Originally self-published “way” back in 2017 but only now making its way in front of my eager eyes, Chicago cartooning legend Max Morris’ On Transit is an admirably rancid duo-tone nightmare very much in the Gary Panter tradition, albeit with perhaps an even more raw punk sensibility, and is a legit must-read item for anyone reliant upon the whims and vagaries of public transportation, particularly CTA buses — although the bus system of any major city works in a pinch as a substitute. And while the depiction of the ride herein is exaggerated for both comic and horrific effect, chances are good it’s going to ring true for most readers because, hey, most of us have been there and done that.
Like being a prison guard or a schoolteacher, driving a bus is one of those occupations where you’re better off admitting silently to yourself that the inmates are running the asylum, and hoping that none of the madness invades your own personal space, so Morris’ taciturn, doing-their-best-to-remain-oblivious transit operator is likely the most borderline-admirable character in this ‘zine (which I’ve only included one scan from so as not to give too much of a short comic away, the other images accompanying this review being other Morris artworks), but the on-board madness is the real star of the show. The passengers, situations, and sounds committed to paper here are entirely authentic in that way only true outlaw comix can be — which is to say they’re dialed up to 11, yet firmly grounded in consensus “as is” reality — but perhaps the most remarkable thing is that this book has a smell to it. Not by means of any “smell-o-vison” gimmick or something, mind you, but simply because the ride Morrison takes us on is so authentic at its core that readers effortlessly conjure up the proper olfactory sensations from memory to accompany the story and art.
Also, like the bus it’s centered around, this comic has an engine that propels it forward — that being Morris’ amazingly staccato, rhythmic pacing and scripting. The Beats are going to come to mind right off the bat as a notable and obvious influence as the writing here is very much in line with their thematic concerns, borderline-nihilist worldview, and self-consciously “too cool for school” attitude, but Morris’ very authorial style itself channels their energy and ethos, and when combined with his impactful and immediate art, the results are staggering in their faux-simplicity : this is one of those comics where the creator clearly put in a lot of time and effort to make it look like they just bashed the whole thing out. Yes, this is a visceral work, but that doesn’t preclude a hell of a lot of care and attention being invested in its construction and execution.
Which, admittedly, is me being sounding so pompous that any of the characters we briefly meet here would doubtless tell me to fuck directly off, but that’s the analytical mind for you : after awhile, you can’t shut it off even if you want to. In my own nominal defense I’ll say that I feel appropriately guilty about leaning into pretense in order to adequately examine, and communicate the merits of, a work that explicitly eschews it, but hey : when you’ve got a job to do, you’ve got a job to do — and if I haven’t convinced you that you need pick this up with all due haste then I haven’t done my job well at all.
You can rest easy, though — even with all this “job” talk, there’s nothing even remotely workmanlike about Morris’ comic. Everything we see here comes from a place of pure inspiration, and is imbued with so much sheer determination that it seems very much like something he needed to get our of his system with as little by way of mediation as possible. As mentioned, real “sweat equity” went into the creation of this book, but it’s remarkable how uncompromised it is regardless. If you like comics you feel every bit as much as you read, then this is going to be right up your alley.
I find it surprising that this whole thing was designed to accompany a spoken-word performance of its contents, simply because it works so perfectly as “just” a comic that it’s difficult to conceive of it as being anything else, but Morris is nothing if not a creative force determined to express himself in a number of media. And while I wasn’t able to find any video of Morris delivering it to a live audience on YouTube, I certainly didn’t need to in order to feel fully invested in this fully-realized nightmare world on wheels — so even though this may only be “part” of how Morris wanted audiences to experience his story, it’s certainly not lacking in any way, shape, or form. Simply put, comics don’t come much better than this, so get your hands on a copy while you can.
On Transit is available for $5.00 from John Porcellino’s Spit And A Half distro at https://www.spitandahalf.com/product/on-transit-by-max-morris/
Review wrist check – Spinnaker “Piccard” blue dial model riding the factory-provided rubber “ladder-style” strap.