John Sullivan’s book, Dire Moon Cartoons (Weasel Press 2021), is an experimental collection of dramas mixes poetry and history lessons with drama to reflect the dangers of imbalances in power and insufficient empathy. Often through straightforward explanations of his work, Sullivan describes this new form as “Poetry, spoken word, and non-realistic/devised theatre are mutually-reinforcing, complementary forms, and the montage process jump-starts a cross-fertilization that often produces really interesting hybrids” (11). The dramatic format lends itself as pedagogical; poetic language captures the attention of mind and soul, ensuring the readers are attuned to Sullivan’s message.
In the first play, “Hey Fritz, Looks Like You Lost It All Again in the Ghosting,” Sullivan reimagines life after death. Memory is a constant figure in many minds; this idea that sticks around for the entirety of the book, personified by various characters’ struggles to achieve “amnesia,” as Sullivan puts it. Fritz Lang, a famous German filmmaker of the 20th century who fled Germany just before WWII and the play’s protagonist, begins with a lamentation. Death is not what he thought it would be: “What dreams may come, indeed,” he says, “Hamlet was right to worry” (Sullivan 16). Even in innocence, even in death, Lang is followed by the memories of this violent past. Lang’s inability to forget the atrocities committed in his home country, even when he had no hand in them, is the main motivator of his guilt-ridden afterlife. Sullivan subsequently reminds readers to hold themselves accountable for crimes against humanity, even as spectators, setting up the rest of the book as a sort of guide on how to (or how not to) lose oneself in empathy.
Sullivan often employs poetic language to set the scene. For example, Fritz Lang describes where he was when the war started, saying, “I was in Los Angeles, then, eating lotus, sucking skin, drinking in the sun, bobbing up and down in the surf like a postcard” (Sullivan 17). Fritz has some stored regret, perhaps survivor’s guilt, from the war. He got out. He’s practically on vacation. But how many millions of people did he leave behind? By using the Brechtian technique in his plays, Sullivan separates the audience from the action, reminding the reader that he intends for someone to learn from this language. Sullivan wants his readers to be aware they are spectating, making things personal.
Each section/scene of the book offers an artful look into the atrocities performed by those traditionally in power: Fritz gets new ears to “hear and do what he’s told to do” (32), actors are treated as props (32), and the “Mad Town Jump Rope Chant” offers another look at commonly used brainwashing techniques (33). Fritz Lang even offers a preparatory remark: “We should all have eyes all around our heads” (61), reminding the reader to pay attention to what’s going on around the world, not only to what they currently see.
As mentioned above, Sullivan discusses “amnesia” (67) as a way to avoid looking at reality head-on. He expertly captures the juxtaposition between what we are told by those in positions of power (i.e. propaganda) and what we can observe ourselves. For example, when the Mouse Van Gogh from the Big White Chair cannot get the “Helmut of Amnesia” over his “big dumb polyethylene ears” (Sullivan 73), he is forced to hear and remember all the violence that follows and all that came before. Over the course of the book, Sullivan also lays out the many ways people (and apparently mice) attempt to escape from reality. If it’s not amnesia, it’s substance abuse in the form of “the ultimate boss cannoli” (Sullivan 74) or objects of denial and power like Grey Sergeant’s “new-new eyes” and his “death wig” (Sullivan 123). When the Baby Rookie’s death is smeared on the white wall in The Baby’s Rookie Year, for example, denial transforms into a struggle to be remembered, even for heinous acts of violence.
Although Sullivan is critical of human actions, he is delicate in his treatment of said criticisms. His writing comes across as helpfully demonstrative and effectively engaging. Kookie word usage, fun sets and props, as well as wild, outlandish characters make for an informative, sometimes necessarily uncomfortable, but always entertaining set of dramas. Sullivan uses real human history to teach lessons on empathy, greed, power, and human nature; he tucks away the lessons in succinct humor and sarcasm interspersed with shocking acts of violence. And so, when Fritz Lang says, “I want a better history right here, right now…” (35), the reader feels it, too.
Dire Moon Cartoons is available through Weasel Press.
Kenli Doss holds a BA in English and a BA in Theatre-Performance from Jacksonville State University. She is a freelance writer and actress based out of Alabama, and she spends her free time painting scenes from nature or writing poetry for her mom. Ken’s works appear in Something Else (a JSU literary arts journal), Bonemilk II by Gutslut Press, Snowflake Magazine, The Shakespeare Project’s Romeo and Juliet Study Guide and A Midsummer Night’s Dream Study Guide, and The White Cresset Arts Journal.
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