Meet “Bob the Angry Flower,” Stephen Notley’s outrageous main character in his comic strip by the same name. Bob is a pissed off sunflower — that icon of happiness and sunshine. But Bob’s disposition isn’t sunny, sappy, or sugary — he’s angry as hell. This embodies Notley’s approach to the form: he turns what we assume about popular culture icons inside-out and upside-down, in the process challenging our worldview. And it makes for a very entertaining, thought-provoking read.
Dog Killer — his latest collection of comics — is rife with wry political commentary and subversive play, but it’s also an appealing work of dark surrealism. In Bob’s world, the sky hails eyeballs and the local furniture store sells chairs made of human skulls. Bob follows his shadow underground, only to discover a Starbucks at the end of the cavernous journey. Bob slays ghosts with a samurai sword, and begs to know why they are haunting him (“Stop…killing…us!” is their answer!). Notley’s sly approach has got a knock-out underground power to it: Notley plays freely with form, experiments with structure, and just takes no prisoners in his attack on conventional truth and habitual ways of seeing. In this book’s introduction, Ted Rall describes “Notley’s rageful ranting” as revealing a “tragic honesty” about the American universe through some “pretty scary allegory” that’s “grim” even when it’s optimistic. “This brutal appraisal of the human condition,” Rall writes, is “never crueler than when it’s turned inward, [and this] bugs the hell out of people.” It’s courageous alternative art. Sounds a lot like what I enjoy about horror fiction.
So who is Bob? Why is he angry? Why floral? Hard to say, but he’s one of the more original characters you’ll find in the genre. Bob is, well, a sunflower embodying the morphed personality of Sam Kinison and Denis Leary, hopped up on some strange mixture of Starbucks, psychedelics, and anabolic steroids. He reminds me of a poster I once saw, called “Defiance,” which featured a tiny mouse snarling and flipping a middle finger at the eagle descending upon it from above with its dangerous talons. That’s Bob: defiance, personified. Which might explain why you haven’t met him before — Notley’s character goes against the grain of most cartoons on the comix page. So thank goodness for books like Dog Killer, the fifth collection of BTAF in print.
Bob often has a message, but I can imagine that he often puzzles readers who don’t quite understand just how deep this defiance goes. Take the title strip, for example, Dog Killer.” [viewable online] All that happens here is that Bob shows up at the doorstep of a white man in a suit, collar opened, head heavy, eyes evasive, saying “Thanks for coming.” Bob shoulders his shotgun and says, “I understand. You need your dog put down and your not man enough to do it.” Bob goes in the back yard, pets the sick dog for four panels, soothing it with “good boys” … and then blows its head open (the extreme closeup on the furry skull bursting is so excessive, you can only make out the fanged upper palate in the carnage). Then Bob blows on his finger in the end panel: “Ooh, I burnt my finger!”
Most people, I imagine, might call this gratuitous violence. A juvenile thrill, akin to pulling the wings off a fly. But as most savvy readers realize, there’s more to such a spectacle of guts than first meets the eye. For one thing, there’s drama in the suspenseful soothing of the dog. This one page is worth a thousand Old Yellers. Then there’s the ugly truth exposed by the blast. It’s everything Old Yeller never had the guts to do. This is accented by Bob’s exposure of the pettiness of human pain (“I burnt my finger!”). And an attack on the lack of backbone in much of the middle class, refusing to both soothe those who are failing and to get their hands dirty when there’s an uncomfortable problem that needs to be solved.
In the back of the book, Notley gives excellent annotations which read like an insightful and witty “director’s commentary” track on a DVD. Notley’s discussion of “Dog Killer” reveals that it’s based on a true story from childhood. He also manages to unveil his general approach to the comic as a whole: “Just as [Bob]’s holding the dog’s head down and coaxing it, I’m holding the reader’s head down until that moment I make them look at a dog’s head getting pulped. Sometimes you have to take cherished notions into the back yard and blow their heads off, and you can’t look away when you do it.” I couldn’t agree more.
Such thematic depth can be found in even the most silly or bizarre entries in the book — all of them force you to look at something in a new light, from a skewed angle. There’s a lot of meat and grizzle to chew on here, in 158 pages of high energy drawing. I think this book will appeal to horror fans very much. But Bob the Angry Flower eludes genre, ranging from direct political commentary (a number of the pieces in Dog Killer refer explicitly to the 2004 Presidential Election) to surrealism (in one entry, Bob awakens as a bug and cursing Kafka and then transplanting his floral head onto a clone in a gory, pitiless act of decapitation) to science-fiction (Bob makes killer robots) and the gross-out (Bob sticks his fingers in the squirming maggots of a dead bird over and over again in one strip — and that’s the whole bit). I am hardly an expert on the graphic fiction genre, but I think it’s safe to say that Notley’s approach to sequential art is incomparable. The manic and raw drawing style, the play with titles and captions, and the sheer audacity of the premises all reminded me a little bit of the expressionist flourishes of Jhonen Vasquez’s brilliantly sick comic, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, but without the Goth sensibility. Skewed, dark, twisted, smart, sick, scary, witty…even these words don’t do it justice. That’s why it’s art. And why it’s angry.
You gotta see it for yourself. Dog Killer is Stephen Notley’s fifth compilation of BTAF cartoons, but the first American collection (his work originates in Canada). It’s bound to be a hit. The trade paperback is hitting stores this June from Tachyon Publications, for $12.95. Get it while it’s hot-headed.