Comics Time: Wally Gropius

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Wally Gropius

Tim Hensley, writer/artist

Fantagraphics, May 2010

64 pages, hardcover

$18.99

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Wally Gropius is more than just the main character of Tim Hensley’s elaborate and arch parody of ’60s teen-comedy and child-billionaire comics–he’s more like the language it’s told in, or better yet the font it uses. Hensley arranges him in poses whose pantomime exaggeration recall the primary mode of body language in any given Archie comic, but always in some bizarrely off-model and angular variation thereof. His pipe-like arms and legs, his clasping, grasping, pointing hands, even his squinting eyes and trapjawed mouth and flattened cranium (his hair color says “Archie Andrews” but his skull says “Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein”) all conspire to make him as much a pictogram as a person. Watching him and his equally gangly, geometric cohorts stretch and sprint and smash their way across Hensley’s brighly colored backgrounds and block-lettered sound effects is like reading your favorite poem–or even, as we see in a panel that became my Rosetta Stone for the book, Wally Gropius itself–as translated into a language with a totally different alphabet. What you know is in there, somewhere, but to use a frequently repeated line from the book, you just can’t quite put your finger on it.

Hensley pulls off a similar switcheroo with the writing itself. Instead of the instantly dated “hip” slang used by the middle-aged men who wrote the comics that Wally Gropius uses as a springboard, he subs in a nonsense patter that apes the self-assured argot of the plutocracy. Whether it’s Wally’s oblique strategies for his beloved Jillian Banks’s recording session (“You really almost had it there, but it’s still kind of teal. Can you sing it with a bit more cadmium?”), Wally and Thaddeus’s simultaneously ratcheted-up and abstracted fight over dating (“But, Dad, I wanna be a lothario speedwagon. Troubadours don’t submit to picture brides. They engage in felching with awestruck camel toe.” “Again with the CAMEL TOE! My own son!”), or the frequent direct references to finance and industry (“Petroleum is the seat of the soul,” “What good is Mammon if one can’t purchase reliable athmosphereic conditions?” “Wally, will you please clean your room? There are far too many denominations about.”), I can’t help but hear echoes of the ouroborosian discourse, cocksure and utterly divorced from reality, that led the economy off a cliff.

And wonder of wonders, the book finds its own way to be really funny amid all these highfalutin hijinks, and often in a direct, even lowbrow way. Obviously anyone who’s read this stuff has gotten a kick out of the sound effects, from the slamming bank-vault door that goes “TRUMP!” to Wally vomiting up a bellyful of money with a “HEAR$T!” The thing is filled with eyeball kicks like that, my favorites being the library bookshelf filled top to bottom with Tom Clancy, the baseball-stadium jumbotron sponsored by Summer’s Eve, and the Buddhist monk lighting himself on fire next to a placard that reads “U.S. OUT OF NORTH AMERICA.” There’s a diarrhea joke, there’s a cameo from an ’80s pop-culture icon, and there’s an incest sequence that is one of the most shocking, hilarious, perfectly paced things you’ll read all year.

“Well, Mom, what does it say?” asks Wally over a memorable shot of a disemboweled bird from whose entrails his mother hopes to divine the future. (Of course, we never get the answer.) I think you can figure out what Wally Gropius is saying, provided you keep in mind the combination of confidence and impenetrability that Hensley hits on so memorably in both writing and art. The tale’s in the telling.