Monday, August 25, 2014

Open Up Your Murder Eyes: Part 1

(1) what is a / what is a / what is a / what is a comic book...

I've been reading a lot of comics recently that stretch the boundaries of being classified as comics. The Tom of Finland: The Complete Kake collection, which came out a few months ago from Taschen, consists of 700 individual paintings that, when placed next to each other, form a series of comics. Each page of the collection is given over to a single painting and each series of paintings is given over to its own chapter. This sequencing creates motion between the paintings that is not present when left on their own. As individuals. I’m unsure though if this motion is the most important element in transforming these paintings from individual objects into “comics” though. 

However large their bulges are.


Exorcise is a collection of work produced by Heather Benjamin between 2010 and 2013. Benjamin, while prominent in the art comics scene (being a featured guest at the 2013 CAB) does not make what one would call “traditional” comics. Like Tom of Finland, Benjamin creates single images, but these images do not create sequences when placed next to each other. Or at least not in a literal sense. Characters in Exorcise do not track across the length of the book, they are devoid of arcs and don't move from one setting to the next. They are trapped in these images. But it is in these singular images that the strands of a narrative begin to form, as each drawing builds on the previous, their shared use of imagery, iconography and theme begins to create something that the reader can cling too. These strands are not simple to follow though, they force you to reconcile what is on the page and what is on your mind. It is a personal narrative that is created, not a universal. 

This is me grasping for mine.

(2) "shut up" and covers

The front cover of Exorcise is fairly plain. The title is spelled out with some flair, but the blue card-stock leaves you feeling nothing, it gives no hints or clues towards what the contents housed inside of the book may be. It is utterly blinding in its sheer normalcy. That is until your eyes glance over the neon orange sticker placed slightly underneath the title. The sticker reads “ … Not For The Timid” and features an illustration of a woman bleeding from her eyes, scalp and mouth with her hands tightly griped around a barbed whip. Her eyes are dead black, they don’t express pain though, as one would suspect, but rather pleasure. 

This is the first and only warning in the book. Her eyes tell it all though.

“...Not For The Timid”

The first page shows another woman. A new woman. She is angled so that we see her right shoulder sticking slightly up as she holds out her right hand towards the reader and makes a gesture that could possibly be recognized as a peace sign. With her left hand she is in the process of slicing her left nipple off with a razor blade. Nothing is holding the breast in place so it moves slightly upwards due to the force of the blade. She is biting the bottom of her lip so hard that it starts to bleed. It seems like a moment of release is happening. Like the woman in the sticker there is a passion in her eyes that looks through you. Cuts through you. She is wearing a single ornate hoop earring, the script, which takes up the the majority of the earnings surface area, reads “Shut Up”.

While the image itself is disturbing it is the “Shut Up” that your eyes linger on. It’s almost offensive in its bluntness. Even when viewed within an image of a woman cutting off her nipple, while simultaneously bleeding from several other sources, it’s those two words that shock you. It reads as an accusation towards your thoughts, your disgust at the object you’re holding. Existing on the same horizontal axes your eyes may glance back over to the figures hand gesture for a moment, the lazy peace sign, and it becomes even more revolting. Like being shushed as a child mid thought by a teacher. It's a fuck you from a figure with black eyes that doesn't give a shit about you though. 

We see this figure once more at the collections mid way point. She is the only figure repeated in the book, which makes her actions seem all the more important. This time she is holding a pair of scissors, instead of a razor blade, and is in the process of cutting off her own tongue. Her earring, still prominently displayed, continues to read “Shut Up”.

Benjamin’s work on the surface seems connected with the Japanese Ero-Guro aesthetic, which in essence is torture porn. Or gore porn. Which ever one you’d like to call it. But Benjamin's recent work doesn't share the same end goals, or even the same point as Guro. It is more personal and transformative. In Guro the rampant theme is the exploration, or more so the infliction of, power over another. This shift in power dynamics has a tendency to lead to the torture and eventual murder of the person in the submissive roles, in increasingly disturbing scenarios. In Guro the outside is the force of subjection. In Exorcise though it is about the power dynamics of the self. The subjugation and domination of ones body by ones own hand and by ones own consciousness. Her figures inflict these tortures on themselves for any number of reasons, but it is them doing it. Both internally and externally they are in complete control, no one else.

These tortures, as uncomfortable as they may make you feel, have a point though. They are made to create a thought. A reaction. Both in this book and across her body of work.

