Sunday, November 18, 2007


Hugs: Bloodpond is a 36 page long hardbound comic by Michael Ogilvie which I've had on my "to be reviewed" list for quite a long time. One reason it's taken me so long to review it is that while I knew I liked it, I couldn't figure out why I liked it.

A plot summary may help to explain my perplexity. The book begins with a chicken crossing a road. Via a circuitous chain of events, this eventually leads to the protagonist, a mute, fat-bellied, perpetually grinning bear named Hugs, being shot to death by a black dog out of revenge. Hugs goes to heaven, where everyone is perpetually high on heroin. Enraged at Hugs' bliss, the black dog uses his connections with the Pope to have Hugs sent first to hell and then to a pitch-black void, but Hugs manages to enjoy himself each time. Finally the Pope tells the dog that he shouldn't have killed Hugs because there is no suffering worse than being alive, and in exchange for a sacrificed virgin has Hugs resurrected by an obese, crucified Christ. The dog blows his own brains out, while Hugs, seemingly unaffected by his experience, goes home to his human wife and their children, who are miniature duplicates of Hugs or his wife. In an echo of its beginning, the book ends with a whole bunch of chickens crossing the road.

All this is told in thirty-five and a half pages, each (with one exception) divided into two horizontal panels of equal size. Interspersed throughout are various epigrammatic statements, some of which are quotations from literature, which by and large have no apparent connection to the action.

And the art? Hugs is drawn in a sort of Disney-ish bigfoot style, with a precision that suggests he was drawn with a computer: with a few exceptions, his facial expression is exactly the same throughout. Most of the other characters have a similar computer-drawn appearance, though the black dog is drawn by hand in a much rougher style. The backgrounds are either pure white (or occasionally black) or in muted colors or grays: these latter seem to be drawn from various sources, including photographs, stills from animated cartoons, and the "screaming pope" paintings of Francis Bacon. There are some samples from Hugs: Bloodpond on Michael Ogilvie's website, which also has samples from Hugs: Bloodpond's predecessor, Hugs: Thoughtlead, as well as other works. (Some of those latter images are NSFW.)

As I say, I like this book a lot. And yet, looking at its component parts, I found it difficult to understand why. Taken on its own, the story is rather sophomoric blasphemy, and is the sort of apparently pointless story that normally irritates me. The art is skillful and attractive: I particularly like the increasingly outlandish Tex Averyesque expressions of shock on the black dog's face as he observes Hugs' progress through the afterlife. But given the amount of repetition, and the extent of found material, the art by itself wouldn't carry the book. Then what?

In part, it's Ogilvie's mastery of the subtler aspects of comics: coloring, panel composition, and visual storytelling. But basically, this is one of those rare cases in which all elements come together to creat a perfect little gem which can't be changed in any part without destroying it. For instance, I noted that the story taken alone is nothing much. But "improving" it would wreck the balance between story and art. Likewise, if the art were less repetitive, it would be a completely different book.

In most comics, either the story is primary and the art is secondary, or the art is primary and the story is secondary. In Hugs: Bloodpond, both the story and art, as one usually thinks of them, are secondary. Instead, the book seems to be an experiment in getting the maximum mileage from the rearrangement and repetition of a limited set of elements, in both art and story. In the story, we have the circularity of Hugs' journey. And looked at more closely, the structure of the story as a whole is broadly palindromic: elements and motifs from the first half are repeated in reverse order in the second half. In an email to me, Michael Ogilvie wrote that he was "trying to create a new language," and that aspiration is visible here.

True, $11.95 is a lot to pay for 36 pages, even though the book is a nice-looking hardcover. But I don't regret buying it.

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