Atmospheric perversion (“Stiff Breeze”), the hired assassination of one’s own child (“Dad and Monster”), the crushing ennui of post-materialism (“Billiards in Heaven”), children undergoing extreme suffering (“Marthas Orphanage”), practical jokes resulting in death (“Space Helmet”), children suffering for all eternity due to earthly shortsightedness (“Puppy Wish”), children suffering for no good reason at all (“Rainbow”), the irresistibility of sexual lust (“Butterflies”), the inevitability of death (“Todays My Birthday”), more children suffering, this time as a result of their desire for adventure (“Dinner Time Machine”), oral sex among rodents (“Gopher Girlfriend”), a child mauling his schoolteacher (“Bear Boy”), insects facilitating pyromania (“Pyro Billy”), swiftly sprung erections (“Nude Beach”), everyone on the planet burning to death (“Sun Love”), the dreamworld intersecting reality (“Falling Dream”), thwarted suicide attempts (“Suicide Train”), sheer absurdity (“Kinder Interview”), sexual inadequacy (“Small Man”), turtle logic (“Turtle City”), flippant cruelty towards one’s own children (“Better Luck”), bestial flirtations (“Not Today”), flagrant medical malpractice (“Christmas Surgery”), nothing but incest for generations (“Bunny Pit”), surprisingly clean exceptions (“QPI Interview”), vulgarity among mollusks (“Snail Harassment”), marriage proposals composed of corpses (“No Survivors”), adultery among hand tools (“Mrs. Hammer”), inadvertent anthropophagy (“Astronaut Fall”), ursine incompetence (“Sgt. Grumbles”), bullies skewered on unicorn horns (“Nice Shirt”), mass murder glorified (“Genius Sir”), the universe as cyclic simulation (“Reset”), reptilian children suffering (“Mr. Rex”), defied punchlines (“Shotgun”), mimed assassinations (“Mime City”), candied horror (“Colonel Sweeto”), children suffering due to healthy curiosity (“Book World”), unthinkable smirks (“Lord Gloom”), the relativity of suffering (“Satans Hell”), the shattering of childhood icons (“Kids Are Thursty”), dying children relishing discord among adults (“A Hit for Bobby”), voluptuous letters (“b”), accidentally poisoning your friends (“Scorpy the Forest Friend”), despicably slothful undead deities (“Zuthulus Resurrection”), more inadvertent violent deaths (“Disassemble”), criminal gluttony (“Slim”), kinky dreams directly observed (“The Dreamcatcher 3000”), the reality principle (“Punch Bout”), certain death inconveniencing a baseball game (“Basebugs”), deceiving one’s own children (“Cave Explorer”), that timeless micturition prank ending in widespread destruction (“Prank Dragon”), would-be betrayers betrayed (“Boss”), the unjustified suffering of children (“Truancy bot”), the offensively inappropriate use of scarce resources (“Food Fight”), deliberately traumatizing children for the sake of trivial scientific research (“Durab Inc.”), everyone seeing your boobies (“Tunnel of Love”), sacrificing a team member and not really giving a shit (“Guntron”), rodents on acid (“Keep on Truckin’”), adult-sanctioned prostitute-fucking by children (“Boy Scouts”), quarreling cetaceans (“The Pacific Council”), strongly-fellatio-implying sunburns (“Cover Blown”), children who hate their parents (“Missing School”), failed attempts to murder an infant (“Les Douleurs de la Morte”), more accidental poisonings (“Toad Race”), spam (“Post Apocalyptic”), abortion among fowl (“Eggnancy”), the ennui of mere romance (“Wishing Well”), majestic pedophilia (“Atlantis”), accidental child pornography (“Kitty Photographer”), minimum wage jobs of yore (“Thwack Ye Mole”), children gone clinically insane (“Magic Eyes”), nuns disemboweled (“The Great Circle”), more flagrant medical malpractice, this time at a child’s expense (“Transfer Patient”), the romanticized bequest of a porn stash (“Passed On”), the ruinous whimsy of wingéd ponies (“Gamblin Man”), the mythologization of the collapse of the structural integrity of cereal (“Commander Crisp”), dreams of sexual attractiveness shattered (“The Masculator”), innocent party-goers slaughtered (“Miggs”), compassionate children slain by dinosaurs (“Baby”), presumptuously perverse proposals (“Psychoanalyst”), silly misunderstandings resulting in the death of children (“Finneas”), defied expectations obscenely defied (“Lyle’s Constant”), drastic surgeries performed on children unnecessarily (“Bee”), our species as an infectious disease (“Transmission”), the nostalgia of a good decapitation (“Memorabilia”), children suffering for trusting their family (“Uncle Duncan”), more dreams brutally shattered (“Evolving to Fly”), quixotic deceptions motivated by sexual lust (“The Last Unicorns”), abiding awkwardness among adulterous rocks (“Roxanne”), ironic pretexts for rejection among bestiality-inclined