When the figure on page one says “Shut Up” it is as much an act of rudeness as it is an act of asking the reader to wait before they finalize their reaction. A plea to finish the work before questioning it. On the inside front cover there's a small inscription inside of a heart that's being stabbed through by a knife which says “Never Can Say Goodbye…”. On the inside back cover this image is repeated, but this time it reads “Goodbye My Love…”. She is chiding you along, poking, prodding and even provoking you to get to the end, going so far as suggest that you cut out your own tongue to get you there, to the end, before speaking your peace. And at that moment, when you flip the final page and close the book, you remember that you never actually saw that girl cut her tongue off, like she did her nipple, just threaten too, and that is when the story is yours to judge. You were never silenced, just told to shut up for a bit.


(3)  I finished the book so here are some thoughts: a comparison between Exorcise and Sad Sex 

In Benjamin’s previous series/collection Sad Sex every sexual act is accompanied by tears. Sadness is ever present, and while Exorcise has equal levels of bodily fluid the tears have largely dried up. It reads, or looks since their is no written narrative, as a work following the outpouring of emotion. 

The title of Sad Sex is quite literal in its meaning. There is an underlining disgust towards the acts that Benjamin is depicting. Not in a prudish sense, a prude could never depict these thing, but rather a fucked up feeling towards them. The figures cry and sob and writhe because everything seems off. Weird. Inorganic. Benjamin’s figures in Exorcise though are depicted as posed models, appropriating everything from rap iconography to pin up girl aesthetics, they present a level of confidence in their sexuality that the figures in Sad Sex could never hope too. They are putting on a show for the reader, while before they were hiding from them.

In Sad Sex bodily fluids and hair were used as masks to literally obscure the individual, to hide them both as people and as sexual beings. In Exorcise though these details are used to highlight each figure. To define them, and project themselves outwards for what they are, clad in fishnet stockings and fur coats.

(3.1) Hair On Your Head / Hair On Your Legs

I Masturbate Thinking About Your Boyfriend. I’m Sorry. I Would Never Do Anything About It” is most likely the best known image from Sad Sex. It's definitely the most striking. The title is a half hearted apology to someone never named or indicated, and who probably would never recognize it as being about them (or their boyfriend). The illustration shows a woman masturbating with a dildo as she leans back against the wall and tiled floor of a bathroom stall. She is sobbing so hard it is difficult to make out her face, which is then made even more obscured as her hair takes over the majority of the two page spread. Flowing wildly everywhere, the hair masks the figure both from the reader and from herself. She is hiding something that she thinks is wrong, that she acknowledges is wrong, but  "Would Never Do Anything About". 

This is something the the woman of Exorcise would never do. Or at least they wouldn't hide it. Especially with their hair.

While Exorcise and Sad Sex both make a point to keep all the body hair below the neck natural and ungroomed, it’s the hair above that primarily becomes the point of contrast between the two series. Sad Sex is littered with frizzed mullets, un-kept perms and any other number of hairstyles. What they all have in common though is that they exist to hide the person they adorned; in their blandness they make the person not worth looking at in any detail, refusing your lingering eye, and in their length they physically obscure the figures face and body making identifying with them impossible. 

In Exorcise though hair is a thing of beauty. Rendered in fashions that seem impossible outside of 
magazine shoots and runways. They exist to accentuate the figures. To keep your eyes on them. To individualize them. Hair in many cases takes over the entire image as it flows wildly and without care around the page, but while it may obscure the backgrounds it never obscures the individuals face. The hair and face live in a symbiosis, needing each other to create an individual worth starting at. Benjamin wants you to look a these woman, to admire them, maybe even obsess over them like she did while drawing them. The hair is what holds your eyes. 

But the face is what it focuses on.

(3.2) Faces, Identification and Emoticons

Benjamin has a proclivity to use emoticons in her work, but she does not simply use a happy face to convey happiness and a sad face to convey sadness, what she uses them for is their sheer blankness which she contorts to become a source of conveying deeper more ingrained and complex feeling about her figures. 

There's a two page spread in Sad Sex which depicts a series of babies adorned with emoticon sad faces floating aimlessly around the page. The image isn't so much unsettling for what it is in the abstract, but rather the helplessness that there faces show. The only way in which they could convey this feeling was with a line bending slightly upwards in the middle and downwards on the edges, creating a frown. Something a four year old couldn't even escape the meaning of. Surrounded by tears and weeping eyes, it is that frown that makes my stomach churn. It's the personification of despair in one bent pen stroke.

