Wednesday , February 28 2024
A new hardbound collection pays tribute to the Kustom Kulture art of Johnny "Childish" Ace.

Book Review: “The Workshop of Filthy Creation” – The Art of Johnny Ace and Kali Verra

Even if you aren't familiar with the artist, one glace at the cover of "The Workshop of Filthy Creation": The Art of Johnny Ace and Kali Verra (Dark Horse Books) would tell you this is no collection of highbrow art. Featuring a large leering cartoon rodent bidding us to enter his lair, a barely seen hot rod is in the background. It's a familiar image for those of us who ever once frittered our boyhood coins on hot rod comics and sicko plastic monster models. He's Rat Fink, creation and icon of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.

Initially bursting into "Kustom Kulture" prominence in the early sixties (when this writer, for instance, used to obsessively copy Rat Fink images onto his middle school notebooks), the Roth Studio specialized in over-the-top renderings of bug-eyed, slavering monsters and hot rods. The So Cal-based studio was an early training ground for underground and poster artists of the late sixties: an anti-Disney for disaffected 'tweens and older big kids who'd all outgrown the cuddlier Mickey.

Part of the later generation of Roth artists — he first joined the studio in the 1980s — Johnny Ace clearly keyed into his mentor's style. Workshop is crammed with images of Rat Fink and his brother Surfink along with an Ace-created family member named "Kuk." Fink-ish posters, tee shirts, album covers, poly-clay and resin sculptures – they're all collected here alongside ghoul gal wife Kali's lettering and custom pinstriping. It's a veritable lowbrow feast, even if the Fink work grows a mite repetitious. There are only so many ways you can pose motorvating monsters, after all.

To my eyes, the most enjoyable fare in this hardbound beer bong table book is Ace's concert posters and album covers. Taking the name "Johnny Childish" and rendering his faux signature emulating EC comics great Johnny Craig, these images aren't as beholden to Fink figures and instead show the influences of Basil Wolverton, fifties horror comics as well as psychedelic pen and airbrush men like Rick Griffith and Robert Williams. As a horror cartoonist, Ace admits to being as beholden to EC's disreputable copycats (reprinted in the early seventies in a series of black-and-white comic mags) as he is the Crypt of Terror crowd. You can see this in the shapely vamps who populate his rock art, in particular. All the great psychotronic noisemakers (Cramps, Reverend Horton Heat, Butthole Surfers) and surf gods (Dick Dale, Ventures) are repped on the posters, though one suspects it's the first musical influences that primarily form the soundtrack for our kreative kouple's works.

Cheerfully disreputable, energetically grotesque, the Kustom Kulture art of Ace and Verra carries on in the tradition of all the hopped-up misfits who preceded them. And though the duo's punk rock energy comes across too strongly in "The Workshop of Filthy Creation" to make it pastiche or a flat nostalgic exercise, I've still gotta confess: just paging through this beautifully garish volume brought up the olfactory memory of the scent of Testor's PLA.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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