Review: Beta Testing the ApocalypseA comic review article by: Nick Hanover
Middle school era me had this habit of religiously reading liner notes, a quirk picked up after inheriting my dad's Nirvana fixation and thus his copy of Insesticide, which functioned like some kind of holy tome of alternative culture suggestions. That odd compilation and its even odder packaging turned me on to a lot of things, but for the sake of this current topic it turned me on to Naked Lunch and the whole Burroughs world, which seemed to have an obscene amount of my favorite music in its orbit. And from there it wasn't much of a leap to Planet J.G. Ballard, itself exerting plenty of gravitational pull on those same brooding electro songsmiths I'd seen while in Burroughs space.
I think a lot of those post-punk teen idols of mine, so many from factory towns, got into those twin B's because of mechanical paranoia, a totally legitimate and understandable 20th century fixation. But the thing is, those weirdo hip priests of mechanized lexicons and surreal sexual fetishery also had mean senses of humor, expert handles on irony and cheekiness as a coping mechanism for the trash of modern life. Tom Kaczynski isn't from Manchester and he doesn't look like any Factory Records bit player I've ever seen so maybe that's why he completely gets that aspect of Burroughs and Ballard.
Kaczynski's new collection Beta Testing the Apocalypse is weird as all fuck and funny as all shit, a Singles Going Steady for the art comix crowd that merges Burroughs' cut-up commentary with Ballard's keen tech consumer insight and siliconic wit. Working in a style that is a perplexing mix of dot matrix detailing, architectural blue print exactness and razor blade xeroxing looseness, Kaczynski uses Beta Testing the Apocalypse as a platform for his interest in the anxieties of the ever shifting expansiveness of 21st century life, a life Kaczynski obviously inhabits, too, but somehow does so with a verve and clarity the rest of us lack.
Like Ballard, Kaczynski's interests often veer towards urban mundanity, particularly concrete islands ("100,000 Miles," a story with an autistic bent that details the life cycle of the vehicular traffic dweller), menacing and newly grown high rises ("976 Sq. Ft.") and warfare amongst the varying levels of the post-middle class millennium people (the whole fucking shebang, honestly). Where the two split is in Kaczynski's humanity, as he imbues everything from a car crash to an older apartment complex with a kind of sadly personal tone, the human characters themselves often secondary to the everyday objects and locations that they inhabit and surround themselves with. Kaczynski's coloring and inking decisions often emphasize this, as the humans and buildings in "976 Sq. Ft." show, both awash in bright pink punk tones as everything else around them is swallowed in stark black and white.
As is the case with the best 21st century punk artists, though, Kaczynski's instrument of choice ain't filth or fury but confusion, anxious tics and grimaces. In "Phase Transition" it shows itself in a spreading sickly yellow tint, infecting a protagonist as he leaves the spartan confines of his drab apartment for the "concrete ruins" that serve as "a prelude to a great deluge that will drown this rotting world, this fetid civilization." It's an inability to cope with time itself, the steady thrum of a world that can't stop, won't stop changing, that threatens obsolescence and total immersion at every juncture. A compact, beautifully designed and well-timed punchline version of that follows in "Noise: A History" and it's like an artful synopsis and mission statement rolled into one; it in turn is followed by a mini-epic on the nature of commodification of natural resources and eco-terrorism as branding strategy, a mission statement of a decidedly different sort that effortlessly opens up the second half of the collection, where nature looms larger.
The mantra is the city begat noise begat escape begat nature, all pushing back to mergers of the individual ingredients, far future actors joining caveman boot camp to unleash "Music for Neanderthals," quick fix entrepreneurs developing "Hotel Silencios" and inflicting the alienness of silence on trendy young city dwellers, all culminating in "The New," a masterful amalgamation of all that came before, architecture and nature and western expansion coming to blows over a city with an insatiable hunger and a need to turn shit to gold.
Obviously there is conflict to Kaczynski's confusion and a certain aspect of that conflict is an ensemble of influences and references and cycles fighting their way for superiority, the lack of a clear winner defining Kaczynski's style. Punk 7", murderous junkie beatnik cut-up proselytizing, future shock short story anthology, urban decay fertilizing a new Earth order, it's all there in Beta Testing the Apocalypse and Kaczynski is helpful enough to give you his own little signposts along the way, to kick off your own comics Insecticide adventure. His is the art of a generation who communicate through accumulated knowledge and referential totems and it works best in capsules and bursts rather than elongated works with chapters and sections and parts. To that end, Beta Testing the Apocalypse is where we should be looking if we want to know what comes next, if we want to discern which hip priest had their ear closer to the ground.
Nick Hanover doesn't want to set the world on fire, unless he has to, which seems increasingly more likely each day. As Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, he most looks forward to making subliterate internet commenters angry and forcing his record collection on unsuspecting readers through his comic, film and television reviews and miscellaneous other pop culture pieces for the site. He promises to update Panel Panopticon more this year, but you can always find his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover or explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness.