The Collected Cat Rackham by Steve Wolfhard. Koyama Press, 2016. 9781927668382.
Sarah: OK, I picked this book for you because of the shiny bits on the cover.
Gene: Ooooh! Cat Rackham!
S: All the rain falling on a dejected Cat Rackham is shiny.
G: It’s a beautiful use of spot gloss on the cover.
S: Falling on a completely sad lump of a cat wearing a green t-shirt.
G: I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this, but rain is something that a lot of cartoonists draw to show off their skills. Like in old Will Eisner graphic novels — it’s beautiful. Glorious parts of Sin City feature rain, too.
S: So Steve Wolfhard is an animator and for a while he drew comics and they became really popular. He eventually ended up back in animation and he’s one the artists with Adventure Time. You can definitely see some of his style reflected in Adventure Time now.
G: The style of the cat on the cover is almost but not quite the show’s style.
S: There’s an interview with him at the end of the book that explains that he hates this book. He hates looking at his art from that time because he feels like it looks terrible, he feels like he has improved so much and he can see every mistake in it. The interview is done by his wife, who is wonderful, and she talks about how his comics connected with so many people and that’s why Koyama Press wanted to release it. There’s a couple of comics in here that hundreds of people wrote to him about. He says he still feels bad that he never responded to those people, but he wasn’t able to then.
G: His style looks so free to me.
S: He has a list of things he thinks are wrong with it.
G: I don’t want to look at that list. It would break my heart.
S: There’s this beautiful poem at the beginning, by Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward, that is written to Cat Rackham, telling him different ways of coping with his depression in the forest. It’s a gorgeous little poem. I made a copy and stuck it on my door so I see it every time I go out. “Let your past mistakes smash like barrels over rocky waterfalls.”
G: “Remember to forgive yourself, Cat Rackham. In this moment, you are fine.” That’s nice! So it’s comic strips. How long are most of them?
S: There are some that are one page, at the beginning, and then there are multi-page longer stories.
G: “Concerning Cat Rackham: His Poop Q: What is it? A: It’s hair! And a metaphor!” It’s on his head! Jeremy the Squirrel looks insane. I love this already. His organic looking word balloons remind me of stuff Brandon Graham did in King City.
S: I think “Cat Rackham by the Numbers” was the first one that I saw when they were published online. It’s a gorgeous breakdown, percentage-wise, of Cat Rackham’s day. He seems to live in the forest as a sort of… not even as a wild animal, just as sort of a homeless cat. In the middle of the strip it says “14% self-doubt, 11% panic, 9% the mopes” and that really rang true, especially the drawing of the mopes, where he looks like he’s almost melting onto a rock.
G: This has a wonderfully hand-drawn quality.
S: Yeah, it’s a gorgeous production.
G: I don’t know if his font… it looks like a computer font.
S: Since his background is in animation, he talks about how he started off trying to draw by hand, but he just didn’t like it, so he ended up doing it digitally.
“Cat Rackham Gets Depression” is a multi-page wordless comic and it is the most perfect depiction of depression that I have ever seen. It’s funny, because I’ll tell people that and realize that many people who haven’t experienced depression wouldn’t see it that way. Wolfhard himself didn’t like the ending to the strip. His interpretation of the ending is really different from mine. And really different than his wife’s.
G: Oh, really?
S: It’s wordless, so people get different things out of it. At the end there are two bugs having sex in Cat Rackham’s beard and that happens at the same time that he comes out of his depression. Wolfhard thought that it didn’t say anything, his depression just ends. To me, that’s realistic, sometimes it just happens to you and then sometimes it stops and you don’t know why and you can’t control it and that’s the reality of it.
G: Sometimes you’re just buried in snow for the whole season.
G: He just can’t move.
S: Those two bugs having sex was like the tiny dried piece of corn in Allie Brosh’s story of depression in Hyperbole and a Half.
G: The dried piece of corn?
S: It was under her fridge. That was the thing she saw that made her laugh and that was the first sign she was coming out of her depression. Cat Rackham notices the bugs having sex in his beard and smiles. And gets up for the first time in an entire year.
G: That’s great. Show me more.
S: I’ll show you another sad one. “Cat Rackham is Sometimes Too Sad to Sleep” is him crying to himself, curled up in a ball on the ground. A duck comes up and soothes him until he can fall asleep.
G: The duck sits on his head. That second-to-last panel is beautiful.
S: And somehow this is enough outside of me that I can have compassion for myself when I feel like this. Art is apparently significant to human life.
S: I know that’s a controversial take.
There are some long stories. One in which Cat Rackham tries to break into somebody’s house to get coffee, because the herbal tea he’s making out of sticks and berries is “not cutting it.” It starts out as a crazy hapless cat adventure and then it gets really disturbing. I can totally see how his style ended up influencing Adventure Time. There’s a strange lumpy old woman who takes him in against his will.
G: She has another cat.
S: And she beats it with a wooden spoon. Cat Rackham can’t figure out how to escape with the pot of coffee, which is all he wants. Then he discovers something horrifying…
G: (sees page) Aaaaugh! That’s terrible! (sees another page) Uuuuuuugh. I don’t want to say what that is, it’s a huge spoiler, but that image is almost as bad as the image of the guy having sex with the “lady” made of different kinds of meat in Preacher.
S: I don’t know that scene!
G: I used to have that image bookmarked for an intellectual freedom class I taught for my library system, but HR told me I couldn’t make people look at it…
G: …but that I could tell them it was there. And everybody would rush over to see it during the break.
S: Then there’s a disturbing story about a paranormal bell…
G: So they’re not all short.
S: No, there are some short ones about depression and anxiety, and longer ones that are really strange.
G: You’ve sold me on this already.
S: Wolfhard is no longer making these comics, as far as I know, and he as an artist feels he’s gone beyond them, but it’s just such a perfect little collection. I bought this full price so that I could own a copy.