Review: Old Ground #1 by Noel Freibert

Part of the challenge of comics criticism is the piece of
work that redefines the way you think about comics. We have our own little
buckets we put things in; art comics, autobio, speculative fiction, etc. and
it’s easy to get wrapped up in the trappings of those categories. But there are
comics that make you question those categories, a comic that falls in an
entirely new headspace. Such is the case with Noel Freibert’s Old Ground,
a comic I’ve read about a dozen times and have been puzzling over since
Freibert was kind enough to send a copy of a few months ago.

Ostensibly, Old Ground is a book about a dog, a frog,
two dead children, and a derelict and ruined cemetery soon to be demolished by
two construction worker types. Freibert’s organic line and stark blacks and
whites morph and ooze across a segmented standard 6 panel grid, and despite the
constant use of shadow throughout, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of
a standardized lightsource. Creatures morph and meld in an absurd, stream of
consciousness kind of way. Handheld tools sprout from gaping neckholes, nails
and thorns stab and scar. The result is a comic that is unsettling, sometimes
disturbing. The threat of violence is never very far away.

Freibert seems interested specifically in the portrayal of
pain. I’m thinking of two connected passages: the first where the two dead children
talk about the headless body of Jesus and it droops closer and closer to the
ground, stretching and snapping into place; the second where the stray dog goes
through the stations of the cross (COOL D0G 73, a Sonic the Hedgehog-looking
creature, and one of Dane Martin’s characters look on). Freibert is willing to
crush and slice and squeeze characters in a way that is a little hard to take
in. Elsewhere, Freibert commands the reader through the voice of a dead child
to, “Imagine your mouth full of nails. Now bite down on them. You’re so hungry
you enjoy the feeling.”

The pain isn’t limited to what’s visible – the two dead children, Silver Spoon
and Cliffie, seem both a bit wretched, and also sadly naïve. They talk on and
off about death, murder, and abandonment. There’s a lot of hurt here. In one
disheartening series of panels, Cliffie hopes to be taken out of the grave by (likely
long-dead) parents, and when reminded of their death, says, “Our parents gave
us life once. Why not twice?”

But Old Ground, despite its foulness, is funny,
actually quite funny, a feat that seems hard to pull off given the nature of its
characters and the direction of its story. There’s an inane quality to
Freibert’s art that goes hand in hand with its terribleness. A prime example?
The cameo characters listed above at the dog’s crucifixion.

Freibert has put together a book here that is an uneasy mix
of intensely grotesque imagery and a dark, slapstick sense of humor. The stream
of consciousness flow of this comic and its morphing, fluid art make it stick
in your craw. Old Ground’s power is
undeniable, even if it is hard to categorize. Recommended.

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Noel Freibert is a cartoonist based out of Baltimore MD. You can check out more of his work on his tumbler wweeiirrdd and get comics at his webstore.

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