insects (“Different”), exchanging one’s own children for a monkey (“For Baskins”), everyone seeing your affair forever (“One Time Thing”), the empirical downsides of clown cars (“Honk”), the empirical downsides of the world-as-simulation (“Beach Closing”), foul postulations concerning continental drift (“The Drift”), more lying to children (“Shop”), more shattered dreams (“Dreamcatcher”), instruments marrying below their caste (“Harmony”), propitious lycanthrope love dashed by a breast-bound dealbreaker (“Matched”), perversion forgiven (“Caught”), the mathematics of boobies (“The Breakthrough”), the miracle of birth and then some (“Cats”), specially enabling the handicapped to participate in the magic and jubilation of sacrificial death (“The Jubilee”), devout children inciting celestial warfare (“Spelling”), hooking up at the expense of one’s own children (“Bully”), vulgarity misconstrued (“Quiz Kid”), scathing critiques of human nature (“Adam 2.0”), onomatopoeic racism (“The Offenders”), mocking religion (“Lamb of God”), the absurd simplicity of the forms that men find sexually arousing (“Still Life”), marital strife as impetus for nuclear holocaust (“Splitting Up”), cheering on one’s own death (“Metamorph-Assist”), exactly what it sounds like (“Technorgy”), and, most recently, to celebrate the holidays, parental condescension resulting in death (“Snow Globe”)—as you can see, the great webcomic The Perry Bible Fellowship treats of all the most universal themes known to man—or, if not exactly the most universal per se, certainly those that are nearest and dearest to the human heart.
Nicholas Gurewitch’s peculiar genius has been written about before (most eloquently by Tim O'Neil in the article "Bible Times," which it seems cannot be viewed directly online but a complete transcript of which can be found in the About section of Gurewitch's Facebook page). The epithet ‘twisted’ is often applied, which I’m not sure is fair when his comic is described as “nearly consistent hilarity” (The Daily Cross Hatch), “one of the flat-out funniest comic strips of all time” (Ruben Bolling), “one of the funniest comic strips of the new millennium” (Tim O'Neil), etc., and is basically widely praised as being genuinely and consistently funny in a way that is very rare. If everyone thinks it’s funny, how can it be twisted? If everyone enjoys the perverse humor, does that make everyone perverse? Isn’t ‘universal perversity’ oxymoronic? I’m being a little snide, but I do think the comedic value of Gurewitch’s work is undersold when it’s all ascribed to shock value. In one of the small handful of interviews with Gurewitch available online, you can see he’s heard just about enough of such interpretations [link]:
Interviewer: That’s something a lot of people point out about your strip—this juxtaposition of the innocent with something sort of horrifying.
Gurewitch: Brian, I tend to resent it when people have that outlook. I’d rather the comedy not be seen as just a perversion.
The trope is often there, however. There’s often something of an innocent set up, and a joke that comes out of left field. Is that not how you view the humor?
It always has that appearance, but I would really like to know that the comedy is deeper than that. That the comedy itself is much more grand.
Well, sure. If that were the sole source of comedy, it would have stopped being funny a long time ago. It’s obviously gone a bit deeper, since so many people have found it so lastingly funny.
I like to think that maybe, when those children go into the sewer, to find the Ninja Turtles, that the grotesque last frame represents bad decision making, or some bigger idea. I’m often offended by material that is just perverse. If I see a cartoon that sexualizes Pinocchio, I’m always offended.
My captions above were intended to amuse and delight in themselves, primarily by emphasizing whatever was most grotesque or preposterous in the given strip (apologies, Mr. Gurewitch)—but even so, I might suggest that they begin to shed light on the nature of Gurewitch’s originality. After all, when else would we see, when else would there be an occasion to see, certain terms juxtaposed? Thwarted suicides and inadvertent anthropophagy (fancy word for cannibalism) as the punchlines of a colorful comic strip? One can already begin to sense the tingle of humor in such formulations as “onomatopoeic racism” and “lycanthrope love dashed” (not to mention “strongly-fellatio-implying sunburns”), but it is Gurewitch’s compact, exquisite presentation of these ideas that renders them immortal. And taken in aggregate, I hope my captions do at least implicitly extol the comic’s beautiful variety (and that’s without even touching upon the remarkable variety in artistic style).
