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Eamon Espey: Songs of the Abyss

Songs of the Abyss presents the mystery of life and death

Photo: Michel Anderson, License: N/A

Michel Anderson

Some of the puppets inspired by Songs of the Abyss

Photo: , License: N/A

Songs of the Abyss

Eamon Espey

Secret Acres

In Eamon Espey’s second book of comics, Songs of the Abyss, Santa Claus gets his dick sucked by a demoness as the pig-faced Queen of Hell approaches him astride a monster. Subsequently, Santa goes on a shooting spree, burns Mrs. Claus and the elves, shoots himself in the head, which, somehow, in a nod to a Residents’ song, becomes affixed to the body of a dog, Santa Dog.

Santa Dog is an anagram for Satan God, and the figure in this tale, which spans two of the five stories in Songs of the Abyss, gives a hint at the beautifully grotesque theological nature of Espey’s vision.

This gorgeously rendered, wordless book of pen-and-ink drawings begins with the Egyptian story of the creation of the world as we see Atum masturbating into his own mouth and vomiting out Tefnut and Shu as progeny. As these two figures wander away from their creator, Atum pulls out his eye and throws it as far as he can, until it finds them. When it does, he weeps and creates the first human. From here, the story migrates to the biblical tale of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel (though, here, they are Tommy and Marco, recurrent characters in Espey’s work).

The plot remains frenetic throughout Songs of the Abyss. The wild action (often sexual in nature) of the characters—who are simply drawn—is set in brilliant contrast to the highly decorative patterns of the backdrops. The elegant black-and-white style owes a lot to Edward Gorey and shares similarities with Marjane Satrapi, but the subject matter has more in common with R. Crumb and the other “freak” comics of the ’60s. For instance, in one scene, the gun-wielding Santa finds either Marco or Tommy in bed with a woman, while the other hides underneath. But the wood grain of the floor, the pattern of the quilt on the bed, the weave of Santa’s clothes, and the lines of the dresser (on top of which is a puking cat) are so densely textured that the relatively simply outlined characters seem to jump out from the page in a violent and grotesque glory.

The result is stunning and should put Espey on the level with almost any comic artist working today—and not just in Baltimore. Wormdye, Espey’s first book, published in 2008, follows a similar approach, but for that book Espey allowed himself to use text—often to hilarious effect. The lack of text in Abyss forces the viewer to look to the images and their movement for meaning. (I initially looked at a PDF of the book on an iPad, and the effect was entirely cinematic: Listen up, Hollywood!)

The absence of text is especially pronounced and powerful in the section “Ishi’s Brain,” which is based on the life of Ishi, a Yahi man, “often cited as the last wild Indian [who] first stepped into the modern civilization of 1911,” as Espey’s index explains. (Though there is no text in the work itself, the index allows the reader to get a sense of what is happening on any given page.) As the last of his kind, no one shares Ishi’s language and, thus, everything becomes a hyper-saturated visual cue.

Espey and his wife, Lisa Krause, decided to take this aspect of the work further for the book’s release and have designed an elaborate puppet show set-up to perform Ishi’s drama. “It was impossible to really have a reading,” Espey says, standing in front of the puppet stage, “since there are no words.” The idea of using puppets to demonstrate the story was a natural one, as Krause, who is trained as a sculptor, works with puppets at the Black Cherry Puppet Theater. In fact, after meeting on an elevator, their first date was at a puppet show, and much of their home life seems to be devoted to their joint creation of art. It was only a matter of time, they feel, before Espey’s comics and Krause’s puppetry came together.

“Eamon is the storyteller,” she says. “I’m a problem solver, and a builder.”

So they cleaned out an entire room of their Hampden home and began to recreate the forms Espey had spent the last four years drawing, in three dimensional form.

The result—black-and-white owls and buffalo, skeleton masks, and a shadow-puppet stage—is almost overwhelming. The cinematic effect that came with watching Espey’s images scroll across a digital screen is heightened as the pair brings this mute, melancholy story together in the real world. To further heighten the sense, the couple enlisted friend Stephen Santillian to compose a musical score.

After the soft release at the Windup Space, the couple will bring their show to New York for the official release, at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, and hope to bring the show on the road next year. “We made it out of PVC so it would be easy to transport,” Espey says.

But, despite all the graphic sex within the book, the couple says there will be no puppet sex in the show. “Our next show is all puppet sex,” Krause jokes.

Espey and Krause perform “Ishi’s Brain” in conjunction with the book release at the Windup Space Saturday Nov. 3 at 9 p.m.

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