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CIA conspiracies. Carny shows. Obscure pagan rituals. Snake handlers. Brainwashed assassins. Nudist nuns. Roman gods. Psychedelic western landscapes. Very short men with very, very large penises.
Such are the essential elements found in the comics of Mack White, who, for the past couple of decades, has created some of the most bizarre, paranoid and succulently pulpish comics around.
Born and raised in Texas, Mack’s comics are infused with the Lone Star state’s own unique blend of rugged individualism and suspicion of authority. Though seemingly distrustful of organized religion, his comics are infused with the subject matter, though he seems more interested in the Gnostic side of things, focusing on ancient sects that didn’t quite make it, and especially on modern religion’s antecedents in Roman and pagan mythology and rituals, especially those that involve making the beast with two backs. Dionysus pops up frequently and Jungian archetypes abound.
Hand in hand with that is White’s interest in conspiracy stories, be it JFK, Lennon, Waco, the Illuminati or just general government cover-ups. Nothing is what it seems in White’s world. Every business is a potential front, every person can be a shadowy government operative or double-agent (even the innocent-seeming protagonist) and the apocalypse — sometimes beneficial, sometimes menacing — is always just around the corner.
Heavily influenced by the classic underground comics era of the 1960s, yet drawn in a style that strongly evokes EC, White’s comics are, in case you were wondering, often (but not always) a bit tongue in cheek. Part of the pleasure of his work is trying to figure out just how seriously we’re supposed to take it. His story “This Is MK-Ultra Baby,” about a rock star named Dion who returns home to settle some old scores only to find himself at the center of a global conspiracy, is just presented in just sly enough fashion to suggest that White is pulling our leg a bit. That’s not the case however, with “Cindy the Tattooed School Teacher,” a rather harrowing tale about a mysterious woman who takes over a small, backwoods church with an eye on obtaining a much larger parish. It’s played completely straight and has an eerie, unsettling overtones toward the Branch Davidians and other religious cults.
After appearing in numerous anthologies (and releasing the sitcom meets freakshow one-off, Mutant Book of the Dead), Fantagraphics gave White the shot at his own seriesin the ’90s, Villa of the Mysteries, where the above-mentioned stories can be found. Sadly, it only lasted three issues. Villa was one of the first alt-comics to fall to changing tastes in the periodical format and was canceled, along with a few other comics like Walt Holcombe’s Poot. However, while Holcombe’s work has been collected, White’s hasn’t. He’s kept busy, and can be found in anthologies like Hotwire and The Bush Junta. But I’d like to see the bulk of White’s work, Villa and more, combined into a book. Certainly there are enough conspiracy junkies out there willing to pick up a copy.