Once you create something as wildly popular and lastingly subversive as the Garbage Pail Kids, it's hard to become famous for doing much else. Whatever Bill Watterson has been doing in his retirement, he'll always be known as the guy who invented Calvin and Hobbes, and no matter what else Al Jaffe creates in life, it's the Mad Magazine fold-in that'll be his legacy. As it turns out, those wax-paper wrapped bundles of gastronomical rhyming gags had a creator named Mark Newgarden, and as his recent book We All Die Alone demonstrates, creating Graffiti Petey and Nervous Rex was only a fraction of his story.
The sumptuously designed, felt-embossed volume from Fantagraphics catches audiences up with the fertile oeuvre of Newgarden, who has been plugging away at his literary and nihilistic underground comics for over two decades. Deriving most of his inspiration and visual style from "gag" cartoons of the '50s and '60s, Newgarden mines the classic era of American humor for all its existential pathos, not unlike contemporary New York painter Richard Prince. Comics with benign titles like "Jest in Peace" and "Kids Say the Darnedest Things" take their visual cues from the Borscht Belt school of cartooning: A man lies on the psychiatrist's couch, one clown talks to another at a bar, a short man with an enormous nose approaches a sexy woman in a low cut dress. Instead of a wry one-line caption, though, Newgarden adds 300-word stories of existential despair to his Bazooka Joe-style panels.
Other single panel strips from the late '80s and early '90s have their roots in conceptual art. One simply reads, "Nothing funny this week." Another encourages viewers to "Imagine a drawing of Dennis the Menace," and underneath, the caption reads "Imagine a sentence of Samuel Beckett's." Like a magician revealing the trick up his sleeve, this formula unlocks the key to much of Newgarden's work. Archetypes of American wholesomeness are paired with philosophical musings on the meaning of life and death—a coupling that jolts the viewer out of complacency and urges them to investigate the subtext of our omnipresent banal surroundings. That's one way to describe the book; the other is to label it "by the guy who created the Garbage Pail Kids," and let readers discover the true subversion for themselves.