Friday, August 8, 2014

Comics Review: THE AMATEURS

FANTAGRAPHICS BOOKS – @fantagraphics

CARTOONIST: Conor Stechschulte
EDITOR: Eric Reynolds
ISBN: 978-1-60699-734-5; paperback (June 2014)
64pp, B&W. $14.99 U.S.

Conor Stechschulte is a Baltimore-based comic book artist and a painter.  Fantagraphics Books recently published his graphic novella debut.  Entitled The Amateurs, it is the story of two amnesiac butchers who find their shop without meat and their heads with any memory of how to do their jobs.

The Amateurs opens with an entry from the diary of Anne M. Nemeth, a student at Lyre School for Girls.  On the morning of September 3rd of an unknown year, Anne and fellow student, Bethany, discover a severed human head that still seems to be talking.

The story then introduces (via flashback?) a pair of butchers named Jim and Winston.  They arrive for work at their butcher shop (of which Winston may be the owner) one morning only to discover that there is no meat in the shop.  Still more shocking, the two men also realize that they have completely forgotten how to do their jobs.  With the arrival of Martha and Shelly, two customers, Jim and Winston become fearful for their livelihood, too afraid to admit their dilemma.  This leads to a series of increasingly disastrous events.  The questions remains, what has caused their strange amnesia?

Somewhere between David Lynch and The Three Stooges lies the weird horror-comedy that is The Amateurs.  This graphic novel is inscrutable, surreal, and brilliant.  I could have read another 64 pages of it; I wanted to read another 64 pages.  It is a fascinating read, and I found myself reading a few pages at time and going back to re-read those pages.

Stechschulte may not be a draftsman as a comic book artist, but he is able to create evocative graphics separate from the words in balloons and caption boxes.  Those words, however, are also powerful and gripping, making the characters and situations intriguing and fascinating, even if both largely remain a mystery.  Bring words and pictures together, and the result is a robust story of mystery and dark humor.

There is a sad-sack, human quality in Stechschulte’s character art and in his cartooning of the human figure.  Jim and Winston’s nakedness, down to their mundane and feeble genitalia, makes them seem fragile.  That fragility is what keeps Jim and Winston’s dilemmas and struggles tangible and genuine.  That is what makes me care (still) about the two men’s fate long after reading The Amateurs.

The Amateurs could be a criticism of human nature, particularly of the disconnect between people.  I think this fantastic graphic novella reveals that there is a connection, but also that there is a lack of understanding in how to use that connection.  This leads to awkwardness and lots of flailing – hurting in lieu of uniting.  That’s amateurish.

The Amateurs by Conor Stechschulte is an ambition debut.  It is a small, black and white graphic novella with a story that is as explosive and as visceral as any superhero comics spectacular.  Its black comedy is funnier than many straight humor comics.  Readers looking for an ambitious alternative to the status quo will find it in The Amateurs.


Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux

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