Recipe For Disaster and other Stories

By Penny Van Horn (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 0-56097-330-7

Raised in Rye, New York, Penny (Moran) Van Horn worked in publishing before moving to Austin, Texas to begin her inexplicably low-key career as a cartoonist and storyteller. After years producing some of the most evocative and memorable graphic narratives of the 1990’s independent comics scene for magazines such as Weirdo, Wimmen’s Commix, Snake Eyes, Twisted Sisters and Zero Zero she now primarily works in newspaper illustration and produces a weekly strip for the Austin American-Statesman. She is also adept at painting, lettering and design and recently began experimenting with animation.

Recipe For Destruction is a collection of her early strips: deep, intense concoctions, more black than white, many crafted in her immensely labour-intensive scraperboard illustration style (see also the wonderfully mordant supernatural dark romance The Librarian), and all dwelling in the hazardous borderland between autobiography and bleakly comedic self-exploratory fantasy.

Latterly citing inspiration from such varied sources as Lucille Ball, Dick Van Dyke and Carol Burnett, Van Horn’s introspective retrospective begins with the eponymous ‘Recipe for Disaster’, which describes with harrowing aloofness her brief period of mental instability – her original title for the tale was “Mystical Experience or Nervous Breakdown” – before the book moves on to shorter but no less challenging fare.

‘Ten Dollars for Two Minutes’ details an unpleasant experience with her landlord, ‘Molested’ takes a slightly different glance at modern drama’s favourite plot device and ‘Catholic School’ is for anybody educated by nuns (Big ‘Hi’ to anybody else who survived Sacred Heart Convent Primary School without paying for therapy…) an utterly understandable slice of pictorial vitriol…

‘There’s No Such Thing as a Pregnant Silence’ outlines with frank and memorable humour some clear downsides to the Happy Event, ‘Binge and Purge’ reveals a different manner of addiction, ‘Domestic Bliss’ is a gloriously excessive examination of wedded bliss and ‘A Revealing Dream’ confirms that men’s suspicions of “what women want” has never been more wrong…

‘The Psycho Drifter’ is a remarkably unsettling account of modern dating, whilst ‘Texas Characters’ is plain laugh-out-loud whacky and ‘A Bird in the Beard’ returns to the subject of looking for love with more salutary comic reminiscences. The volume ends with a deeply moving cautionary tale about the heart ruling the head in ‘Mid-Life Crisis’, as well as the inclusion of some entrancingly unlovely pin-ups.

Van Horn’s work is astonishing in its captivating power and subtle influence. Her stories aren’t pretty but they are beautiful, and this collection, still in print and readily available, is one of the best grown-up comics collection around. If you believe that there’s more to strips than fights, tights and honking big guns, this book is all the proof you need.

© 1998 Penny Van Horn. All rights reserved.