by Lauren Weinstein. PictureBox, publisher. $12.95.
Goddess of War is a beautiful, delirious mess of a book, a playful, leapfrogging experiment in genre-grafting that reads like a dream on paper: big, grandstanding, outrageous, comic, scary, and at times even poignant. The book represents a febrile gushing-out of images and ideas that, I swear, has an interior logic, though after three readings I'm still grasping after that logic without complete confidence in my understanding. I've never read anything quite like it.
What Goddess is, physically, is a 10 x 15-inch, 32-page squarebound booklet -- Weinstein calls it a "mega-sized picture-reader" -- printed in two colors, black and green. Graphically, it's both a nonstop design challenge, with each page laid out differently, sometimes extravagantly, and a feast of rough, sometimes technically ragged drawing, fetchingly organic and undeterred by niceties of rendering (reminding me of David Collier in a hurry).
Narratively, it's all-stops-out bizarre, a stitching-together of history (the story of Cochise and the Apache uprising of 1861) and what seems to be a personal mythology of Weinstein's: a dreamworld centered on the statuesque character of Valerie, the Goddess of War, who, though worn-out, disaffected, and dissolute, does the work of intervening in human affairs, sowing death and chaos.
Sexy but disheveled, Valerie looks a bit like a nightclubber the morning after: high heels, scanty clothes, a huge blonde mane of hair, and an air of muzziness and dissipation. But at key moments she transforms from shaggy blonde bombshell to frightful death's-head, a grinning, ravening corpse-goddess:
This personal mythos boasts the kind of freewheeling conceptual strangeness, the because-I-say-so logic, that only comics can sustain: Val lives on a planet of her own in a head-shaped headquarters called, naturally, the Headcave, where she receives instructions via "compcaster" from her bosses, "Brainstein" (a disembodied brain with spectacles) and "Number Two" (a disembodied godlike face, or mask). They inhabit the faroff "Milky Way Godplex." The story begins when Val gets pissed off about work, takes the day off, and gets drunk on the bottled blood of 150 Mayan virgins. She then begins to dream of her long-ago love affair with Cochise, a transition that effectively reroutes the story and turns Goddess of War into a historical war comic (!), albeit with mythic backstory and hallucinatory interludes. From here the story pitches toward the kind of tragedy that seems obvious with historical hindsight -- until Val wakes up and decides to go find Cochise (how?). She deserts her post, leaving Earth in chaos. End of Volume One (cliffhanger).
So, okay, this is some weird shit. As invented worlds go, Weinstein's reminds me of the unapologetic otherness of, say, George Carlson or Ted Stearn. (Or, for that matter, Will Sweeney's Tales from Greenfuzz. Remember that one?) It also has something of Henry Darger's myth-making obsessiveness.
The commercial appeal of all this, obviously, will be limited. It's probably not helped by the seeming nervousness and crudity of the drawing. Weinstein doesn't go for that sinuous smoothness of line sought after by so many cartoonists; her brushwork has a hectic, uneven quality, and her lines are thick/thin seemingly at random. (Gary Panter would be an apt point of reference.) Nor is Weinstein's drawing textbooky: the figures are often doughy and unarticulated. Certainly they lack the hyperbolic extension typical of comic-book bodies. Hands look like mitts, fingers like knackwurst. Impassioned faces at times are scratchy and indistinct (as if white-out were involved behind the scenes). The people are flabby. The horses and mules fare even worse. What's more, architectural and scenic particulars are mostly vague. In fact the characters are vague too; some are difficult to tell apart. Everything looks dashed-out and trippy.
But you know what's cool about this? Everything looks dashed-out and trippy. There's a lovely organicism about the whole project. Weinstein works fearlessly, not allowing any overbearing concern with technique to stop her from drawing from every conceivable angle and distance. She draws myriad things from myriad vantagepoints, staging action dynamically, framing and cropping unpredictably, making big pictures and small. This is not an example of that stereotypic mid-nineties alt-comix aesthetic, in which the drawing is self-effacing, secondary to and largely separable from story. No. Goddess is gorgeous to look at, an overspilling of uninhibited, crazily free narrative drawing, out of which a haunting, weirdass story emerges.
Design-wise Goddess is a riot. Again, every single page is configured to do something different, often something very interesting. Layouts vary from single-panel splashes to teeming constellations of images, often more than twenty on a page (I count twenty-seven at the maximum). And these aren't uniformly-sized panels, either, but variously-shaped, ever-shifting panels. Many pages are rectilinear comics grids in the traditional sense, some of them very tightly packed; other pages, though, are cut across by diagonals or overlaid with nonlinear intensifiers. One hazy-mazy page, a tour de force, abandons the grid entirely, depicting lovemaking as a kind of cosmic trip (rife with psychedelic and Ditkoesque details) that follows a serpentine reading path that finally loops back on itself, to replay eternally in the mind:
This page alone is proof positive that Weinstein sure as hell can draw. (Images from Weinstein's current exhibition at NYC's 92YTribeca knock the stuffings out of the very question, yow!)
Best of all graphically are the seven large drypoint etchings, mostly of the Goddess and her surroundings, which punctuate the book. These are lovely, dreamlike etchings, evocative and delicate, but also creepy (again, Darger springs to mind). Somehow these images are central. In fact the story seems to be a sort of exhibition catalog for the sake of framing and presenting these etchings, which would look almost as cool on their own:
One wonders if the mythology of the Goddess didn't take shape first around these etchings, before Weinstein actually committed to bringing it all together as a story. In any case, the book's wedding of small cartoon panels and oversized etchings is something to see.
My initial reaction to Goddess was that it was a fine stunt: a series of visual gambits passing as a story, or, rather, a graphic exploration that was interested in story only insofar as it needed a story to justify itself. But this is not right. Goddess in fact IS a story, albeit passing strange. In the interweaving of the Goddess's story and Cochise's -- in the lover's tryst that ties these stories together and the terrible consequences that come after -- Weinstein finds terror and poignancy. The Goddess may begin as a joke character, but her story deepens. Reading that story made me wonder about the awful attractiveness of war, about the intertwining of desire and death in our imaginations, and about the inexhaustibility of comics. A great, wiggy, overgenerous book.