Avert your eyes (or not)

Published Friday, June 10 2022 at 11:17 pm
Avert your eyes (or not)

Blubber, a collection of Gilbert Hernandez’s X-rated cartoons, isn’t a book I’d recommend to most people. I think most people would find it vile, actually. In Hernandez’s words, it’s “pure id.” It’s totally outside the superego. And the ego, too. Forget preference or inclination. All living things in Blubber exist purely for absurd, disturbing sex.

“A comic like Blubber is just filled with penises, which is maybe not an uncommon sight in the alternative canon,” Greg Hunter of The Comics Journal noted in an interview with Hernandez. “But the larger culture’s less open to it.”

That interview was posted in 2016, when Blubber was being serialized in single issues by publisher Fantagraphics. Earlier this year, the issues were collected and released as a deluxe hardcover.

Since Blubber’s original release, we might say there’s been a change in sexual politics at large—at least discursively. There’s a decided push in art and mass media to employ less priapic perspectives. Simultaneously, there’s no shortage of softcore-adjacent figurative painting today, most of it labelled queer and much of it masculine in nature.

Blubber is not that. It’s not progressive but transgressive. Taking pure delight in the ability of images to shock, it asserts new sticky horrors on every page. At one point the narrative seems to become self aware of this orgiastic display, as a literally horny beast quotes Akira Kurosawa: “To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.”

An artist I am not then: there are many times I put down this book after having seen an image so wretched, yet funny, that I could only think to flee. I eventually powered through the back half, alternating between laughing and wincing.

Blubber is probably the most disgusting thing I’ve ever read. It’s entirely pornographic but deeply unsexy. Never, in fact, has the dichotomy been so clear to me. These are just images driven to a logical extreme. The publisher’s blurb quotes R. Crumb: “It’s only lines on paper, folks!”

Eventually the drawings lose their gunpowder and become undiluted slapstick. A cast of “cryptids,” like the misleadingly cute bat-like creature on the cover, put a wicked spin on the “funny animal” archetype. Another character, a human wrestler named Snowman, can only be described as resembling Edgar Winter with bleeding eyes. Encountering all these horrors, we have two options: laugh, or put the book down and never, ever open it again.

Grotesque as Blubber is, there’s certain relief to be found in its vulgarity. Having a body is exhausting. But this book has nothing to do with embodiment. It’s all about the power of silly, juvenile and gross drawings. Cartoons excel at absorbing our embarrassments and injuries; they can slap us awake. In Blubber, we’re reminded not to take pleasure too seriously.

[30 days of June: No. 10/30]