Comics Time: The Armed Garden and Other Stories

The Armed Garden and Other Stories
David B., writer/artist
Fantagraphics, 2011
112 pages, hardcover
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About the only things impeding my completely unfettered enjoyment of and admiration for everything David B. achieves in The Armed Garden and Other Stories are familiarity — all three of the stories collected here appeared in the late, lamented Mome anthology at some point; and, because I am a morose and unpleasant person, the happy-ish ending — after a book of unremitting, near-ecstatic horror and slaughter, ending on a wistful up-note felt not so much unearned as simply unwanted.

But that’s it. Other than that, this collection is absolutely marvelous, a gorgeous and searing series of comics from an artist who earns the description “freakishly talented” as completely as anyone this side of his trans-Atlantic fellow in crafting dreamy/nightmarish parables of violent spirituality, Jim Woodring. These comics are just as lovely and just as frightening, and just as singularly the work of their creator and no other.

For one thing, they’re beyond gorgeous. B. has developed a form of expressionism that relies on curves rather than angles; simultaneously he’s fleshed out the stark intensity of his high-contrast black-and-white brush art with a lush duotone gold. The result is battle scenes that have the sharpness and savagery of a woodcut and the graphic simplicity of a Dark Ages tapestry, tied to prophetic visions and hedonistic reveries among the faithful peopled by characters you want to reach out and hug, so sensuous and inviting they seem. It’s almost unfair that the same guy who’s developed a visual language for battle that eloquently reduces its participants to interlocking graphic elements, a nigh-undifferentiated sea of swords, spears, grimaces, and gouts of blood, also maybe draws the sexiest pale naked women I’ve ever seen in a comic. But from a thematic perspective these stories are all about the way that religious fervor lends an air of all-consuming certainty and nobility to mankind’s most animalistic pursuits, from fucking to killing, so I suppose it’s only fitting.

Each of The Armed Garden‘s three stories — “The Veiled Prophet,” the title tale, and “The Drum Who Fell in Love” — is a transmission from the heightened reality of the legends surrounding various medieval religious cults, one from Arab Islam and two warring ones from European Christianity. As I mentioned when the first of these, “The Veiled Prophet,” hit our shores in Mome, they at first appear to all the world like an expressionistically drawn work of historical fiction, until the supernatural elements slowly take over. By focusing on the individual actors in each drama rather than the overall sweep of the history surrounding them, B. allows the reader to experience the awe and terror of divine/demonic intervention as a first-hand phenomenon; within the world of the stories, it’s as easy to swallow as are the more run of the mill sources of conflict with rival Popes and caliphs and so on. We get swept up in the madness and terror along with everyone else. And in all three cases, the fire of divinity burns too bright, consuming those who fan its flames. Provided you don’t buy its actual intervention in actual real life — and by situating each story within rejected, discredited cults, B. effectively removes the need to consider the more popular and lasting religions in this light — the message is clear: Belief in this shit, actualized into violence, will drive you as crazy and destroy you as completely as the real deal will. Gazing beneath the veil of the prophet, building your own paradise on earth, peering into the secrets of creation, communing with the dead, slaughtering out a path for God to tread — these things will kill you, blind you, drive you insane, leave you stranded with only the music of your mind for company. Ugly truths, presented as beautifully as is humanly possible.

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