The Moralists

Barrel Of Monkeys by Ruppert and Mulot

The first time I mentioned Ruppert and Mulot on this site was about a year ago, in a review of the Tunes rock ‘n roll comics anthology. Amidst a collection of strips predisposed to fawning homage toward their subjects, their “Elvis” contribution stuck out as

“… a plain middle finger extended to the artist or America or both, which alternates between Elvis’ ignominious end on the toilet and a giant Elvis climbing atop various skyscrapers in the New York landscape, with possible allusions to King Kong or 9/11 – it’s hard to parse; either way, our final image is that of the King expiring on his restroom floor, pants down and strewn in vomit.”

To judge by Barrel Of Monkeys – the first English language collection of strips by the artists, ferried to our shores by the good graces of Rebus Books – my wary observation was on the mark. Such easy knocks at celebrity iconography are absent, but there’s no mistaking the comics contained herein as anything other than a systematic series of “fuck you”s, with, say, Johnny Ryan (per Joe McCulloch) or Takashi Nemoto as good points of reference. (Describing the book seems to bring out the best in its champions; blurb-wise, Dash Shaw refers to it as “evil and mean-spirited” and, from Lilli Carre, “an enjoyable slap to the face”.) Like those Veterans O’ Vile, Ruppert and Mulot specialize in provocations, spits in the face of propriety; there’s nothing perverse about the strips, insofar as there’s no private logic being obeyed, no fundamental compulsive innocence guiding the artistic soul, Darger-style – a spit in the face is meant to be felt as such.

More specifically, the typical strip here looks a lot like what would happen if you removed the two blithe sociopaths in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games from their metatextual context and put them in a world fitted to suit. It only occasionally reaches those horror show heights, but the same coy smirk (hi-jinks!) accompanies every bit of misanthropy which promenades across the page, with the two aforementioned male figures, near-ubiquitous all throughout, recognizable as obvious authorial surrogates, signatures too difficult to ignore. Narratives aren’t a priority here, just contrived situations where wafer-thin and damn near homogenous characters do awful things or watch awful things happen. Children are slapped and humiliated, bestiality is a frequent punchline, disabled folks are mocked and objectified, prostitutes are mutilated, etc. – all stuff which might give presumable customs agents cause for pause, their red red red stamp ready to brand (a proper seal of approval), were they willing to press on beyond the layers of deadpan formalism and distancing surrounding every strip’s sweet center.

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Any notion of cackling jollies and excess is pretty much defused on first contact; Ruppert and Mulot overlay a neat willfully artificial aesthetic over everything, far from Ryan’s default Klassic Kartoonist Karicature or Nemoto’s Grimy Grotesquerie, one of scratchily rendered figures – all bearing semi-expressive but mostly mask-like angles on their face in lieu of features – framed by a rigorously maintained proscenium arch and performing their actions against nondescript backdrops within a mise en scene best described as “perfunctory”. Once a panel has been read, it’s been read – there’s beauty here to be sure, of the “stark and elegant” variety, but you never luxuriate in an image or consider the figures and objects in relation to each other; whatever your reaction to the stuff, the artists have indisputably conjured up a new and singularly elaborate approximation of Stick Figure Theater.

From that stylistic monotone often hangs a play on images, a blatant story-specific gimmick, thematically apiece with the content but sectioned off from the surrounding naturalism, a cool (as in cold) and ornate package which gathers the most overtly transgressive elements at play for the sake of a proper presentation – the punchline, basically.

They’re impressive set pieces which prod the reader along into a little extracurricular work, activities of interpreting, deciphering. Dialogue, in one story, is conveyed to the reader entirely in sign language, with a helpful key below each panel. Another, the story which frames the book, comes with a set of distorted images depicting sexual congress between an elephant and a woman (women?), replete with a series of steps on how to fold the picture in such a way as to perceive it properly, making it something like an unwieldly Al Jaffee affair. In “Phenakistoscopes With Dad”, one of the crueler strips here, the story in whole is made up of instructions on constructing the eponymous devices – simple optical devices which present animated images via a revolving paper wheel and a mirror – as relayed by a father to his son with verbal abuse in the vein of “Listen to what I’m fucking saying, you fucking moron; why the fuck are you crying?” punctuated by smacks to the head; the phenakistoscopes themselves, there to be cut out by the enterprising reader (or here, if you don’t want to damage your copy) are, naturally, patterns of motion illustrating idealized images of paternal love.

This “you can play along at home, kids – just follow the directions!” notion isn’t novel, but, more than most artists, you can feel a debt to Chris Ware in Ruppert and Mulot’s work : the artists giving these ancillary devices enough weight so that they’re integral to what surrounds, widening  the field of play beyond the basic sequential grammar of images to achieve a desired effect.

A set of scissors may not always be necessary, but this aspect of participation, crossing some not-considerable but nonetheless certain distance to meet the story on its terms, is consistent. These puzzles tend to tax the reader about much as a connect-the-dots page in a coloring book, but they assure some degree of self-conscious engagement, the reader more aware of him or herself as a reader and so, on some level, complicit in the book’s panorama of unpleasantness; as much of the work has roughly the depth of a Bazooka Joe strip (R. I. P.), there’s nothing too distressing about this state. That’s the common denominator though: the silly mean shit all throughout never happens in a vacuum, for its own sake ala a gag strip, but is instead a factor in a relationship between observer and observed, performer and audience; virtually every moment is premised on a foundation of “watching”, seeing as an explicit or implicit action.

Consider “The Portraitists”, the book’s key recurring strip. The titular figures are, as expected, two males and the purpose they serve is in their title – to photograph portraits, ensure that pictures get captured. Most of the stories are concerned with the commissions they undertake – their subjects and the circumstances under which they wish to be photographed, where and how they want to be seen in the picture – though sometimes they get creative, pursuing their own visions, much like their creators. In any case, stuff does happen – the world intrudes, wackiness ensues – but our portraitists stay outside the scene and focused, seeing everything to completion; they’re there to look, and to make certain that their looking produces results.

What emerges at the conclusion of every “Portraitists” story isn’t a visual hook or a bit of cleverness to be maneuvered through, but a still image – a man beheaded by a boomerang, a child dressed in a suit of armor which doesn’t cover key lower parts of his body, a prostitute bound on a bed with a rat shoved down her throat, a man bleeding on a floor, a man standing proud and victorious with a female sword-swallower chained to his belt serving as the sheath for his sword, etc. – with a frame around it. Removed from time, it is now something which exists entirely to be seen, the endpoint of a process of objectification or, less politely, dehumanization. It has become a portrait – something mobile, there to be possessed, sold, or discarded.

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