Monday, 28 February 2011

Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children

In the first half of the 1990s, after I had moved on to reading American comics in English, and certainly after or as I was starting to move away from mainstream superhero comics (at least for quite a while) in favour of the up and coming new DC imprint Vertigo (and comics like that), I stumbled across Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children in the back issue bins at my local comic shop. Unless, I am mistaken, it was the brown cover of volume 4 (see image on the right) that first attracted my attention. It features "The Black Balloon (A Happy Story)", which is all about Raymond Ashbone, a man born strapped into an electric chair. This is a premise both absurd and fantastic, but certainly one which truly shows the regions where artist Dan Sweetman and writer Dave Louapre like to venture in this title. I quickly raided the back issue bins of the twelve volumes available (volumes 1–7, 9–12 and 17).

The reason behind my bringing up Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children here and now is my recent acquisition and reading of volumes 8 and 13, which brought the whole experience of the series back to me with force.

Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children was published by Piranha Press between 1989 and 1992, all in all 30 volumes, plus the two anthologies A Cotton Candy Autopsy (collecting volumes 1 and 13, and the new story "The Resurrection of Joey Puchinello" concluding trilogy) and What if This Were Heaven, Wouldn't That Be Hell? (featuring three new stories). While the external format of publication is that of comicbooks, I would strongly argue that the series itself is not strictly speaking that of comics, but rather of picture books (albeit, not really for children; not even ugly ones). Louapre's prose stories are presented with Sweetman's black and white illustrations not really serving as the sequential art of comics, but rather as picture book illustrations to accompany the prose (and with great effect at that). Add to this that each volume (which is what the series itself labels its issues) contains volume-related and quite fictionally enhanced biographies of the artist and the writer, the reading of which contributes to the full experience. All in all, the result is not quite like anything else I have encountered, and the stories are small gems.

The series opened up quite strongly with the brilliant story "A Cotton Candy Autopsy" (sometimes referred to as "Anybody's Freak," especially when listed in the aforementioned anthology) in which the narrator, a clown at a circus which burns down as the story opens, sets out with his friends Bingo, Foo Foo, Joey Punchinello and Addy the Freaklady on a road trip adventure that stands a good chance of changing your views on clowns forever. This story was later given a sequel, "A Cotton Candy Autopsy II: Bingo and Addy's Escape," in volume thirteen, and there the Louapre biography states that he is working on the concluding part of the trilogy (only published in the anthology, which I have sadly not yet got my hands on).

So what was the series really about? It was about telling stories. Weird, wondrous and wonky stories of the fantastic, the absurd and sometimes even the mundane. All of it presented in Louapre's words accompanied by Sweetman's black and white illustrations. It was no-holds-barred storytelling and imagination freed of many constraints. And this unites all the stories, even though the stories themselves (with the exception of the A Cotton Candy Autopsy trilogy) are not in any way interlinked (at least not as far as my fourteen-volumes-knowledge spans).

In chronological order (with an obvious gap between volumes 13 and 17), the fourteen volumes I have include the stories (and I opt to include these titles just to give you an idea of the stories told) "A Cotton Candy Autopsy," "The Deadjohnson's Big Incredible Day," "Diary of a Depressed Tap Dancer," "The Black Ballon (A Happy Story)," "The Crypt of the Magi," "Happy Birthday to Hell," "Ricky the Doughnut Boy," "Die Rainbow Die: A Story of Hope," "By the Light of the Screaming Moon," "Where the Tarantulas Play," "The Daffodils of Plague Town," "Beneath the Useless Universe," "A Cotton Candy Autopsy II: Bingo and Addy's Escape" and "A Conspiracy of Sweaters". These are stories about clowns, dead people "living" in the suburbs, the devil (telling his story), teens being told that they are lemmings on the eve of their prom, death on a holiday, a superhero who is the newest patient in a sanatorium, and many, many other weird, wondrous and wonky things.

If this presentation still has you on the fence, I recommend a further look into Louapre and Sweetman's mind. For my own part, I intend to do my best to track down the remaining sixteen volumes that I am missing, as well as the two anthologies. Wish me luck. And I hope you get a chance to enjoy this too.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Valentine Who?

So, it is Valentine's Day today. For some people it is a big hoopla, for others not so much. For some people it is a huge celebration of love, for others it is just a heart-rendering reminder of maybe not being (or at the very least feeling) particularly loved. From another point of view, it is all just a big commercial cash cow that really and truly has very little to do with most (if any) conceptions of what love is.

So where am I heading with all of this then? Well, I will keep my love to my loved ones, bring gifts when I feel like it, and send sympathetic thoughts to all of you out there who quite involuntarily do not have a Valentine (and not just today then). I would like to dedicate this clip I just found to all of you: