Writer/Artist - Tim Hensley
Publisher - Fantagraphics. $18.99 USD
Frequently mistaken for the famous Bauhaus architect, Wally Gropius is just your average umpteen millionaire looking for love, parental approval and a good jam with his band, The Dropouts. Has he finally found a honey in Jillian Banks, a gold-throated teen warbler of national anthems? And does it mean anything if he does or doesn’t?
In an age when Hensley contemporary (and patron) Daniel Clowes is derided for the surface elements of a challenging work of great feeling beneath that surface, Hensley’s debut graphic novel may find few champions. It’s pretty much all surface, as far as I can tell. That’s not a condemnation, but Gropius is more concerned with verbal jazz and abstract gags, all presented in an innocent-looking approximation of the bright, clean style of ’60s Harvey Comics. Wally is a teen version of Richie Rich, growing up with lots of money and therefore mostly apathetic to it. a funny running gag is all the sound effects being names for money or people associated with wealth: kopeck, loot, ka-ching, Trump. It’s also funny to see, say, a sports arena scoreboard with Summer’s Eve douche as a sponsor.
Those are basically entry-level Hensley. He takes his darkly humorous instincts to extremes in other pages, such as the typical teen comic arguing between fusty father and rebellious daughter that suddenly turns incestuous, or the wacky setup of Wally’s mom talking about fortunes being read with animal entrails before she shoots down a bird, its guts hanging out as a grotesque anti-punchline.
As is the case about 75% of the time, “graphic novel” here is a euphemism. This is a collection of strips, one to six pages, but they do tell a more or less linear, if disjointed, story of Wally’s wooing of Jillian and the trouble it causes. Many of the stories were originally published in the Fantagraphics anthology, Mome, and it’s arguable whether a story like “Shh!” is improved by the knowledge that some of its seeming non-sequiturs now make sense in the expansion. A story like that was a near-perfect, inscrutable gem, now scrutable. I’m not sure I’m better served by reading this interview with Hensley by Gary Groth where several of the jokes are explained, not to mention finding out Hensley is no wunderkind but a 44 year old man who’s been making comics for years and who seems to have come to this Harvey style fairly recently. I think the way to approach the book is as a lavish, frequently funny, if superficial, joke. Not unlike R. Sikoryak’s Masterpiece Comics. Your mileage may vary as to whether there’s a sense of diminishing returns by having all this work under one cover. I enjoyed it but didn’t feel like I had to read it in one sitting. It’s not a work seeking any great truth; Hensley just wants to entertain, though his humor is going to be over a lot of folks’ heads, and if you have to explain a joke, it’s already failed. I liked enough of the gags, and Hensley’s overall confidence in putting them over in such a currently declasse’ comics art style, that I would recommend it.
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