In his introduction to a new edition of Mark Beyer’s 1987 graphic novel Agony, Colson Whitehead invokes one of the bleakest of Saturday Night Live recurring characters: Mr. Bill. For those unfamiliar, Mr. Bill was a man made of clay whose adventures would largely involve him being mutilated in assorted ways by an assortment of adversaries, including the seemingly kindly and softspoken Mr. Hands. A similar blend of eager optimism and soul- and body-crushing misadventures can be found in Beyer’s graphic novel. Amy and Jordan, the central characters, face mysterious illnesses, wrongful imprisonment, menacing bears, and arguably the breakdown of reality itself. It’s a stark, bizarre, and sometimes nightmarish read; I’m somewhat surprised that the decapitation-prone ghost that shows up early on hasn’t caused me to wake from sleep screaming yet.
That said, there’s also something almost innocent about the relative indestructibility of its characters. “Whether you find Agony relentlessly downbeat or improbably uplifting depends on how your brain is wired,” Whitehead writes in his introduction. It’s tempting to compare the experience of reading Agony to coming across an erudite, satirical version of Looney Tunes in which Wile E. Coyote is the hero, and his inability to die even after being exploded or plummeting from great heights becomes oddly reassuring. (That said, I realize I’ve more or less described the Grant Morrison-penned “The Coyote Gospel,” which was released a year after Agony.) Agony has some moments of urban-hipster satire–at one point, Amy and Jordan leave a party with the closing words, “Spare us please.”
The artwork here is stark: most of the pages have one or two panels, and the figures themselves are just this side of the grotesque. (Sometimes, as with the moment in the story when Amy’s skin temporarily rots away, it crosses to the other side.) The storytelling is stylized to a fairly extreme extent, although there are odd callbacks and references to be found. The pair of killers who confront Amy in one scene let loose with an ominous laugh–“Haw Haw Haw!”–that seems to be pulled directly from the works of Jack Chick. Often, the characters have a tendency to describe exactly what’s happening to or around them, in the style of many a 1940s pulp comic. (See the unsettling work of Fletcher Hanks for what may be the apex of this approach.) In one scene, for instance, Jordan yells, “We’re crashing into the airport waiting room!” even as the artwork depicts the boat carrying the two of them crashing into the airport waiting room.
Reading Agony for the first time in 2016 can prompt a host of conflicting impressions. In his introduction, Whitehead argues that the comic might well be set in “Purgatory or Hell,” noting the vagueness of the landscape, Amy and Jordan’s ability to bounce back from an absurd array of injuries, and the unending cavalcade of misfortune that befalls them. (The fact that, by the end of the book, logic and causality have both been pushed to their absolute limits may confirm this theory for some.) On the other hand, Agony can at times read as a parable of economic anxiety: many of Amy and Jordan’s misfortunes arise as a result of seeking ways to make money, or from decisions that they’re forced into making because they have none. (Vacating their apartment because it’s been filled with blood, for instance.) One could also argue that its plot posits a kind of give-and-take regarding privilege: for all that Amy and Jordan are menaced, injured, and assaulted by life, they always seem to bounce back from it, sometimes due to improbably coincidences, and sometimes due to people literally giving them money at random. The end of the book arguably reduces this cycle to its essence: a miraculous recovery and a terrifying menace. It seems less like an ominous final note and more a sign that finality isn’t a concept that exists in this narrative–which is, really, the most ominous thing of all.
Mark Beyer portrait by Mark Beyer.
by Mark Beyer; introduction by Colson Whitehead
New York Review Comics; 192 p.