Max Huffman: (Cover Not Final) | AdHouse Books; May 2021
The comic book artist Max Huffman’s work deals with dark, surreal exaggerations of everyday life—and some of his strangest stories come from the Triangle itself.
The Carrboro cartoonist, whose collection (Cover Not Final)—yes, that’s the title; no, it’s not a typo—comes out from award-winning small-press publisher AdHouse Books next week, crafted many of the unnerving-but-whimsical tales he calls “crime funnies’’ while quarantining during COVID-19.
The recipient of a BFA in cartooning from New York’s School of Visual Arts, Huffman has produced a number of minicomics and short stories for anthologies over the last several years, though (Cover Not Final) is the first widely published collection of his work. For what he calls his “first book with a barcode,” Huffman combined new material with reworked and redrawn minicomics and short stories he’s created over the years, in a small, 64-page book that he says was deliberately designed to evoke old Archie digests.
Produced in a variety of styles—some are in bright colors (“I wanted something garish,” he says, “that would assault the senses.”), others are sepia-toned or black-and-white—Huffman’s tales employ the recurring setting of a nameless city with a burnt-out “Business Park’’ that local readers will find familiar, along with a recurring character, the mysterious “Career Criminal” who frequently provides a disruptive presence in the other characters’ lives.
Huffman drew from his lifelong fascination with what he calls the “completely artificial non-city corporate city” of the Research Triangle.
“My dad worked for GlaxoSmithKline, and they had what I think was the coolest building in the RTP—the Burroughs Wellcome Building, which was designed by an architect named Paul Rudolph,” Huffman says, “It’s this wild, hexagonal, space-age-like monstrosity. They’d have ‘Bring Your Kid to Work’ days, and I’d have days where I was exploring this incomprehensibly large complex. It really activated all the shape-obsessed and architectural parts of my young brain.”
That “shape-obsessed” part of Huffman’s psyche is on full display in his comics, where characters often resemble the flounder-faced abstracts found in Pablo Picasso paintings. Plot is less important than atmosphere in these stories, and the eerie emptiness of “Business Park” provides an unsettling backdrop.
“My idea was that this world is like a reverse gentrification of corporate spaces where you’re turning these industrial buildings back into a city,” he says.
The first story in the collection, “Tennell Leffitt: Man Detective,” pays homage to artist David Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster’s existential detective novel City of Glass. In it, the titular gumshoe tracks down goons from “Contamino” who left a “Corporate Art Installation” on his doorstep, which takes him to the emptied offices of the former headquarters of an international oil conglomerate known as “Crude” that he compares to “a ghost town.”
“It was once the hottest spot in town, even after they got the A/C working,” Leffitt muses in his narration.
Huffman, who also serves as the print graphic designer for Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, calls the “juxtaposition between nature and kind of lifeless liminal spaces” in the Triangle “a potent soup.” He’s also helping promote other comic creators who are part of that soup in his role as small press director at Carrboro’s new Peel Gallery, where he regularly acquires new small-press comics and artwork to be sold through the gallery and retail space.
“I want to see more physical spaces for print media and comic books,” he says. “When I was growing up in Chapel Hill, there were four or five bookstores on Franklin Street.”
Many of those stores, including The Bookshop, Nice Price Books, and Chapel Hill Comics, have all closed down in recent years, which bothers Huffman: “It’s sad to see things going this way when there’s still the same, if not even greater, number of people making this material.”
As such, he enthusiastically promotes the work of other local comic creators, including Andrew Neal, Keith Knight, Julia Gootzeit, Ellen O’Grady, Ria Garcia, and many more.
Perhaps in the “potent soup” that inspired his comics, Huffman has also found a recipe to help make the area a known hub for cartoonists—while still honoring its offbeat, surreal touches, in the meantime.
“It’s a very solitary pursuit, cartooning,” Huffman says, “With Peel, I want to try to bring some of the people making comics here together in one space. There’s so much great work being done here, and I want to spotlight that as much as possible.”
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