‘From tormented surrealism to flat realism to downright abstract strangeness’ – Like a Dog by Zak Sally

If you’re a fan of Midwestern American indie rock, you may already be familiar with Zak Sally. From 1993 through to 2005, he was the bass player for ethereal slowcore figureheads Low, who found something approaching fame with their Christmas EP in 1999. Intended as a seasonal gift for fans (“despite the commerce involved”, the sleevenotes apologise), the record spans childlike joy, hushed spirituality, gentle anguish and, finally, redemptive romanticism. Above all, it never loses sight of the idealism, beauty or mystery at the heart of the titular holiday.

“Gosh, that’s a lengthy preamble,” you may be thinking by now. But it’s worth mentioning Low’s signature qualities because they’re upheld in Sally’s second creative life as a comic book artist. The good folk at Fantagraphics have seen fit to publish the first two issues of his late-90s Recidivist title, originally printed for his own La Mano 21 imprint. With the inclusion of some collaborations, anthology submissions and various bits of artwork, this makes for a compelling scrapbook collection – and a beautifully-bound one at that. It’s fascinating to see how much the cryptic splendour of Low’s music is echoed in Sally’s heavily-inked visual poetry. If there’s a crucial difference between two, it can be found in the sparse, haunting arrangements of Alan Sparhawk’s bruised melodies – in stark opposition to Sally’s complex images, which range from tormented surrealism to flat realism to downright abstract strangeness.

In any case, we’re getting far too hung up on the band. There’s an inspiring breadth of themes and styles on display here, although ultimately they all point to an artist in the depths of an existential crisis. The first Recidivist story All My Friends Are Giants breaks the fourth wall in an attempt to offer solutions to issues of isolation and self-frustration, whilst acknowledging that the reader may not be taking the suggestions on board. It’s sad, strange and hopeful, and told to us by a miniscule character who spends most of the story travelling across an inert human body that’s been cut and tacked open in places. The effect is rather unsettling and certainly not cheery, but also bizarrely optimistic. It’s followed by Dresden, a sparse, Adrian Tomine-esque observation of spirituality, taken from an incident that occurred whilst on tour with Low. Sally tells us in the engrossing appendix that he now finds this strip “repulsive”, and it’s certainly less stylistically original than many of the other stories in this book. He does himself a disservice, however, to ignore the suggestive power of contemplation in the piece – it’s a lovely piece of work, suggesting intrigue and quiet awe, tied in with a sense of exclusion and enigmatic regret.

Other highlights in what comes across as a thoroughly personal work include At The Scaffold, an account of Dostoesvky’s time in prison, and The Man Who Killed Wally Wood, a simple tale wonderfully told by synching up prose and graphics. We even get reproductions of the elaborate binding for both volumes of Recidivist that are compiled here.  

It’s not all gold, of course.  Some of his more poetic words might come across as impenetrable if not for the handy explanations towards the back of the book, and the isolationist themes of some strips have the unfortunate effect of disconnecting the story from the reader. If there’s a non-subjective fault with Like A Dog, it’s that the wealth of material from so many sources can seem a little disjointed at times. But hey, all of these minor gripes are what scrapbook collections are all about! This is an intriguing insight into the development of a slowly-emerging talent. On the strength of that alone, he won’t see too many more lazy reviewers heading straight for a comparison with his former band.

Any Cop?: Whether you want an introduction to a man whose comic career is only just getting going, you just can’t get enough of Low or you just feel like reading something different,  this will more than satisfy your urges. And maybe it’s just Bookmunch fetishising something that doesn’t need it, but that binding really is gorgeous.

 

Will Fitzpatrick

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