Dave Cooper’s cartoon drawings are somewhat grotesque. The disproportionate characters have an element of visceral horror about them, less like they’re portraying reality than acting as a satire of it. We all have habits and behaviours that we think we can hide, yet Cooper manages to draw those out, bringing them to the fore by making the person embody those very traits. They are our psychological shadow.
Starting out as a comic book artist, Cooper’s school was that of a hard-knock crowded marketplace, back in a time when comics would have whole sections in local newsagents - before being banished to specialist stores and digitised versions.
Working with Seattle’s renowned underground comic producer Fantagraphics Books, getting noticed wasn’t easy. Still, in a medium saturated with hyper-muscular superheroes, Cooper decided to paint fleshy females in an erotic manner, sprawling over pages that were more repulsive than seductive, maintaining a charm of the local prostitute who is everybody’s friend.
Both Weasel and Ripple - Cooper’s most iconic comics - are the finest purveyors of his signature style. A muted palette, almost dreary, certainly un-sexy, was used to give his audience something to relate to. Rather than Superman and his harem of female groupies, we were given dysfunctional relationships with inadequate sex lives. It was love, warts and all. And people loved him for it.
Despite a CV that might be viewed as a bit of a hard sell, Cooper’s comics quickly became cult favourites, his readers as devoted as they come in an industry known for the fervour it can arouse. In Ripple, a struggling painter aims to woo his muse, who is the star of a soon-to-be painting ‘The Eroticism of Homeliness’. This fictional title is telling. Alongside a key aspects of the book, its phrasing encapsulates the general feeling of Cooper’s catalogue. What is normal? Are we?
These masterpieces also force the audience to confront the most pertinent questions that their protagonists face. Beautiful and ugly operate on the same fine hysterical line as love and hate - often oscillating between the two with a recklessness that reminds us that we are far less prone to reason than we’d hope. The repulsion/erotic paradox here is a riddle that answers itself, but makes you do a lot of the work too. These are characters you’ll nod along in agreement with as soon as you’ll shake your head in pity at.
Cooper’s work centres around obsession in a very meta manner. It’s the character’s own obsessions we may first see, before more acutely understand that they are extensions of the artist’s own obsession with detail in capturing something artistically and psychologically. Sigmund Freud has been understood as a complicated figure in the years following his death. Cooper’s characters have all the flaws of the pioneering psychoanalysts own thoughts, although instead of being flaws, they’re thoughts manifest.
Few mediums cross-pollinate as successfully as comic and film. It’s no surprise then that Cooper’s foray into the medium of animation have been greatly received. For ‘King of Magazines’ by rock trio Danko Jones, Cooper created an extended video accompaniment, drawing on his iconic perverse style, with characters being as reprehensible as possible, without ever allowing the audience time to look away. They are what many would call trainwrecks.
Alongside oil paintings and an upcoming live action film, the Canadian comic has become an overall creative mind, a million miles from his beginnings in underground comics. Conversely, he's as close as he’s ever been to his source material. Dave Cooper didn't sell out.
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