Friday, December 04, 2015
AT HUNT EMERSON LAYS DOWN SOME HOT JAZZ
AT HUNT EMERSON LAYS DOWN SOME HOT JAZZ
After a successful Kickstarter campaign we can now enjoy this collection by the great Hunt Emerson, one of the treasures of Brit comicking, much of which has been out of print for far too long, and also boasting some new material (plus a terrific bonus art gallery by some major talents like Rian Hughes, Gilbert Shelton, Krent Able, Nigel Auchterlounie and a pile more), all featuring his swinging hip-cat jazz-man Max Zillion and his horn, Alto Ego (who is, as Hunt himself notes in his introduction, is pretty much the brains of the operation). Many of these strips were published in a number of different journals, before being collected by Knockabout in Jazz Funnies, but that was way back in the mid 1980s, so it’s great to see them, and later and new strips (a mix of black and white and colour pieces) all wrapped up with a bow here.
Poor Max is a perennially down on his luck jazz saxophonist, teamed up with Alto, one of those characters where no matter how hard he tries or what good intentions he has, it always seems to end up with Max in the muck again, and usually totally broke as well. In the latter category his constant state of perilous penury isn’t helped by his agent Meen McMudda, a wonderfully-drawn squat, greedy shape in a suit, embodying all the worst tales of dodgy agents every kind of artist has a horror story about. Sure Max gets gigs, but they all vary somewhat, to put it mildly – he may get a gig playing sax with a good band, only to lose it because he can’t stay in the rigid form of playing demanded but breaks out into crazy be-bop when the music takes him. Or in a classic McMudda gig he is booked to play loud jazz by the quayside to his seafood restaurant to scare away psychopathic seagulls who usually raid the daily fish delivery (ah, the height of artistic fame! Also Hunt being years ahead on the now omnipresent scourge of scavenging seagulls in our towns and cities today).
The stories are all largely self contained strips, but while the gags drive them, Hunt doesn’t neglect character development too, and we get to see bits of Max’s past, including a scene where he falls in love with a singer, who falls for him precisely because of his crazy music. This being Hunt Emerson you won’t be surprised to find that many of the stories and the art are gleefully infused with some wonderfully bonkers surrealistic humour. In the story where he falls in love he and his lady come across a farmer who plays music to his giant plant which then produces records (including Max’s only disc when he plays for it).
In another he blows hard to clear a blockage in Alto, it flies out the horn, through the ceiling and knocks a plaster lump right into space, while across town a plumbing accident blows a boiler part into the air to land at his feet. Thinking it part of a downed secret satellite Max takes it to the CIA, only to stumble on a secret Cold War plot to use orbiting saxophones to blast hip music behind the Iron Curtain to cause instability, and naturally this leads to both Max and Alto in orbit. Then there’s a giant plaster Space Invader, massed horns playing in space and… well, you get the picture. Wonderful madness ensues in tales that feel like an even more warped version of a Looney Tunes universe (that is a compliment).
In another increasingly surreal story, borrowing a little from the legend of Robert Johnson and also The Devil Goes Down to Georgia, McMudda books Max to play for his good friend Mr B L Zeebub, “quite far downtown”. In fact so far they have to bum a lift across the Styx and find themselves playing the Devil in a saxophone competition, which sees the demonic hordes emerge from the concert into our own world. At which point Hunt creates several full-page montages – wars, murders, pollution, racism, starving children and more horrors. These frankly horrifying images capture the worst elements of the 80s, but far to disturbingly they capture pretty much the same worst elements of human society today too (refugee boat people, bombing as the solution to any problem, rampant racist hate of “the other”). The date has changed, but the song remains the same; it’s a really powerful set of pages, humans creating their own Hell so awful even demons run shrieking from it.
The art is such a huge part of Hunt’s work – not just in the obvious way, it being a comic and thus somewhat reliant on visual storytelling though, it’s the richness (and often delightful, inventive madness) of Hunt’s art. Even if you don’t quite get a gag in the script the art is so magnificently bonkers and creative and surreal that you can’t help but laugh at it, while also marvelling at the skill and visual imagination on display here. While most of these veer delightfully to cartoony surrealist excess, or those aforementioned scenes of man-made Hell on Earth (so bad it terrifies the demons back to Hell) are disturbing, there is always a point in there, a commentary on life, hopes, dreams, failures, on society, on art. Despite or perhaps because of the frequent surrealist imagination running riot across the pages Hunt still brings out character and a feeling of humanity and empathy for his characters.
It’s an absolute hoot, managing to combine that mad humour and those fabulously nutty visuals with some sly commentary and satire. And oh that art, that glorious, unmistakably distinctive, detailed lunatic art… From large splash pages to small panels, there are always lovely little details, from the character’s expressions to fine little background elements (like a broken picture frame leaking water, because it hold a picture of a seascape), this is character, story and art fused to such a perfect degree (and in a way that rewards repeat readings to spot more that you missed first time round). And oh ye four colour gods, it is funny. Not chuckle funny but full on laugh so much that you may need to be admitted to the Damaged Ribs clinic for therapy afterwards funny. Gloriously, wonderfully surreal Brit comics humour at its best, from one of our finest.