Real Rap 1-4 by Benjamin Urkowtiz
Published by Oily Comics
You can buy them here
I first became aware of Benjamin Urkowitz’s Real Rap, published by Oily Comics, when I stumbled onto this art print of its main character. It had been reblogged on Tumblr by Michael DeForge, and, I have to admit, what I saw surprised me.
At first glance, this looked to me like a grotesque blackface caricature in the minstrel tradition, complete with enormous lips, ironic “urban” speech, and white, gloved hands. I was taken aback because, as far as I can tell, DeForge is not a cartoonist who would endorse playing fast and loose with race; I assumed that there was something more going on, something I was missing. When I read Tucker Stone’s effusive review of Real Rap 3 and 4, I figured I had to buy the comics and read them for myself, because I just could not figure out how that main character (“Duh Studge”) wasn’t just an ugly racial stereotype. After reading issues 1-4 several times, my apprehensions have been largely dispelled. I’ll get into a bit more detail below.
Real Rap 1-4 (of a projected 6) focus on the antics of an unlikeable, white rapper (more on this later) named Duh Studge, whose mission in life is to return hip hop to its roots (or, at least, his impression of them). Over each 12 page issue we see Duh Studge struggle with his day-to-day life, strained human interaction, dead end job, and pathetic rap career. The only other recurring main character is Nast-E Nick-E (Nicky), who is Duh Studge’s only friend (and, implicitly, a much better rapper than he is, although that’s not much of an achievement).
Urkowitz draws in stark black and white, largely favoring contour drawing and heavy blacks over any hatching or ziptone shading. The effect is what I would call a pretty archetypal “alternative comics 2013” look. It references the undergrounds, puts heavy emphasis on layering, pattern, and lettering, and self-consciously assigns a set of highly schematic features to each character (to the point where the characters look like they’ve all been teleported in from different universes). Urkowitz is clearly very skilled, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed by the excellent execution of certain pages. There’s a sense of humor and composition in Real Rap that absolutely sets it above the majority of minicomics I’ve picked up, and the fact that it has a coherent story and consistent characters makes it stand head and shoulders above the vast wasteland of ill-thought-out, single-premise minis.
In its best moments, Real Rap reminds me of Segar’s Thimble Theatre. The earnest weirdness of Duh Studge, and his crippling, sweaty insecurity (not to mention the distinct visual signifiers of the above) reminded me of King Blozo (or sick Popeye from that storyline where he thinks he’s a cowboy) from the first sweat bullet. Of course, this just made me want to put down Real Rap and read Thimble Theatre instead; it would be a rare comic that gets compared to Segar and isn’t found lacking in some way. Despite that impulse, I do mean the comparison to be flattering. One of Segar’s great strengths was his ability to evoke universal human experiences through his exaggerated, deceptively cartoony characters, and it’s a strength Urkowitz seems to share. Duh Studge’s panic attacks and sheer incompetence make him a remarkably compelling character, to the point where it starts to feel like he’s approaching a platonic cartoon ideal of “neurotic everyman.”
(sorry for the poor quality photo)
Had I not seen the art print first, I don’t know that I would have initially thought that Duh Studge was an ugly racial caricature. Urkowitz goes out of his way to clarify that Duh Studge is a stupid white guy, which helps take the edge off of what could easily have been a very racist comic. I, personally, would not have chosen to draw Duh Studge the way Urkowitz did (his sole defining features being his swollen donut lips, fat rolls, and sweat), and it’s unclear to me why Urkowitz shaded the art print the way he did. Duh Studge is almost racist, because without the constant clarifications that he’s a white guy, there would be nothing separating him from a pretty ugly stereotype, especially when that art print is added into the mix. I know it’s unlikely that Urkowitz is thinking about this character as bordering on minstrelsy, but the subject matter (white author writes about a hulking, incompetent idiot who speaks in exaggerated dialect and is trying to take hip hop back to its roots) doesn’t do him any favors. This isn’t a Fukitor situation though, and he does largely manage to sidestep the problems I thought I’d encounter when I started reading.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t have any issues with the comic. The thing that made me most uncomfortable about Real Rap was the sense of deliberate mean-spiritedness with which Urkowitz approaches certain characters and situations, especially the character of Nicky. There’s an insincerity to Urkowitz’s portrayal of this butch, lesbian rapper that feels very much like he’s laughing at the concept of her existence (she has a “quasi-masculine appearance,” wears penis-shaped earrings, is hypersexual, takes things too personally, etc.). The page below is a good example – the way Urkowitz writes “depraved males who have been psychologically fucked since birth by our twisted, miserable culture” reminds me of the way Crumb says, “aren’t men horrible?” It comes across as winking language, invoking an unreasonable straw-feminist discourse and it seems unnecessary, especially considering that so much of the comic is so self consciously exploring human vulnerability. Between the almost-racist Duh Studge and the way Nicky is portrayed, Real Rap feels like it’s teetering on the brink of self-conscious offensiveness. It’s unclear to me whether this is part of some brilliant plan on Urkowitz’s part or if it’s just a result of thoughtlessness; I’d like to believe the latter, just because the characters do have a level of nuance in their interaction that belies boldfaced stereotyping.
Urkowitz is one of the current editors of SVA’s student comics anthology, INK, which I reviewed way back in this article. Despite my apprehensions about certain aspects of his execution, these are fundamentally very solid comics, and the storytelling is unquestionably good. There’s one scene in particular that still makes me laugh when I think about it, in which Duh Studge tries to stage a fake interview with himself (Urkowitz’s use of YouTube, internet comments, and Twitter as narrative frameworks is enviably good). Urkowitz is inventive in the way he approaches storytelling, and there’s a visible improvement in the art between Real Rap 1 and 4. I don’t think I can go as far as some have in endorsing this comic – it’s smart and interesting, but at best, it’s a very competent comic. It’s not a brain-blast from the planet WOW! or anything, but it’s well done, and that’s really good enough for me.
It’s worth nothing as well that these comics are excellently priced. Oily Comics prices their minis at $1 each, which makes trying comics like Real Rap a no-brainer. I was able to pick up Real Rap 1-4 for roughly $5, which is an almost unbeatable price for a set of indie comics like this. You can pick up Real Rap here, if you’re interested. Issue 5 just dropped, and it doesn’t seem like Urkowitz is about to stop making comics anytime soon. I’m definitely excited to see where he goes from here.