Between Gentlemen & Botanica Drama

Published on March 14, 2024

Between Gentlemen
Rupert Bottenberg

Conundrum Press

“Between Gentlemen,” the titular story in Conundrum Press’s reissue of four short comics by Rupert Bottenberg, contains the collection’s entire use of written language. The gentlemen are two boys identical but for their shirt collars and shorts; between them is a friendly contest, a back-and-forth of experimentation. Let’s call one boy Magic, and the other Science. Science first displays “The Crypto-vecto-jector!,” a torch with a beam of black light and esoteric design. Magic responds with an enchanted glove that transforms armpit sounds “into sweet music,” and he is surrounded by musical notes. By the end of the contest, they arrive at the same invention, the same trick: flight. In the last panel, we watch from above as the two boys fly over park and houses in silence. 

The story is a sweet one, and illustrated by Bottenberg in soft, choppy black-and-white, but it is clear that written language is something for him to step outside of. Even within “Between Gentlemen,” Magic begins to speak in arcane lettering, for that’s where the magic is. In the other three short stories, Bottenberg talks instead through his medium – ink, white space, the aesthetic play and pleasure of dream language, a well-laid punchline. In his story of Babylon, history is an endless queue of flat hieroglyphic figures, each a practitioner of a different language. The letters crowd in noisy speech bubbles above their heads as the queue climbs the Babylonian tower, and the figure at the top is pushed to their death. We are left with a skull and crossbones, an exclamation, and the toppled 8 of infinity. Everything in Between Gentlemen is at the service of Bottenberg’s ability to suggest a larger world within the brevity of the comic form. It’s a deceptively simple collection of stories, one that seems to change shape after each new read.

Botanica Drama

Pow Pow Press

Though given much more space than Between Gentlemen to tell its story, it remains impressive how Thom’s Botanica Drama is able to evoke a complete and casual mythos. Similar to Bottenberg, the only text present in the narrative is onomatopoeia – the first being the “BANG!” to signal the beginning of time and space and story. Thom walks us beautifully in monochrome through a Miltonic formation of heaven and earth, until the conditions are right for life to appear. The first of this life are ghostly bodies, Slenderman-like in shape and presence, that can only live in the dark. 

Up to this point we are moving through a desolate and chiaroscuro story, but with the sun’s first rising over the mountains, Botanica Drama shifts into its main, cutesy style. Because like any cartoon sun, this one has two eyes and a pleasant smile. Fish and mammals and birds begin to evolve in its image, doe-eyed and anthropomorphic. A medieval town is built by the animals, where they drink coffee, watch TV, and carry suitcases to work. 

Once in full swing, the novel centres on XIII, or Death, a friendly black skeleton who appeared alongside the first complex life forms, and Philomène, a tiny flower. The two run a café in town and ride from home to work on a moped, the suggestion being that the town runs like clockwork forever, each animal with its own cute job and family. The eventual drama comes not from the town, then, but the sun itself, who refuses to wake one morning from a cosmic hangover. Meaning no daytime, no bright-eyed creatures making pastries, and the return of those gaunt and pale night monsters.

Thom’s incorporation of both light, Looney Tunes comedy and the horrors of a permanent night means the world never becomes maudlin. While in one panel a pig in a military helmet uses a detonator almost as big as he is, another sees the ghostly night figures, opening their heads like black holes to feed on stray rabbits. Reminiscent of the video game Spiritfarer, another tale of gentle death from Montreal, Botanica Drama is at core a love story, charmingly told.mRb

Connor Harrison's work has appeared in The Evergreen Review, The Moth Magazine, and Literary Review, among others. He lives in Montreal.



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