In the second “pull quote” on the back cover of Brandon Lehmann’s new collection G-G-G Ghost Stories, November Garcia refers to Lehmann as “one of the most underrated cartoonists of our time.” Considering that there are quite likely, perhaps even quite literally, thousands of underrated cartoonists out there — or, at the very least, underappreciated ones, it’s a fairly bold claim, but give Lehmann credit: the works he’s chosen for inclusion in this slim volume (published under the auspices of his own Bad Publisher Books just last month) bear out Garcia’s statement. There’s a very specific thing that Lehmann does when he’s firing on all cylinders, as he is here, that few can match, to wit: he injects the supernatural into the everyday in such a way that the spooky and scary come off as looking fun and silly, while simultaneously accentuating the real horrors of the 9-to-5 world. I mean, what’s more terrifying — a ghost apparition from beyond the veil or a rude customer who’s right up in your face? A werewolf who’s out for your blood or a boss who aims to suck out your very soul?
Lehmann knows the answers to these questions as surely as you do, and, by allowing the mysterious to shoehorn its way into the world of the mundane in his trademark droll and deadpan fashion, he’s subtly inviting us to actively consider which is more absurd — giving a Lyft ride to a ghost or whiling away hours of your life you can never get back in exchange for whatever paltry sum Lyft allows you to take home with you after they keep their cut? Ghosts might be frightening in theory, but giving away the better part of your life to an employer who will replace you within five minutes of your death, if they even decide to wait that long, is frightening in practice.
Still, it’s absurdity more so than horror that unites the six stories in this volume (some of which, it should be noted, have appeared previously as stand-alone minis), though, perhaps, even making a distinction between the two in Lehmann’s work is a waste of time — I mean, horror itself is inherently absurd, generally rooted as it is in folkloric superstitions designed to keep the rabble voluntarily in line in days gone by, and Lehmann’s characters are almost universally nonplussed by it all. After all, if we well and truly live in jaded times — and I’m not sure who in their right mind would argue that we don’t — then it stands to reason that it takes a hell of a lot to dent society’s default attitude of “been there, done that, next in line please.” In these stories, even such tried-and-true things that go bump in the night as haunted houses (of which there are two in this book, but only one is actually haunted for its human inhabitants — I’ll shut up now as I may have said too much already), cursed ancient tomes, phantom telephone callers, and spirits of the dead responding to Ouija board summonings barely manage to penetrate the bubble of the skepticism-at-all-costs that is 2021’s attitude du jour. What, then, is any self-respecting ghoul, gremlin, goblin, or ghost to do?
Well, one thing they can always be counted on is to throw into stark relief the tug of war within the human psyche between the rational and the irrational, the superstitious and the scientific. However, given that even that trusty old dichotomy has played itself out in this day and age, Lehmann opts for an amusing alternative that fits the times quite well: his human protagonists are smart enough to reject superstitious notions but too stupid to recognize what’s right in front of their faces. I mean, look, I don’t believe in ghosts myself, but if one showed up on my doorstep? I’d like to think the evidence of my senses would win out over my inherent cynicism.
Perhaps I flatter myself, though, so allow me just a moment to further flatter this cartoonist instead. Lehmann long ago dispensed with the artistic practice of throwing a bunch of shit at the wall and seeing what sticks and opted instead to zero in on honing and refining a very particular set of skills (apologies to Liam Neeson) in order to tell a very particular type of story. To that end, expect art that perfectly reflects the droll (believe it or not, that’s meant as a compliment) narrative tone of the proceedings here: static backgrounds rendered in sharp detail with equally-sharply-delineated people (and other entities — some living, some not) passing through or otherwise changing positions in space in the foreground, but not really moving per se.
This style/ethos carries over into the faces Lehmann draws as well, their expressions not actively changing, so much as simply adopting different poses. It’s a strange and stiff style of drawing, to be sure, but it’s worked for Tom Tomorrow for about 40 years now and Lehmann has figured out the key to making it work in the same way that Tomorrow has — he uses the lack of motion and posed rigidity to put a visual exclamation point on whatever it is his characters are doing, saying, or even thinking. Don’t expect any lack of personality in this art simply because it’s executed with clinical precision — instead, enjoy the uncommon and, dare I say, the uncanny experience of clinical precision being utilized to both express and emphasize individuality.
Of course, none of what I just wrote would matter in the least if the material itself didn’t tonally match up with Lehmann’s style of cartooning, but again: this is a guy who knows precisely what he’s doing, with emphasis on the precisely. Dry art in service of very dry humor that ultimately aims to, in popular British parlance, “take the piss out of” standard “scary story” tropes by simply not giving a shit about them when they turn up? I’m down for that anytime, but Lehmann takes it a step further by positing that the devil we don’t know can’t scare us no matter how hard he, she, or it may try because the devil that we do know — the devil that is the tedious banality of modern consumer society — is so much scarier.