OK, so it totally passed me by when Fantagraphics published it last year, but I’ve now read Scrublands by South African cartoonist Joe Daly in French, no less. Nice edition by L’Association and all, but kinda stupid not to read it in the original language. Anyway, it’s kind of a sleeper hit with me. Though by no means a major work of comics, it has distinctive, and these days rather rare qualities that I appreciate more and more, the more I think about them.
The central, most spectacular story, a trippy pantomime about a baby travelling through the universe or some such, kind of bores me, and so do the obvious plays for sleazy but funny-weird antics of the ID-driven character Kobosh, or the druggy humour of especially the short strips. It gets old in the same way Rick Altergot’s Doofus does, and is much less funny even in small doses.
What I do like, however, is how Daly manages to imbue quotidian activities such as going to the supermarket on a damp, sunny afternoon, or to the bookstore at night in the summer, with a touch of adventure. Not because anything really out of the ordinary happens in these narratives, but because he shows us the mundane from a slightly kilted perspective that makes us appreciate them again. Fondly, even.
In other words, Daly knows how to convey the experience of a high. Or even of the natural high certain drugs can sometime help you appreciate. These are marijuana-influenced comics in a good sense and as such direct descendants of certain of the best undergrounds. One of the best things about Shelton’s Freak Brothers, for example, is not just the over-the-top druggy comedy — which is often hilarious — but also the texture he brings to the world the three hippies inhabit. This quality was rare even in the undergrounds, and almost gone in today’s comics. But when he’s good, Daly nails it.
The best story in here, probably, is the one about the village on the sea. Kobosh walks around this wonderful, sun-drenched town on the coast, talking to his coinhabitants, again and again repeating how much he digs living there. Doesn’t sound like much, but we understand him. The high noon sun is present in the intense yellow on the page, and the fresh air suggested in the crispness of the rendering. Evocative and just right.