In Exorcise we see a variation on this emoticon-ography, but across the work there is a distinct lack of sad faces. Instead smiley faces adorn most of the backgrounds. These faces tend to be formed when two eyeballs are shown jettisoning out of a figures eye sockets and being met mid page by a ) forming a kiche smiley face of sorts. 

In contrast to the sad faced babies from Sad Sex, which McCloud would argue (and i'd be forced to agree) beg the reader to project their own likeness onto them and thus internalize their sadness, the well defined figures of Exorcise don't allow for this. Instead it is the other way around, they project their own internal feelings onto us. Taking pains to display their smiley faces at a great enough distance from the dagger being dragged across their chests and into the upper regions of the page where your thoughts won't be so clouded. Where you won't be so quick to judge.

(3.3)  blood and vagina's

While blood pours out of almost every orifice in Exorcise, one of the most prominent forms is menstrual blood. This fascination with menstruation is expressed both through the repeated cosmological symbols (stars, moons and constellations) which litter the backgrounds of almost every image, but also through the literal act of bleeding. Interestingly though, for a Benjamin comic, this bleeding is not caused by self inflicted wounds but rather occurs naturally within the female form. It is, along with the figures dress, body hair, surroundings, and faces a reiteration of their own femininity. But while it is a focal point in many of the books images, its existence is not shown as something other, like the blood coming from self inflicted wounds, but rather as something that simply is. 

The woman in the figure above is kneeling, arms outstretched, attempting to pick a rose from a bush and being cut by their thorns. Her hands are bleeding heavily. The rosebush also seems to be bleeding, but by how the droplets are formed they seem more to resemble the rain coming from the clouds above, than actual blood. Her hair and the flowers work in tandem with each other to draw the readers eye to each other, so the false blood seems like another way of accomplishing this. As the bush and hair flow across the page, they react to each others presence, advancing when one element retreats and retreating when the other advances. The woman, in addition to bleeding from the hands due to the thorns is also menstruating. Her bleeding fades away like the rain clouds that make up the background though as her hair and the rosebush take center stage. This form of bleeding is simply another part of nature. Another part of the image. 

The few instance of vaginal bleeding to be found in Sad Sex though are not, as in Exorcise, seen as natural occurrences. They are rather things that are forced out of a woman.

In the section titled "Blood Money Shot" we see the majority of Sad Sex's instances of vaginal bleeding, the most explicit of these involves a female figure holding a large syringe shaped object smiling in front of another female laying backwards and bleeding profusely. It is not shown whether the object had caused the bleeding, but the syringes medical and phallic nature leaves the idea of violent insertion high on the list of causes. In the same section there is a two page spread depicting a series of woman gushing vaginal blood on top of a pile of writhing bodies, all of whom are crying, and one of which is depicted in the fetal position. It's titled "Hell Fucking Yeah" and bellow the individual in the fetal position reads the words "Wear It Like War Paint". Vaginal bleeding comes off as something almost torturous in Sad Sex compared to Exorcises use of it as a complimentary element, something, like hair, that simply occurs. 

(4Jokes / Jokes / and almost end notes.

Their is a playfulness that runs throughout Benjamins work. As much as the humor seems to be in the same vein as a Lars Von Trier knock knock joke, Benjamin isn't afraid to touch on absurdity. A girl gestures for you to call her in an image that resembles an ad for a phone sex line out of the local alt-paper while one of her eyeballs hangs out of its eye socket. Cartoon celebrity cameos appear semi-frequently as Kermit the Frog, Baby Puss, Bonkers the Clown litter the backgrounds of images, in particular those pages ripped from her sketchbook. In the most memorable gag, repeated in both Sad Sex and Exorcise, we see a close up shot of a vagina with a pair of Groucho Marx glasses adorning the upper vaginal region, which both blends the books use of smiley faces and its focus on body hair, while taking them both to a new and interesting level.

Additional Info and tidbits

You can purchase various works from Heather Benjamin at her webstore. Additionally Benjamin has an eight page-broadsheet available from Floating World Comics titled Delinquent.

You can view her Tumblr here

Also if you enjoy interviews there is a very long and in depth one conducted by Sean T Collins at The Comics Journal

Image attributions

All images are from either Sad Sex or Exorcise. 


  1. You baby boomers are the most selfish generation to ever exist. You destroyed your own children's and grandchildren's future with your short-sighted selfishness and immaturity. And then you expect them to pay for your retirement????

    Can you baby boomers just hurry up and drop dead, please?