Now, I may have exaggerated, but it is nevertheless true in some sense that children—children suffering, children dying, children merely being tricked—are very often the butt of Gurewitch’s jokes, and since nothing ruins humor more than making its mechanics explicit, let’s pause to do that now. I feel that psychologically there is something delectably complex going on when we feel compelled to laugh at children suffering. I imagine it can be broken down into at least the following elements, if not into more: a) to the extent that children are innocent and lovable, it’s preposterous to create art in which they suffer; b) to the extent that children are annoying and burdensome, it’s alleviating, refreshing, to observe them suffer; c) to the extent that it’s taboo to discuss even the flicker of a desire to inflict harm upon a child, it’s very surprising to encounter art that disregards this ubiquitous social taboo so blatantly; and, perhaps most powerfully, d) to the extent that this taboo has resulted in the repression of aggressive instincts towards children for our entire lives, there is a great deal of repressed psychic energy that the comics stir up, and leverage, perhaps, for emotional power. And there may be more reasons than those, besides! Perhaps Gurewitch’s (joking?) observation [1:40] that children are for many parents a source of shame also ties in; the psychoanalyst might wonder whether Gurewitch isn’t punishing himself in these comics, whether it isn’t in fact a sense of guilt, of unworthiness or of failure, that underlies their creation. My point here is simply to suggest that the jokes which feature children suffering may be, may feel, so effective partly because, underneath the surface of the “official” joke, they’re also arousing an unusual cocktail of conflicted emotion. We may not even notice it consciously. What do you think about that?
All these reflections, however, are not the nominal purpose of this post; let’s come to that presently. What has Gurewitch been up to recently?
By the time I discovered The Perry Bible Fellowship sometime in the early 2010s, Gurewitch’s production, which at one point had been weekly, had already slowed to a trickle. Although he’d achieved a tremendous level of success, winning many prestigious awards (Ignatz, Harvey, Eisner) and becoming widely syndicated and loved, he’d never really wanted to be a cartoonist. Gurewitch studied film as an undergrad, and said in 2007 that what he wants most is to make them, or perhaps to run for office. Perhaps those dreams persist; perhaps they’ve been altered due to shifting interests; perhaps they were bitterly given up when he found himself pigeonholed beyond his liking—the paradox of success. Of all that we can only speculate, but what we do know is that since as far back as 2008 or so, The Perry Bible Fellowship has been increasingly sidelined in favor of something very different: a new book: Notes on a Case of Melancholia, or: A Little Death.
In 2015, Gurewitch raised $101,591 from 2,272 backers on Kickstarter to fund the project, and has been etching away in his room or on his balcony in Rochester, NY ever since. (I know this from my frequent trips to the area to discreetly observe him.) For this bold new venture, a thousand times larger in scale than any one PBF strip, he somehow decided to employ an extremely labor-intensive process of removing ink from a plate with a fine blade, stroke by careful stroke. In a lovely mini-documentary put out by Calyer Creative, he explains [3:54]:
“I just fell in love with how uncommon it is. Like, thinking about applying white instead of black sorta corresponded to the idea of thinking about death in a way that I wouldn’t normally think about it. If I did this another way, if I just used a goddam pen, I could’ve been done like a year ago. Sometimes I regret having undertaken a technique that has cost me so much, but I do love what comes out of it. I love what comes out of it. I get a happiness deep down in the foot of my soul that I don’t get from doing stuff that’s easy. That’s one to talk to the psychiatrist about. I don’t know why I like hard things, I just do.”
Masochism, Nicholas. You’re punishing yourself for failing in the eyes of your parents. Could it be any more obvious? We’re out of time, that’ll be $500.
Considering the tantalizing glimpses that he’s published online and the sheer effort that Gurewitch has put into its creation, it’s all but certain that the book will be a triumph, a rare flash of sparkling originality in a world flooded with humdrum derivative content. The book was originally supposed to deliver in July 2015, but due to a variety of delays amusingly catalogued in the mini-documentary, didn’t start shipping until just recently, i.e. the end of 2017. In other words, the first significant work by the creator of what may well be the greatest comic of all-time, The Perry Bible Fellowship, is finally shipping. Rejoice, friends! Friends, rejoice! Or in the words of Mark Millar writing about The Perry Bible Fellowship, “This is the reason paper was invented. Give him your money now.”