“Sometimes You Wanna Go Where Nobody Knows Anybody’s Name”: Dustin Holland on Steve Aylett’s HYPERTHICK #1

Picking up a piece of Steve Aylett’s work for the first time is always a confounding experience. His prose and his comics are often inscrutable blends of genres and mediums that wear their influences proudly on their sleeves while being unlike anything else you’ve ever encountered. The first issue of Aylett’s new comic Hyperthick is no exception.

Divided into six distinct stories, Hyperthick #1 is a labyrinthine introduction to Aylett’s oeuvre. In “Benny the Hen: Love at Crash Gate 27,” the titular Benny speaks to a man whose name isn’t Ted about his experiments with the “Memphis Conjecture”—a nonsensical method of producing some sort of irreality involving a “[v]ista of interlocking errors” and “a draining gold heaven panel.” When the man asks our hero for his credentials, Benny produces a series of photos of himself attacking random farmers, which seems to put the man at ease. But tensions rise again soon and Benny punches not-Ted before leaving.

The second story, “Fox Grave in: The Costly Venture Part One,” features a crew of pirates and is similarly obscure/absurd. In fact, the stories of Biloxi Blake, Luka Bazooka, Su Pesto, and Kryton Sweeny all seem to prioritize wordplay and an appreciation of the ridiculous over any consistent narrative. Each story features some sort of story within a story, characters being called by the wrong name, and unsteady relationships with the nature of reality—as if some great truth was lurking just out of sight. Equally confounding is the fact that none of these stories come to a precise end. Some approach a conclusion or at least a stopping point, but each piece ends with the promise that they will be continued in the next issue of Hyperthick.

By now, the second and third issues of the series have been released (along with a collected edition announced for end of the July). It would be simple enough to wait and then binge each story in the hope that additional context might add a degree of clarity to the proceedings—but there’s something magical about these fragments as they are, and it would be unlike Aylett to make anything too clear in future issues. If anything, more information will almost certainly add to the chaos of each situation:

It can be difficult to find a foothold in these surreal stories, but the two-page “Su Pesto in: Bomb Sawyer and the Mercy Circus” might offer some sort of explanation to that meaning of Hyperthick. While explaining her own cryptic sign, which reads, “Violation at varied angles is not creativity.” When asked for clarification, Su says that the sign is her way of rejecting the fickle and “degrading” nature of culture. Later she delights in the “true but useless” and determines that “eccentric longings sure make for an interesting life.” It’s possible to read Su’s disdain for the ordinary and dedication to the bizarre as the thesis of the entire comic. Like Su’s sign, Aylett’s work is gorgeous and thought provoking, even when it borders on the nonsensical. He rails against the mundane with every idiosyncratic panel, daring us to keep up.

As dense as his writing is, there’s something whimsical about Aylett’s writing. There is a playful poetry dancing between his goofball jokes and non sequiturs. It’s easy to get lost in the music of his verbal maximalism. Alliterative phrases and bizarre metaphors collide with classic comic interjections to make a truly unique cacophony. Even Aylett’s characters seem to occasionally lose the thread of the action. Questions like “What in the Blue Hell do you mean?” arise in each story as quixotic heroes rant about esoteric manuscripts and the secret meaning of everything. But there’s a distinct, measured rhythm to the language. Even at its most impenetrable, it’s clear that Aylett has carefully crafted each exchange.

Aylett’s fluid, free-wheeling writing is accompanied by strange, sometimes wooden collages composed of what appear to be 50s-60s romance comics. Every man, a wooden patriarch—every woman, a smiling homemaker. These pseudo-wholesome characters appear particularly abstract in the shadow of Aylett’s language. These don’t look like the sort of suburbanites who would ever pick up a copy of Hyperthick, which is what makes them perfect to star in it. These stilted characters are transformed into harbingers of the bizarre as they stray further and further from any semblance of normalcy with every line:

But, don’t let the familiar, unassuming character designs fool you. The art in this comic is as dense and transgressive as the writing. Aylett literally turns the world on its head, tilting backgrounds willy-nilly and incorporating wild, fractal images that introduce whole new spectrums of color into the strange worlds of Luca Bazooka and the rest. Equally jarring, are Aylett’s depictions of violence, which seem to erupt out of nowhere, and often go unaddressed. Sure, a man will bandage his head afterwards, but the dynamic between adversaries seems as affable as ever. Perhaps both combatants would rather not address the inhuman angles their bodies bend into during the fray. At one point, a new character appears to hit our hero with a bottle before disappearing once again into the ether. These random visual gags go unaddressed in Aylett’s writing, but they go a long way in establishing the unruly, unreal tone of each story. 

Hyperthick #1 is a truly unhinged piece of work. Readers who are overly committed to traditional narrative structures, or who are just looking for a casual read, beware! Aylett is operating with a keen understanding of the madness of the world, and he seems determined to meet it on its level. This is a comic for the wide-eyed, permafried Dadaist in your life. Pull them away from their dream machines, grab them by the shoulders, and shake them until their eyes are stars and then put this in their heads with all the force you can muster.

Hyperthick #1, by Steve Aylett. Portland, Oregon: Floating World Comics. 32 pages. $5.99, full color.

Dustin Holland is a cartoonist and writer living in Longmont, Colorado. His work can be found at gorchverse.com.

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