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‘Mark Stafford’s Salmonella Smorgasbord’ (review)

Written by Various
Art by Mark Stafford
Published by Soaring Penguin Press

 

Where has Mark Stafford been all my life?

This British illustrator, with an indie cartooning style that mixes whimsical, grotesque, macabre and bizarre, feels like it’s been with me always. There’s just no way I haven’t seen his work before.

Rockabilly, devil imagery, sexy vamps, hideous eldritch creatures – it’s all here. If you had any friends into small-press comics, Rocket from the Crypt, Hellboy, horror B-movies and any bands you’d see in bar gigs in the ’90s and 2000s, Mark Stafford was born in it, molded by it. (Unsurprisingly, all of those interests have a Venn diagram that’s nearly a perfect circle.)

Stafford and his irreverent, reference-laden doodles fit right alongside Jamie Hewlett, Mike Mignola, Coop, Evan Dorkin, Renee French, you name it. And when I open Salmonella Smorgasbord, a 250-page omnibus of art, comics and other graphical designs, I swear a Tom Waits song leaped out. In particular, anything from the Alice album. Yeah, all that haunted carnival shit.

Seeing Stafford’s work all in one place such as this, I am whisked back to the late ’90s, feeling like I got my hands on some imported zine via mail after a manager at my neighborhood comic book shop mentioned it. It feels like something I’m not supposed to have or understand yet, but its pages will suck me into this disgusting, anti-bullshit, fascinating cracked-mirror view of society.

The comics still hit with that sardonic, twisted wit that I loved on stuff like Mr. Show and live on today with I Think You Should Leave. “Down at the Old Hope in Hell” fires its death ray upon the horrors sitting beneath common yuppie sensibilities, the final three panels a rich tapestry of disgust and contempt. “The Metaphor” perhaps applies even more now in our late-stage capitalism days that feel like the actual end times.

The art is refreshingly handmade, pulling from various styles of illustration and cartooning who clearly knows the form in order to break the rules with educated intention. That handmade, gritty and almost tactile quality to Stafford’s art goes hand-in-hand with the anti-consumerism in the “Hocus-Baloney” ads and that include an over-sugared candy allowing kids to “taste the sound of purple,” and an unsuspecting white family encroaching upon an ancient tomb for tourism.

Stafford, who has collaborated on illustrated retellings of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs and other tales, has a deep knack for depicting dread and gritty, bloody horror around every corner. “Pretty Polly” and its macabre tale of ghostly revenge hit especially hard for me after a vacation to Salem, Massachusetts. “Quin Returns” does one of my favorite kind of horror stories, the personal hell of the endless loop.

He’s also great at making horror funny. “Internal” mixes horror and comedy such that I can imagine Bob Odenkirk’s voice as the narrator in a way that is deeply satisfying.

You’ll also get a bunch of graphic design projects, indie band album art and other Tales from the Crypt-looking doodles. I’ll be studying Salmonella Smorgasbord for a while whenever I want to make new posters for my own stuff. I’m sure you’ll be inspired, too!

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