I don’t remember how I found this particular book by Marc Hempel (who would later go on to do a stint illustrating Neil Gaiman’s “The Kindly Ones” storyline in the brilliant series, The Sandman,) but Mariah and I both loved Gregory, instantly. The book was put out by Piranha Press, which looks like a neat, indie publisher, but was actually a division of DC Comics. We have four of the little Gregory books, and as far as I know, that’s all that Hempel did before moving on to “bigger” and “better” things (like his short-lived but hilarious series, Tug & Buster for Image Comics.) I could sing the praises of Hempel’s assorted works all day long, but for this review, let’s just stick to Gregory…
Marc Hempel – Gregory (1989)
Gregory is the story of a disturbed little boy who lives most of his life in a cell in a psychiatric facility, barefoot, with his arms restrained by a straight-jacket. He is incapable of speaking in full sentences, preferring to scream inarticulate grunts and guttural syllables, punctuated by the occasional, “I Gregory!” His best friend is a dirty rat that pops out of the drain in the floor of his cell, spouts interesting comments, and is then smashed flat by one of the orderlies at the facility, only to be reincarnated again a short time later as the same rat. Gregory is sub-intelligent, eats moldy cheese off the floor of his cell, and is terrified of almost everything—but for the most part he seems pretty happy.
What Hempel does so well in this VERY dark book is turn almost everything in the story on its head. Gregory is stuck in a straight-jacket, but in one short scene, his jacket pops open. He immediately strips naked, accidently slaps himself in the face several times (he isn’t used to controlling his floppy arms), sticks his hand down the drain and gets it disgustingly dirty, and ends the mostly wordless sequence cowering in the corner of his cell with the straight-jacket partially put back on. Though most of us would pine for freedom, Gregory retreats into the comfort of the familiar after exploring the unknown. (This sentiment seems completely TRUE to me…)
Throughout the book, people keep trying to “improve” Gregory’s situation. His therapist is driven insane by his lack of verbal progress and runs screaming from the room. A group of “pet therapists” show up, and Gregory is mauled by the cat that was supposed to provide him a little comfort. In one particularly disturbing sequence, Gregory is removed from his cell, taken out of his straight-jacket and given the “proper” medication for his condition, so he doesn’t injure himself. This, naturally, leaves him a drooling vegetable, without any of the life or energy that makes Gregory who he is. Herman Vermin, his buddy the rat, makes an impassioned plea for Gregory to be returned to his normal cell and mental condition, but because he’s a rat, none of the doctors understand him, and he’s smashed to death with a broom. Hilarious!!! Like I said, it’s a dark book. However, when not being bothered by those looking after his “best interests,” Gregory appears to be genuinely happy with his life.
A large part of the success of the book is Hempel’s stunning black and white art. Combining a thick, rough line with what appears to be either pencil or possibly charcoal for shading, Hempel conveys a dark and disturbed mood, which works perfectly with the existential angst saturating the storyline. But the characters, to me, show echoes of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, especially in the facial features, (although this book is nowhere near as MEAN as the Peanuts stories were.) I’ve always been amazed and jealous when an artist can convey a huge amount of meaning in just a few lines, as Bill Watterson, Schulz, and Hempel certainly can. There’s also something jarring in that juxtaposition of simple, cutesy imagery and dark, disturbing subject matter that I think really helps push the overall mood and tone.
In the end, the book is brilliant. There are several extended sequences where the artwork alone tells the story, and others where the dialogue can be hilarious but you see almost nothing that’s happening. Some sections show us Gregory’s perceptions of the world, which makes clear how detached he is from reality (but it’s his MIS-perceptions that help keep him happy!) And there’s even a strange, “experimental” section where a person trying to READ the comic is interrupted by another person who keeps asking questions about what’s going on. It’s weird and funny and completely unexpected. My one negative note is that there is a section in which Herman Vermin is reincarnated as a homosexual, and that short storyline is somewhat insensitive to the LGBTQ community, (although, to be realistic, the LGBTQ community hadn’t really moved into the open yet in the late ‘80s.) In addition, I suppose especially sensitive people who have family members who have been diagnosed with some forms of mental illness might find this entire book offensive, but my family is very familiar with mental issues, and I still found the book to be extremely funny. Gregory’s thoughts and reactions seem very REAL to me, and the tone, while dark, is also somewhat positive and “up.” If we could just let Gregory be himself, instead of trying to FIX him and make him “normal,” then EVERYONE would be better off, especially Gregory.
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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