Graphic artists channel end-of-world humor in 'The Plague Review'

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Catastrophe and compelling art often go hand in hand. A good example is the early AIDS crisis, which produced a plethora of punchy, agit-prop art, mostly created by the activist group ACT UP.

Since it's keeping us all locked up indoors, perhaps it was inevitable that COVID-19 was going to generate artwork aplenty.

Early evidence can be found in the new, online publication just out from Rotland Press, The Plague Review, which brings together a couple dozen works from the world of graphic artists, cartoonists and illustrators, whom Standfest often discovered on Instagram. The result is a visually arresting, absorbing book to page through, particularly if gallows humor is your thing.

"The Plague Review," a new online publication, looks to highlight work by graphic artists during the pandemic.

Standfest likes to say that Rotland, which he founded, "is a fine publisher of excursions into humor and despair, this combination of mordant humor and despair."

These days, there's a lot to be said for despair with a sense of humor.

Consider British artist David Shrigley's one-panel cartoon, "The Party" with its creepy corpse in a coffin, accompanied by the legend, "We were all having fun and then..."

"Shrigley is great," Standfest said, "and was up for the Turner Prize (in 2013). He intentionally does the poorly drawn image -- it's very funny stuff. I needed that irreverence."

From Britain, artist David Shrigley's mordant take on the pandemic and its ability to upend everything.

Or take Belgian artist Saidjah Vos' four-panel strip, "Solitude," which gets right to the heart of our current late-night terrors. Like a sensible fellow who organizes his life well, Vos' cheerful protagonist announces right at the outset, "Tonight, instead of sleeping, I think I will panic."

"Vos does really wonderful work," Standfest said. "With a lot of the comics I was getting, the narratives, like his, were more poetic -- not always all that clear, and very simple. But a poetic response seemed to be the only way for cartoonists to respond to what's going on."

With "Solitude," Saidjah Vos, a Belgian artist and illustrator, tapped the now-ubiquitous anxious uncertainty.

The art in the Review is a mix of old and new. "Some artists did entirely new work," Standfest said, "while others had already been working on them."

For the most part, things are appearing for the first time. One exception is celebrated cartoonist Lorenzo Mattotti's epic battle between the coronavirus and a superman health worker, which ran in Italy's La Repubblica newspaper in March (which you can see here, or on p. 46 of the Review).

Detroiters represented include Ivy Manska, a student at the College for Creative Studies, who sketches what Standfest called "these wonderful pencil drawings." Her wordless cartoon, "Passenger," pays tribute to the noble flea and the great-granddaddy of all plagues, the bubonic.

Erik Ruin, a Detroiter now living in Philadelphia, gives us the lyrical "Contagious Scenes," with two men exchanging breath vapor. It's hands-down one of the prettiest works in the collection -- ominously pretty, some might well say.

"Contagious Scenes" by the appropriately named Erik Ruin, an artist originally from Detroit now living in Philadelphia.

The Review is not just a compendium of graphic art. It also features interviews, an essay on Mattotti that Standfest wrote, as well as poetry from one of The Guardian's political cartoonists, Martin Rowson.

"I have a longstanding relationship with Rowson," Standfest said, whom he said comes out of "the tradition of British take-no-prisoners satirists." In next issue, Rowson will provide a long interview as well as graphic material -- "some of his work on Boris Johnson that’s strong stuff."

Standfest expects to publish monthly, and says the next issue should go up around May 20.

It's something well worth looking forward to as we all try to distract ourselves, maintain our sanity, and navigate "this massive existential crisis we're all in," as Standfest put it.

Danish artist Henrik Drescher lives in New York City, the epicenter of the American epidemic.

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy