Dennis Cooper and Keith Mayerson
240 Pages; Print, $24.99
Keith Mayerson told Publishers Weekly in 2011 that the 1996 release of his graphic novel adaptation Horror Hospital Unplugged was “too arty for comics, too comics for art, and too gay for everyone.” The publisher hoped that by reissuing Horror Hospital Unplugged in 2011, the comics landscape had become more welcoming to a book like this...but what kind of a book is Horror Hospital Unplugged?
Dennis Cooper, born 1953, is a prose author of numerous books and poems focusing on disaffected youth, music, and death. He frequently collaborates with visual artists on various projects. In this case, he collaborated with Keith Mayerson, a painter and cartoonist, born in 1966, who casts pop culture figures into his own personal narratives.
The 240-page graphic novel is based on a 16-page short story by Cooper titled “Introducing Horror Hospital,” which appears in his 1992 collection Wrong. Among Cooper’s work, the short story is surprisingly tame and straightforward. It follows Trevor Machine, a lead vocalist of a crappy but sincere punk band. Guys come to his shows and try to sleep with him. He does drugs and interviews. He thinks about death. Finally, a friend dies. Everything that’s in the short story is also in the graphic novel adaptation, but the adaptation extrapolates upon, explodes, and complicates the source text. The graphic novel adds narrative elements, including an exploration of Machine’s sexual confusion and a plethora of pop culture references: a visit from the ghost of River Phoenix becomes central to the book. Phoenix tells Trevor that he’ll die of a drug overdose and that death isn’t so bad—it’s actually “kind of laid back.” He tells Trevor that, in these last weeks before death, he should “go burn brightly and fuck with the world.”
While “Introducing Horror Hospital” lacks the violence of much of Cooper’s work, the graphic novel adaptation assaults the reader with Mayerson’s drawings. The execution of this book feels like an act of anger or frustration or pain. Mayerson attacks these pages with his pen. Grotesque nib drawings splay across the page. Characters’ faces twist from panel to panel, morphing into Tex Avery wolves as drawn by André Masson. Other pages suggest Antonin Artaud drawing a MAD Magazine spread of celebrity caricatures. Some pages are dense with gags and notes and maze-like arrangements while other panels feel like they were thrown onto the page. “Did he draw this on uppers?” is a fair question. The book seems to ask you to flip the pages as fiercely as they were drawn...you have to hurtle through this book to make it cohere. It perfectly suits the energetic and dreamy content of the story.
Throughout, more specific visual references abound. In one sequence, a big mustached blob attacks Trevor and hits his head on a Frogger arcade machine. The design of the blob man recalls the inflated adults in Pink Floyd’s animated The Wall (1979). Trevor’s punk friend pulls him into the club bathroom, and the interior of the lavatory looks like a Ralph Steadman page. Trevor’s nose bleeds, and that cues Mayerson to move into a realm of “boy love” manga, where a bloody nose signifies sexual arousal. The next ten pages continue the “boy love” aesthetic. Some panels appear to be clipped from a magazine picked up at the Kinokuniya Japanese bookstore. Mayerson generously and sincerely appreciates all of these different visual idioms and fluently enrolls their elements into his book. The reader is conscious of these stylistic changes and references while remaining immersed in the panel-to-panel progression of the events of the story. This big-hearted and thoughtful influx of visual vocabularies is both exhilarating and oddly profound.
Cartooning has historically been an art of consistency. A character in panel one should look the same when reappearing in panel two in order to allow the reader’s eyes to naturally follow the character’s progression from one panel to the next. If a 12-panel scene takes...