Running the Gauntlet in Mark Beyer’s Cruelly Funny ‘Agony’ [Review]
Originally published by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly's RAW Books, and featuring characters that appeared in several issues of RAW magazine, Mark Beyer's Agony is a highlight of the 80s art comics movement, spearheaded by that landmark publication. Now available in a new edition as the first release of the New York Review Comics line, the abstract, absurd, and bleakly funny comic book returns, and it's just as oddly beautiful and relevant as ever.
The heroes of Agony are Amy and Jordan, a codependent couple for whom nothing seems to go right. Rudderless and adrift in a world operated by chaos and caprice, Amy and Jordan are plagued by the randomness of modern life in a farcical hellscape interpretation of a typical urban existence.
The series of trials that Jordan and Amy are put through plays like a Monty Python sketch penned by Samuel Beckett. The pair are assaulted by spear-throwing natives, attacked by a bear, locked up in prison, swallowed by cracks in the floorboards, and tormented by strange creatures. Amy is particularly marked for torture, landing in the hospital again and again. She's beheaded, eaten by a fish, stripped of her flesh, and gets an infection that swells her head so large she can't fit through the door, and when Jordan lances her head to reduce the swelling, the onrush of blood floods their apartment.
Despite its nightmare logic and funhouse twists, Agony's version of reality is at times disturbingly familiar. Amidst the bizarreness of their tribulations, there's much in the blobby, vaguely geometrical Amy and Jordan to relate to. They lose their jobs and lash out at each other. They can't stay healthy or pay their rent. Their friends are vapid and pointless, they can't relate to them, and their families are faulty support systems.
Even when good luck befalls them, everything seems to go wrong. When Jordan and Amy receive a massive amount of undeserved cash, they throw it out the window to give it away, and the ensuing frenzy results in three deaths. They're unexpectedly freed from prison, but homeless and destitute, and only released because a guard beat Amy nearly to death. Every attempt they make to escape the city and return to a simpler life ends in absurd disaster, and usually someone's death.
Like many, they're just trying to retain hope when they possess no agency and have no prospects in a world that often seems hell-bent on destroying them. And despite how much you try to fight it, that belly full of schadenfreude interprets it as mostly hilarious. Mostly...
Throughout Agony, Beyer's artwork is odd, alienating, and remarkably effective. A self-taught artist whose work could easily be classified as outsider, raw, brut, or naïve art, Beyer strikes a balance between simple, even childlike figure-work supported by a very dynamic and complex design. Beyer's flat pages ignore the laws of ratios and perspective, and yet achieve a strange sense of space and scope.
No matter what kind of environment they're in, there's an almost inescapable immensity to it; even offices and hospital rooms telescope out to infinity, making the characters feel incredibly small and insignificant. Even the panels themselves occasionally seem intent on crushing the hapless duo, squeezing in like accordions to suffocate them. And all around Amy and Jordan, spiky misshapen creatures move one-dimensionally through a world that is flat, simple, harsh, and totally unpredictable; a world shaded by dissonant textures that buzz like a chorus of dead radio stations competing for attention.
Mark Beyer's artwork is not everybody's cup, but even those who can't appreciate it can see how every pen-stroke reinforces the primary struggle of the book. It's Amy and Jordan versus existence, and like a lot of us, they're losing.