disgusting, violent, perverse, and occasionally breathtakingly racist and anti-Semitic things to one another; the point is to uncontrollably vomit all this junk back in everyone’s faces. There’s a part of me that will always have an affinity for this kind of thing, that will always enjoy being on the outside. There’s another part that stands there and says “Well, here we are, we’re Outside…now what?” Are violence and suffering holy, as Coleman argues? Or is it that they’re important to expose, that ripping off the scab like this comic does has a value to it, but there’s something unspeakably sad underneath and a failure to acknowledge or address it is an American dream of its own?