AFTER LIFE: Slumville is a land-of-the-dead version of Philadelphia, a frequent setting in Rob Woods’ 36 Lessons in Self-Destruction.
A penis-shaped being named Danny tries to kill himself in Rob Woods’ new comic book, 36 Lessons in Self-Destruction (The Depressed Punx Collection), out this week through West Philly’s Locust Moon Press just in time for the second Locust Moon Comics Festival on Saturday. Danny tries to hang himself, but the rope breaks. He finds a big knife in the kitchen and cuts off his arms, but still doesn’t die. He asks, “Why iz dying so damn haRd?”
Danny runs to the park to find a more effective way to die. There, he encounters Forrest Gump, sitting on a bench yapping about how “LoFF IZ LOK A BOX … ” Danny sits, listens and reaches a life-affirming conclusion: “Wow! That Retard wuz Right. Heck, this world ain’t All Bad. it’s Time To stop Gittin Bizzy DyiN’ And Start Gittin Bizzy LIVIN.”
As Danny walks away, he slips on a banana peel and falls off a bridge.
Danny’s death is an accident, but there are eight successful suicides in 36 Lessons. Most of them are committed by a character named Bob, who kills himself at least once in each issue of the Depressed Punx series. Rob Woods, 31, has self-released the series in zine format for about three years; they are collected here for the first time. But the tormented characters have been haunting Woods for much longer.
Woods comes from a family of West Philadelphia artists. His father, Roosevelt, has been a cartoonist, painter, graphic designer and photographer throughout his life. “He was my first teacher,” says Woods. “It wasn’t an easy life. Back then, it was hard for him to get work because he’s black. But even when he would get a job doing something other than art, he would quit because it wasn’t what he wanted to do.”
Rob is the youngest of eight siblings, many of whom are also artists. His brother Jeremiah was a well-known Philly graffiti artist in the ’80s; his sister Joy, a dancer and visual artist, has a collection of the family’s work at her home. “Whether it pushes us to homelessness, losing friends or whatever, art is our religion,” says Woods. “We’re set on making it. That’s my family.”
In 2007, Woods bought a one-way ticket to New York City, bringing a few dozen paintings to sell on the streets. “I wanted to be like Basquiat,” he says. Woods sold them all the first day. He lived on the streets or in shelters for the next seven months. He spent everything he earned from his paintings on booze. He’d arrived in New York with a troubled history of alcoholism and several stints in mental-health treatment facilities, and his problems were exacerbated by living on the streets.
“I blacked out from drinking every day,” remembers Woods. “I’d wake up in hospitals, in a restraining jacket, fighting with doctors. I couldn’t remember what had happened. I’d wake up in strange shelters with blood all over me. That’s when I started creating the characters.”
The Depressed Punx live either in Philadelphia or in Slumville, which is where people go when they die. In Slumville, there’s a place called Squirrel Park, an alternate-dimension version of Clark Park. A living, schizophrenic character named Rob sits in Clark Park and communicates with the Squirrel Park dead, including the machine-gun-toting White Jesus and a cross-dressing Adolph Hitler.
Woods adds a fantastical spin, but the stories are mostly autobiographical — a character fights with a SEPTA security guard; something similar happened to Woods. He appears at the end of each issue, sometimes wearing a straightjacket or a shirt that reads “editor.”
In one of the new stories, “HOW I GOT HERE,” Rob the editor sits in an AA session with Bob, Danny, “Rob” and several other Depressed Punx characters. It’s therapeutic to write about his life in this way, Woods says. His characters are depressed and self-destructive, but also defiant and oddly heroic. They are driven, but it is not clear by what.
For Woods, though, it has always been his art. For better or worse, no matter where his creative urges have led him, Woods has followed.
“I will have a nice job and a nice place to live and a healthy relationship,” he says, “but then I feel like these things are taking too much time away from my creativity, so I will get rid of all of it. Fuck this job, fuck this girl, fuck this apartment. I don’t need that shit. After I get rid of it all, I get depressed because I’ve lost everything. But things are always getting in the way of my work.”
“At times,” he continues, “my work is optimistic. It’s all for laughs. It’s both. It’s anything. I get suicidal. I’ve been in mental institutions. Sometimes they have to drag me there. But, for the most part, I’m optimistic.”
Locust Moon Comics Festival, Sat., Oct. 5, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., suggested donation $5-$15, Rotunda, 4014 Walnut St., 267-403-2856, locustmoonfest.com.
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