Review: Lose #4

Alex Hern reviews an unexpected "fashion issue" of Michael DeForge's comic.

Lose #4
Michael DeForge
Koyama Press.com, 44pp, CDN$8.00

When you buy a comic described as "the fashion issue", normally you know vaguely what to expect. If it's not actually stories about clothes, then it is stories involving fashionable people, stories about the world of fashion, or just lots of pictures of people looking good. With Michael DeForge, you can be certain that you won't get what you expect.

Lose #4 — the fashion issue — is lead by two stories. The first shows at a teenage boy's literal metamorphosis into a leather-and-studded punk; the second is an examination of the lives, fashions and mating habits of the Canadian royalty. Neither of them start, or finish, or do any of the in-between bit, quite like any other short story I've read before. I mean… look, the very first page of the book features a couple having sex as they watch a porn film featuring newspaper comic stalwarts Dilbert and Nancy. It doesn't get any more conventional from there.

The first of the stories, "Someone I Know" is most reminiscent of other works, particularly Charles Burns' coming-of-age classic Black Hole. David, a young film-school student, takes a girl to a new club, Grand Room, to show off. He realises his mistake when he gets in and sees the leather everywhere; Grand Room is a sex club. But when David wakes up the following morning, there's a metal stud poking out of his arm, and it won't come off.

The cover of Lose #4

"Someone I Know" is followed by the stranger still Canadian Royalty: Their Lifestyles and Fashions. Presented as an anthropological guide, DeForge explains the life of the Canadian royalty. Not, mind you, Queen Elizabeth and co. The Canadian royalty are, instead, a semi-human race with their own customs, physiology and, above all, fashions. "If a royal ever undresses, he or she is stripped of his or her title. A famous example of this is Princess Charlotte's public disrobement on national television."

The common thread between the two stories is the freedom they give DeForge to show off his wonderful sense of design. The studded, buckled and leathered outfits of Grand Room, and the ludicrously elaborate and malproportioned robes of the Canadian Royalty, are both things which you can get lost in, mentally mapping every seam, every change in texture, every safety pin and fold of fabric. For good reason, the Canadian royalty section in particular is broken up with galleries of the royals themselves — Margrave Blunder (1945-2001), Prince Theodore (1987-present), Viscountess Mary Pillow (1952-2009) and so on.

The names should give a hint as to the sort of humour DeForge employs. He has much time for silliness — not just the weirdness of the stories, but also things which would be more at home in a Python sketch. A character, handed an x-ray by his doctor, points out that it's actually an ink drawing. The doctor ignores him and carries on. The lives of the royals are ghoulish, but Princess Charlotte flopping on the floor after disrobing for the first time in her adult life has a dark edge to it.

But the best piece in the book is the one which is played far straighter. "The Sixties" is the beginning of something out of the Twilight Zone. A teenage girl narrates her perfectly normal life in a town where everything has a disease called stacyface. It only has one symptom: your face becomes Stacy's. It starts with typical DeForge weirdness, as she meets a deer in the forest with the same face as hers. But the sheer normalcy of so much of the rest of the story — the lack of the over-the-top oddities of the others — gives it a very different, and far more unsettling, feel.

It's still weird seeing, like, old man bodies with stacyface. Babies, too. Fuck this fucking town!

A page from Lose #4. Image: Koyama Press

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times