Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Envelope Licker

The Envelope Licker, Robot Publishing
by Ante Vukojevich

Tonight's episode of Larry King Live was the long-awaited special interview between Katie Couric and "the King of Talk," with the suspendered one on the other side of the casual interrogation to celebrate his fifty years in broadcasting. It was an interesting interview, promptly followed by an Anderson Cooper 360 about a flaw in Don Imus' contract that may entitle the shock jock to $40 million dollars. Imus may not have King's reputation, but as a fellow long-standing broadcast personality, CBS apparently sought Imus' penchant toward controversy, an actual stipulation in his contract, leaked exclusively to Cooper and now to CBS' detriment. What does all of this have to do with comics, you ask?

First of all, at this point in their respective careers, King and Imus are in the legacy business. While King's future is sealed, Imus is struggling to salvage his reputation. I'd barely heard of the guy, but I sympathize with the disappointment of a prestigious, decades-long career going down in a blaze of shame thanks to three little words. When one's existence is so defined by their job, one shouldn't give it up so recklessly.

Which brings us to The Envelope Licker.

Ante Vukojevich's strange little tale about a family with a multi-generational knack for tongue twisting is another neatly bound offering from Robot Publishing, the publisher responsible for the Robert Goodin collection I reviewed last week. RP's minicomics aren't crudely produced zines but effectively pocket art house books, each with a distinct visual and lingual identity. Goodin's Pig's Missing Poo was a black and white anthology, while Vukojevich's Licker is a linear story -- albeit told in something of an anthology style, with three unique acts in and of themselves, woven together to create a meandering and macabre story of love and violence. (I'm borrowing "meandering" from Mark Pawson's review of this issue, as the term best describes the story's seemingly aimless sequence.) What kept my eyes glued to this issue was its respectful packaging, not to mention Ante's compelling illustration style. When the story lost me, the pictures found me, plain and simple.

Not that the story is too convoluted to get. It's really just . . . unconventional. For instance, the first page is a flashback of the Envelope Licker's grandfather, who, on his deathbed, confesses to a slew of murders during his days at the circus as the Amazing Tongue-o, a knife-thrower that hurled blades with . . . well, his tongue. Okay, that's just the first page. What follows is the Envelope Licker's dire life story, beginning with his flight from home after punching out his father and then his pregnant wife's abandonment after socking her in the eye. When he realizes he has his father's tongue talents, he quickly turns his life around by finding a job as an envelope licker. Through his success, he affords to buy the business -- and is eventually wiped out by the advent of wet sponge technology. In his retirement, Mortimer (that's his real name) musters the courage to ask out a woman at the post office, who initially accuses him of spoiling her stamp collection. The ending of the Licker's story is vague, as the author presents a few various happy endings, told by Mortimer's long lost son, the guy that ends up digging the Licker's grave. Yes, it's a strange tale indeed, but oddly fascinating, as the job of "envelope licker" could easily be supplanted by any other career and make some semblance of sense. Ante's odd occupation choice is surreal, but his theme of redemption is universal.

Further, although the ending is notably anticlimactic, the "big reveal" that our narrator was Mortimer's son, only scene prior to that final image as a bump in his mommy's belly, it brings the multi-generational aspect of The Envelope Licker full circle. The story began with his grandfather's death and ended with his own at the feet of his son, and if that doesn't express the legacy paradigm, I don't know what does. The tongue part is incidental, at best a visual gag, or a metaphor for the benefits of thinking with one's head rather than one's fists. Remember, the Licker licked first with fisticuffs. Good thing he managed to turn the tables, or this story could've been much shorter.

Envelope licker or broadcast personality, our tongue is one of our most previous commodities as human beings -- the muscle credited with our ability to speak, to express ourselves unlike any other animal on the planet. While this stretch undoubtedly isn't what Vukojevich intended to express in this mini, such is the consequence of a more "artsy" format. A superhero comic is pretty straightforward in its adventure-oriented sequential storytelling, but material that utilizes the inherent flexibility of the visual medium is consequently liable to flexible interpretations. Goes to show, none of these reviews can be signed, sealed, or delivered . . . I'm not an envelope licker, after all.

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