Monday, March 21, 2005

Hey, Mister - The Fall Collection

When Top Shelf announced their recent sale, I bought a pile of books that I knew were good for me - some Glenn Dakin, some Tom Hart, a couple anthologies. I also bought the third reprint compilation of Pete Sickman-Garner's Hey Mister series, and hey, guess which one I read first . . .

I don't think I've ever heard anyone else discussing the series, which is a shame. It's funny. Consistently funny. It operates on a slightly lower key than Dork or Angry Youth Comics, which might go a long ways towards explaining its invisibility. It's a lot more subtle than either of the above, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that Sickman-Garner is nowhere near the virtuoso cartoonist that either Evan Dorkin or Johnny Ryan are. His humor depends a lot more on sustained mood and character, not so much on the slapstick or silly, and very rarely on the scatological.

Basically, Hey, Mister is a valentine to squalor. Sickman-Garner's world is a threadbare and depressing place. Every wall is cracked and every piece of plaster is chipped. Even when something is clean it looks limp, washed out with industrial-strength fluorescent lighting and scrubbed by an underpaid immigrant cleaning lady. Enthusiasm doesn't really exist in this world, except for the torpid kind of enthusiasm that comes with screwing over rich people or going to the liquor store.

Sickman-Garner's world is inhabited by three hapless rejects, the titular Mister, the eternally grumpy Aunt Mary and Young Tim. Their relation is never defined, except to say that they aren't blood even though they seem to be perpetually bound together as roommates and companions. Probably because no one else would put up with them. Mister is secretly infatuated with Mary, which is funny because Mary is just surly. They know where they stand on the totem pole of life - at the bottom, with no illusions as to the fact that their existences are pretty much the definition of superfluous. As depressing as it sounds, its all pretty damn funny.

Whatever happens in the course of a Hey, Mister adventure, you can be assured that it will be fairly pitiful. They journey up Jack's beanstalk to find a pig that pees whiskey, only to find the giant passed out in his underwear on the floor. Young Tim gets a job assisting Jesus with the Rapture, only to be damned (literally) because of office politics.

Aunt Mary gets knocked out while working at the Nature's Pantry supermarket, but instead of waking in a wonderful, Technicolor Oz she wakes up in . . . the Nature's Pantry supermarket, with half-a-dozen miniature Tim's dancing around her like Munchkins. Her "fantasy" concludes with a lunch-break in the cafeteria, before waking up back in sordid reality. Eventually, overwhelmed by the stupidity of the world around her, she runs into the countryside in search of peace and contentment. She sits under a tree and plucks an apple from a tree . . . but the apple has a worm.

Every silver lining comes with a cloud in Hey, Mister. Surprisingly, considering the resolutely sordid nature of the adventures, Sickman-Garner actually manages to wrest quite a bit of pathos out of such pitiful situations. Mister, Mary and Tim are essentially decent people turned rotten by the absolute pointlessness of everything around them, and the realization that they are neither beautiful nor rich enough to be allowed access to anything better in life, and too smart to be able to ignore the difference. They don't really expect things to get better, but they still possess the capacity for disappointment. This capacity is perpetually exploited in the pages of Hey, Mister.

By far the highlight of the book is "Dial 'M' For Mister", an updated Pygmalion wherein Mister is adopted by Hera (yes, of the Greek pantheon) in order to fulfill a wager that Aphrodite will sleep with anyone. The only problem is that Mister sees through the gods' vapidity, and ultimately becomes disappointed when faced with the fact that he is unable to have the one thing he truly wants. Of course, there's no such thing as a happy ending in Hey, Mister, and the eventual ironic fulfillment of Mister's greatest desire leads to the book's most inspired moment of comic despair.

Hey, Mister officially counts as a "buried treasure", one of the more sublime examples of farce I've seen in quite some time. Sickman-Garner is a talented humorist who somehow manages to make even the most pathetic situation funny merely by dint of the fact that his characters remain perpetually, disconcertingly familiar.

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