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Review: Idiots' Books, by Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr

Idiots’ Books is comprised of Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, and husband and wife creative team who produce “odd, commercially non-viable illustrated books” which they sell primarily through subscription service, while also taking their books to the occasional comics convention.  I first encountered them at MoCCA a few years ago, a con they can pretty reliably be found at—it was my wife who discovered them, and upon finding me insisted that I visit their table, as she was certain their work would delight me; she was correct.

As creators, they are prolific, producing no fewer than six books each year (a quick scan of my home turns up 19 volumes.  There are probably a few more tucked into corners somewhere.).  Length varies—some are thick perfect bound volumes; others are not books at all, but wall hangings, or puzzle tiles.  None can be described unambiguously as comics—most bear a closer relationship to picture books or illustrated fiction.  Some (Facial Features of French Explorers; The Nearly Perfect Sisters of the Holy Bliss) are merely collections of absurd portraits, with irreverent captions.  But regardless of form, all are inventive, clever, and beautifully executed.  And very, very funny.

Swanson’s writing is very dry, presenting the most absurd statements with minimal inflection: “Sister Olivia distributed lunches to the broken and decrepit while endlessly whistling theme songs from bygone television dramas.  Her favorite was the one from Hill Street Blues.”  It is a surprisingly versatile style, serving him well across a variety of forms: moving from fairy tale to faux academia to dream like quest story require only minor adjustments to his approach.

Behr’s art is adaptive to the project at hand, shifting from simple cartoons, to ink sketches, to complex full color paintings.  The style she uses for most of the books combines a scratchy line and ink splotches with rich colors.  Her figures are typically deformed and abstracted in ways both comical and horrifying.  And she has a particular knack for creating images that blend one into the next, allowing readers to remix the images to their own liking—an effect seen in the interchangeable tiles she created to accompany Cory Doctorow’s recent novel Makers on Tor.com, as well as in the older Idiot’s Books Ten Thousand Stories and After Everafter.  The latter two are both modeled on the old Mix or Match Story Books, allowing the readers to blend both text and image into multiple combinations, creating smooth flowing, if utterly bizarre narratives.  You can play with a digital version of Ten Thousands Stories online here.

The book that initially won my heart was The Contented, a small spiral-bound booklet, recounting a day in the life of a cloistered monk.  It is a mundane story, as we watch the monk go about his various daily chores: doing the laundry, mending his robes, torturing the prisoners, washing the dishes, and so forth.  The appeal lies predominantly in Behr’s illustration, simple, evocative depictions of the monk in his robe, interacting with similarly simple environments, punctuated with beautiful abstract landscapes that give a sense of the monk’s isolation in his home.  There are, in fact, only six words in the entire story, revealing the monk’s deepest wish.  It is a silly, childish wish—and yet, it leads to a final image that is unexpectedly sad, casting an even greater pall of loneliness over everything that came before.

Following the birth of their first child, Swanson and Behr honored the occasion with another tiny spiral-bound, The Baby is Disappointing, which recounts all the ways in which babies are un-amusing, unproductive layabouts in lofty, despondent prose: “The baby is unmotivated.  It loafs all morning long.  As the afternoon slides past, the world’s work remains undone, and all the while this baby drifts in dreams of better days.  And yet it does not smile.  It does not now how.”

The illustrations in this volume are particularly simple—what appears to be a found image of a kewpie doll blended with ink sketches to illustrate a variety of atrocious conditions to subject a baby to.  It’s bleak, and cynical, and hilarious.  And, of course, it’s ultimately not a condemnation of the baby’s uselessness at all, but rather a portrait of the fears any new parent faces when considering all the ways they can fail to appreciate or understand their child.  (My wife and I found it a particularly enjoyable read while awaiting the arrival of our own first child last year.)

Not every book is comical.  The Clearing is a lovely fable about an old, ruined king, who commits a terrible act of violence against the one living thing he still loves.  This sets him on a quest to atone for betraying his brother in his youth, but ultimately leads to more complex questions about who he is and whether either atonement or revenge are even possible or justifiable.

Given the number of books the pair produces, not every one can be stellar.  Animal House, for instance, which offers portraits of the primary figures of American politics in 2008, depicted as animals, is losing significance rapidly.   But the duds are few, and are far outnumbered by little gems.

At $60/year, a subscription might sound hefty, but given that that price gets you six books, it’s really an excellent deal.  At the very least, if you have opportunity to browse their work at a convention, take it—it only takes a few minutes of browsing for the craving for more of their work to take hold.