Monday, November 20, 2006

Joel Priddy: Pulpatoon Pilgrimage

Reviewed by: Brady Russell.

Brady is a ULA member. He probably does not know Joel Priddy.

Ad House Books, $12.95, 160 pages. Available on

The problem with writing about comics is that you can't pretend like you aren't writing about comics. Comics have their own baggage that come around with them. Polite people say things like "I'm just not into comics," but that's just a way to prevent talking about their prejudices. Lots of art orms come with prejudices. Symphony music is thought of as boring. Theater is thought of as pretentious. Modern Dance is incomprehensible.

Come to think of it, I don't really disagree with many of those prejudicial statements. Maybe that's why I wrote them. Comics, though, I give comics free reign. Comics are in the middle of an historical moment right now. Once upon a time, the novel was simply a vehicle for bosom heaving love stories, but then writers came along who broadened its scope and depth and now very boring people in very expensive buildings sit around unpacking the layers and layers locked within novels and bringing different theoretical formulas to bear on ripping them apart, which is thought of as serious, and important work.

Which is part of how you can tell an art form is dying: when boring people in expensive buildings become deeply, deeply interested in it.

Well comics aren't anything like that. Boring people in expensive buildings want no more to do with comics than they want anything to do with rock-and-roll, and both art forms are very much alive, changing and well. The difference is that the public has a pretty good handle on what rock-and-roll is, even when it gets pretty strange (such as when groups like The Cure and The Decemberists come along). Comics, though, people think comics are a vehicle for superhero stories, that's it, that's flat, baby - done.

If you get out there and have a look, though, the comic underground is really moving the form in new places. Take Pulpatoon Pilgrimage. I'm in part so excited about this book I can't quit thinking about it and also afraid to invite anyone I know to look at it for fear that they just aren't prepared for it, that their prejudices will get in the way and they won't like it and they'll insult it and then that will force me up onto a high-horse where I'll say something condescending that I'll regret such as, "Well clearly you just don't get it or even understand how to enjoy it."

See, when you've got comics you have this crazy marriage of the visual and the narrative. Painting, you know, is pretty much all visual. We forgive painting for all kinds of quirks. Its a one shot deal. It's one image. I almost never have any clue what a given painting is trying to tell me, but it's cool. It's cool because I like the colors or the line or I think the thing has an interesting impact on my subconscious.

Then stories are even cooler when you get into them. They really grab you. They work just like our brains work.

Well, with comics you can do a lot of both (where as you can just do a little of both with stories and painting, but let's not quibble too much here - all art is pretty fungible and the boundaries are hazy. That discussion is done.). It's the sheer amount of both the visual and the narrative that you can do with comics that make them so exciting.

The point I'm getting to is this, I love Pulpatoon Pilgrimage. I really, really love it. It's so simple and short and enriching and mystifying that I'm going to read it again and again (this writing follows the third reading in two days). That said, if someone handed me the prose version of Pulpatoon Pilgrimage I'd read three pages and throw it across the room. It just wouldn't work. I wouldn't care. I would be like, "what the hell is the point?"

I'd want to know where the heck Bull even comes from. Where are they?
Where the hell are they going? Who are these freaks?

So what is it? Okay, I guess I had to get to that question eventually, but I don't want to go into too much detail here. Pulpatoon Pilgrimage is the story of a sort of Minotaur, Bull; a walking plant, Delaware Thistle and a robot with a goldfish in his head, Rowbot. We meet the three of them walking across a barren landscape. The first few pages suggest that they have previously walked through forests, rolling hills, woods and jungles before we even hear a voice for the first time. They are on some sort of quest. We don't know where to or why. For some reason, they need to go in a group of three.

They all seem to like each other.

Along the way, we get small character vignettes. We learn a little about each character's sadness and we learn a lot about each character's charm. There is an enormous amount, perhaps an epic amount that we don't learn. Joel Priddy has shown a remarkable restraint here. You get the sense that he could talk about each of these three characters and the world they are walking through (or away from?) for hours and hours.

You'll finish reading the book in twenty minutes if you go slow. He doesn't tell us where we are. He gives us just enough so that we know the three have some sort of reason to walk and enough that we want to go with them.

Or I wanted to go with them. I can't speak for you. Like I said, this isn't your normal story. It's more visual than narrative. It's more mystical than logical.

I'll say this about the characters: you get the sense that Delaware Thistle is the most worldly and the most forlorn of them. He's the smartest of the group. Rowbot is the most mysterious. He suggests the most about the world. His very existence hints that this is not some ancient story, but maybe something in the far off future. Not that I can imagine a future in which they'd put goldfish in the heads of their androids, but I'm not as wise as Joel Priddy, either.

Bull, though, is my favorite character. Perhaps because he reminds me of my best friend back home. He was a big guy I have known all my life who didn't say a lot and didn't take on any airs. When he did act like he knew what he was talking about, though, you usually realized that he did and if you listened you realized he had a pretty good handle on more than you'd think. Bull's like that. Priddy makes it a point to show us that Bull gets the workings of the world on both an analytical and a gut level. Bull doesn't go into a lot of detail and what he says takes a while.

Which is not a bad description of how the story in Pulpatoon Pilgrimage gets told.

If you want to believe that comics can be art, then check it out. If you just want to meditate for twenty minutes, try it for that, too. If you want to understand what it means when people say "still waters run deep," then that's another good reason to try it out.

Just don't complain to me because it's slow or meandering or doesn't make a very clear point or doesn't really seem to end neatly (especially when you still don't know why it began). I warned you, didn't I? I told you that's why I love it. So don't cry to me when you're more mystified at the ending than you were at the beginning? Because, I'll wager, that you have a pretty good idea of what it is that's mystified you. You probably weren't the least bit mystified when you started reading Pulpatoon Pilgrimage, but now you are. You wonder what the hell was going on? What happened? What's going to happen? Most of all how? Better yet: why?

And if you're thinking right, you realize that mystification isn't a problem. It's Priddy's gift to you to leave you mystified, wondering, flummoxed. It's better to have a nice set of questions in hand than it is to have answers, especially if the questions are good ones.

Pulpatoon Pilgrimage will leave you with good questions, and you'll need to read it twice or even three times to find them all (and answer a few). I hope you won't mind. Priddy's haunting muse and lovely, graceful, gentle lines will be glad to take you through the questions again and again.

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