A Real Conundrum

What's he shoveling?If you’ve seen the movie Sideways, you may remember Paul Giamatti’s character discussing his imminent book deal with a certain small-press publisher named Conundrum.

“Conundrum?!” I thought between fistfuls of popcorn. “No, it can’t be.” How did Andy Brown — the mensch behind Montreal indie publisher Conundrum Press — get his peculiar brand into a major Hollywood release?

He didn’t, of course. It’s one of those coincidences covered by the disclaimer at the end of the credits. “No animals were harmed in the making of this film. And we ain’t even heard of Montreal.” [Editor’s note: Turns out they had heard of it. The film’s producer got Brown’s permission before using the name. How it got in the script, however… ]

But as coincidences go, it’s fairly astute. The Day After Yesterday, the novel Giamatti’s character is peddling, could fit snugly in the real Conundrum’s roster, an idiosyncratic selection of displaced prose and high-concept comics that trade in the same literate angst that permeates the film. It’s the kind of work that gets praised for its post-modern wit and literary sleight-of-hand.

Naturally, Brown’s actual imprint nurses Canadian artists on the fringes. He’s published Toronto cartoonist Marc Ngui’s somnoptic strip Zak Meadow in a generous collection, with several pages that fold out in luxuriant spreads. Brown’s Cyclops anthologies have likewise shown off some of Montreal’s most neglected cartoonists.

Many of them turn up in a new Conundrum title, the fragmentary graphic novel Mac Tin Tac. The story, by francophones Marc Tessier and Stephane Olivier, is a delirious, chaotic, often impenetrable allegory of tribalism in an industrial dystopia. Here, sentient liquor bottles get soused on raw bananas while dead fish coast through the clouds. Fourteen artists were enlisted to twist the story through its permutations. The chapters by Carlos Santos, which bookend the novel, cushion the violent undercurrents. In deafening contrast is Richard Suicide’s chapter, the orgiastic “Lost (Lust),” in a style so breathless, so dense, it smothers the reader in its sticky stench. Eyeballs!

Not every chapter works as well as these, and the story itself tends to wax incomprehensible, but the book is a curious testament to the potential of comics collaboration.

Another new Conundrum book exposes a different kind of collaborator: Toronto’s Shary Boyle. Boyle trails a string of musical cameos behind her: she joined Peaches at a Sonic Youth-curated art festival in Los Angeles and took the stage with alt-siren Feist in Paris and Toronto, spinning ethereal doodles that were projected onstage and animated as the band played. But her gruesome zine collection, Witness My Shame, is a strictly solo venture and it’s one of the best entries in the Conundrum catalogue.

WMS binds in one gutsy anthology the minis — or as Boyle obscurely calls them “bookworks” — she drew between 1997 and 2001 following her studies at OCAD (then still OCA). Like every reissue worth its salt, it includes some bonus material: assorted sketches and a story she illustrated for Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby.

The book’s a disquieting read. It piques the fear that someone will tear it from your hands at any moment and march you to your room. Boyle picks at the horrors of childhood, things that have congealed in some pungent corner of her imagination — or, I blanch at the thought, her past. She draws with disturbing guilelessness, like the illustrator of some nihilistic Judy Blume novel. Her tableaux are an unrelenting stream of traumas and debasements, studies in depravity. They’re also hilarious.

Her first zine, from which the collection takes its title, presents a young girl’s most embarrassing memories, which steadily build in outlandishness. First she’s crying over her first period, then falling off her skateboard. A few pages later, she’s suckling at the teat of her lactating cat. By the end, she’s masturbating with a slice of birthday cake while her parents (in party hats) fume.

Boyle’s naïve scribbles capture an elusive, unblemished innocence, which her grim humour swiftly disfigures. The tender, wobbly work courts our ambiguity; how should we respond to her drawing of a young girl straddling Santa’s knee and ogling a giant candy cane in the book “Horny,” or to a dashing Nazi officer who, along with an elderly couple in love and a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, represents one of Boyle’s “Damaging Dreams”?

Boyle skilfully teases our discomfort, amusing and provoking us with our own reactions no less than her gall. Her shame is our shame. Our conundrum.

1 reply »

  1. Great article, Guy! I didn’t know about Conundrum before, so I’m going to try and track down some of the titles you mentioned.


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