Mark Beyer: Otherworldly Life

[Image left: Raw #6 Cover by Mark Beyer.]

Mark Beyer is a reclusive self-taught American Crawling Eye genius. One of the finest contemporary artists of today, he has sadly (yet profoundly) given his life to comicstrips and self-exiled obscurity. Like a modern day Kafka, he has stretched the boundaries of his chosen medium, and produced an uneasy and delicate jewel-like body of work, seemingly hard to penetrate but well worth the effort.

His art has had a heavy influence on graphic design and our culture’s sudden embrace and affection for the comic artform. Bending almost every rule of “comic design”, Beyer has created a unique illustrated space where story, line and shadow are stretched to their limits and emerge in a strange new world, somewhere both dangerous and joyful – a metamorphosis brought to life. His work can be both intensely psychedelic and down-to-earth in the same moment. His stories ring with the immediate truth and struggle of existance.

A collection of Beyer’s Amy & Jordan strips was beautifully produced by Pantheon books a few years ago, and was sadly ignored, despite Publisher’s Weekly’s ernest comments, “This work is a major release by one of the masters of the form, and is a must-have for anyone interested in the potential for profound art in the comics medium.”

Dark Horse also produced the most lavish Amy & Jordan bendable figure set ever: a Kafakaesque sculpture that jumped off the page: as their promo slyly states, “a ray of sunshine and sweetness in an ugly world.”

“Beyer’s work centres around two recurring characters, Amy Tilsdale and Jordon Levine, who look like lumpy rag dolls and behave like the characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, constantly badgering each other for their inadequacies.

Living in a dingy New York apartment, they suffer an endless torrent of urban indignities: an overbearing landlord; a sink full of dirty dishes, a kitchen teaming cockroaches and other scabby insects, streets filled with drug addicts and criminals. And when they try to escape for the fleeting pleasures of a day on the beach, they are harassed by nasty teenagers and scabrous sea-creatures. Beyer’s skills in capturing the verminous and squalid make these unpleasant experiences all too real.

Although they’ve been roommates for two decades now, Amy and Jordon don’t do much to help each other survive in their hostile universe. While Amy is a fussbudget and busy-body, Jordon is even worse: lazy, selfish, quick to anger, lacking in generosity and mean to children. At its most intense, Amy and Jordon strips capturethe suffocation of living in a close space with someone you don’t care for.

Described in these terms, Beyer’s work sounds too painful to endure. Surprisingly, this is not the case: Obsessive and tightly focused as they are, the Amy and Jordon strips are also bleakly hilarious and life-affirming. Part of their power comes from
sheer repetition. Appearing week after week in the New York Press, Beyer’s strips were a testament to how strong life is even in the face of a hostile environment.

Like so many other newspaper features, comic strips are not about giving us the “news” as in offering the habitual pleasures of re-iteration and redundancy. Week after week, Charlie Brown is insulted, Beetle Bailey goofs off, Dagwood Bumstead runs into the mailman, Amy and Jordon fend off threats to their existence.

Within this treadmill cosmos, pleasure comes in the form of seeing what new variation can be wrung out of the old formula. In this area, Beyer is a genuine master: he’s done hundreds of Amy and Jordon strips, each one of which plays with the horizontal format.

Decorative ingenuity is constantly on display, with panels reinvented as: triangles, circles, cones and waves. Describing the comic strips of the early 20th century, Coulton Waugh noted that they rarely made any “pretense at depth” but rather were willing to settle for a “flat, sensible world of their own.” This “strong, two-dimensional appearance” gave the classic strips “a sort of stylized, textile-design effect.” The same is true of Beyer: not chasing after the optical illusions of perspective and depth,
Beyer patterns each strip into a unique unit.” Source: Mark Beyer’s Raw Roots by Jeet Heer, National Post

“For those of you who thought the comic strip was dead by the end of the twentieth century, here are 292 pieces of proof that you were wrong. Mark Beyer was breathing delirious, heartbreaking, otherworldly life into it by means of Amy and Jordan. Obviously, you weren’t reading New York Press... One of its most impressive aspects was the way Form served the Content—no matter how eccentric the layout got, it somehow never confused the narrative. And what narrative: it was as if Candide had been transported to the East Village and split in two like an amoeba and holed up in a squat on Avenue C. Along with giant bugs from outer space.” — Chip Kidd

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