What kind of comics does one make when the house parties you go to get shot up by thugs and you hate your dumb-ass co-workers? For two men caught up in dead-end jobs in the late 1980s/early 1990s, it was sequential art with a raw immediacy that yanks your head back then follows up with a perfect throat punch. Real Deal Comix is just about every kind of disgusting you can think of but impossible to look away from.
Released by Fantagraphics this month, Real Deal Comix collects seven comics and associated ephemera from cartoonists Lawrence “Rawdog” Hubbard and Harold “R.D. Bone” McElwee. The two men met while working for a bank in the early 1990s and soon started collaborating on self-published black-and-white comics in a genre they called Urban Terror. A dank, grindhouse sensibility fuels the work here, done by creators who are following their own poisoned muses and not caring what anybody might think.
Just about every awful shallow, denigrating stereotype of the Reganomics Era shows up in Real Deal Comix. Kill-crazy paramilitary whack jobs, slimy Italian mafiosos, broken-English-spouting Asian characters, and sass-talking “hoes” all get smacked around and killed in gruesome ways.
In one of the collections’ short stories, a house party thrown by recurring lowlife character G.C. erupts into a log flume of mayhem, with wine bottles smashed upside fools’ heads, people getting thrown out windows, and snipers shooting at partygoers from across the street. When it’s time for breakfast, G.C. and his crew raid the house of the Mexican family next door to steal their eggs. The pregnant mother who tries to stop them gets a kick deep into her rounded midsection.
Seeing as how they’re largely concerned with fucked-up shit happening to fucked-up people, these Real Deal stories might seem like just so much shock shlock at first. But the collection hints at a lived-in weariness about the realities of barely-scraping-by existence. Characters go to loan sharks and enlist mercenaries to thwart union-busting campaigns or stab each other in the head over sitcom laugh-track misunderstandings. The reprinted covers blurt out that it’s “humor for adults,” but you get the sense that it’s laughing to keep from screaming. In the foreword to the hardcover collection, Hubbard recounts that McElwee suffered a stroke while driving home from a night shift and later died from complications and also writes:
Putting out each issue of Real Deal was a labor of blood, sweat and tears. We both always had to work bullshit jobs that had nothing to do with comics or art to survive. We went through the typical futilities of submitting to the usual comic book publishers but REAL DEAL was too real for them.
Reading Real Deal Comix is like getting in a time machine and watching the gnarliest gangsta rap lyrics ever imagined having an orgy with the Garbage Pail Kids aesthetic and G.I. Joe action-hero imperatives while a Rudy Ray Moore marathon plays in the background. The work gets committed to the page in jagged slashes of ink because it’s birthing comics that are, in part, economic-disparity revenge fantasies. Hubbard and McElwee are giving the finger to the moral panics of the day. “Y’all are right to panic,” the subtext screams. “Shit is fucked up out here.” Real Deal is the arterial spray that gushes out when frustrated wage slaves slice open the collective carotid of 9-to-5 workaday routine.
The level of craft can be inconsistent on these pages, but the energy never is. In stories like “Plantation 2000” and “Planet Dregs,” Rawdog and R.D. Bone switch genres from Urban Terror to sci-fi but the volatility and violence remain intact. It feels glib to slap a label like outsider art on work like this but Real Deal Comix really does come across as a last-ditch effort to satisfy irrepressible creative urges. It’s art from the fringes, throwing a Molotov cocktail back at a system that treats its creators like disposable cogs in uncaring machines.
It’s vulgar, crude, and amateurish, but Real Deal Comix is a creation that documents how its creators’ feelings about their “place” in society. The sadistic enjoyment of the pain that the characters in these stories go through becomes a pain-numbing narcotic as pages turn, pulling the audience into a lurid alternate reality where the nastiest people come out on top over and over again. These are the kind of comics that makes readers interrogate where their enjoyment of them, if any exists, comes from. The answers derived from that process will be important, if you can dare to look them in the face.