By Ben Boruff
Transformative art is a language, and few can speak it. This, in part, is the message of Noel Freibert's introduction to Test Tube, an experimental comic by Carlos Gonzalez. Mocking and lamenting the unenlightened, Freibert's prose reads as a commentary on possible reactions to avant-garde creations. One such boorish reaction: "If this is art, I don't want to see it." Carlos Gonzalez dares you to see his art.
Equal parts hellish and innocent, Test Tube is a cluttered blur of uninviting erotica and dreamlike sequences of unnerving introspection. Each of the three main characters wanders about the comic's subversive pages with a dull sense of purpose, like an abandoned child with unstable sexual urges and a menial job. Early in the comic, one character wonders if he should create “something cool,” but a kitsch-fueled lethargy redirects him. Like a grotesque version of Don Hertzfeldt's Bill trilogy, Test Tube explores the unfiltered, prickly realism of human experience. The relatability of the characters is impressive—and unwelcome. With numbing persistence, Gonzalez exposes the oddities of his characters' ambitions, offering long chains of surreal images in messy panels. The images are not inherently frightening, but the cartoonish chaos of the panels emits a sort of eerie unpredictability, a flaccid ghoulishness that, at any point, could spring from the page, angry and erect.
Test Tube's moral, like the comic as a whole, is open to interpretation, but Gonzalez does not intend for his readers to survive on a restrictive diet of thematic bread crumbs. Test Tube has a distinct goal. As the story progresses, Gonzalez lifts the comic's original veil of Camus-style nihilism, revealing a frantic spectacle of evolutionary science fiction that, at its core, serves as an earnest appeal for poetic truth, for an appreciation of the essential beauty found in honest communication of agitative ideas. Test Tube seems to argue that we have the ability to evolve, but we won't. At least not all of us. Most of us are doomed to cretinous lives filled with tunnel-visioned desires because we lack the motivation to acknowledge the artistry around us. Or because we do not appreciate innovation.
Whatever the cause of our insensitivity, Test Tube portrays escapism—"Christ, take me away from here"—as a possible first step toward an intellectual and artistic renaissance. Desire to depart from reality implies frustration with the status quo. All three Test Tube characters—Peter, Jill, and Jeff—experience some sort of hallucinatory event that provides perspective, and a run-down movie theater—a sanctuary of nostalgia-fueled avoidance—appears more than once as a setting. Escape from reality is escape from ignorance. If we cannot progress in our reality, we must pick a different one and evolve there.
I read Test Tube while sitting in a busy café, the kind of polished coffee shop that plays the Shins and hangs local artwork on the walls. An assortment of individuals surrounded me: college students, suburban families, a homeless man, some aspiring beatniks, and a couple men in ties who spoke in a volume that did not reflect the triviality of their conversation. I imagine some of that day’s coffee drinkers would appreciate Test Tube. Some would interpret the comic as a call to action, and others would see it as a less self-indulgent version of Matthew Barney's River of Fundament. But most of those café patrons would dislike this comic. Many would look at the first couple pages and wonder if Carlos Gonzalez is the kind of guy who would judge someone for listening to Pearl Jam and Green Day. For that reason, I encourage you to read this comic.
Test Tube communicates complicated ideas, and it scorns the status quo. The nature of subversive art is that we desire it, in part, because it rejects dominant paradigms. Though its narrative and artwork are bizarre, Test Tube offers a nuanced and important commentary on modern life, and we should embrace critical thought in whatever form it appears.
Writer/Artist: Carlos Gonzalez
Publisher: Floating World Comics