The one moment in Fear of Comics, a collection of Gilbert’s short stories and experimental work from between the first and second runs of Love and Rockets proper, isn’t visual, but verbal. “Dr. Fritz, in this dream I look at you and I can only think of killing you,” says the bizarrely dressed character known as the Diva to her therapist. “I focus my hostility toward you because I’m actually angry with somebody else from my past who’s been abusive to me but it’s you I want dead. If I kill you all the world’s pain would go away because I would be satisfied…! God forgive me…”
“Not to worry,” Fritz replies in her trademark lisping voice. “It’th your dream and you’re thimply working out your reprethed daily fruthtrathionth.”
“My dream…?” the Diva replies.
In the next panel Fritz awakes with a shock, the crescent moon whose shape adorns the Diva’s headgear shining coldly through her dark bedroom window.
It is just such a chilling moment, that one little turn of phrase where suddenly Fritz’s dream avatar realizes that dream though this may be, she’s in mortal danger. Shudder-inducingly subtle. And frankly I think subtlety is an underrated quality of Beto’s comics. Especially in a collection like this one, where the selling point is that it’s all the weird, wild, surreal, sexy, and violent shit he did when he really cut loose between Palomar-verse runs, it’s important to note how many of the strongest moments are also the quietest ones. Take his little parable of skill, jealousy, and ignorance “The Fabulous Ones,” for example. Not to undersell the prodigious penises of the nude characters or the grotesque act of brain-eating that forms the crux of the story, but the really haunting bit is watching the surviving tribesman sitting there after placing his slain friend’s brain in their slain rival’s skull, in hopes that this will revive the man so that they can apologize for having killed him in the first place. The act isn’t the really troubling part, it’s his silent realization that he’s made yet another terrible mistake, and the subsequent silent panel of him fleeing, knowing he can never really run away from his crime. Or look at “Father’s Day,” a bleak, loosely inked little thing about a well-meaning father who pays for his meddling in his wayward teen daughter’s life with his own: It’s not dad getting beaten that gets you, it’s his daughter sleeping, unaware of his fate, and his wife waiting up, dreading it. Or look at what I believe is the collection’s best known strip, six panels of a man who looks like a caricature of Richard Nixon convulsing or cramping up against a generic trees-and-cityscape background under the title “Heroin”: I’ve said this before, but while I may not know what this strip is about, I know what it’s about. Or take perhaps my favorite recurring device in Beto’s oeuvre: The mystical tree that will grant supplicants their wish as long as they can bear to look at its true face. We never see that face ourselves, and what we do see tells us little other than that whatever it is is incomprehensible: A shapeless shadow, the edge of a giant clockwork gear.
Fear of Comics is a wonderful book, one of the finest short-story collections the medium has ever produced. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times, filthy at others, disgusting and poetic and black as midnight at still others. And it’s a showcase for comics’ premier naturalist to abandon that style altogether, to take his distinctive and exaggerated figurework to their absolute extremes, to tell stories that feel like neither the magic realism nor the science fiction for which he is best known but rather like fairy tales, or even myths of some creepy nihilistic religion. It’s definitely weird and wild. But for my money, it’s loudest when it’s quiet.