Book Review: Salome’s Last Dance by Daria Tessler

Portland artist Daria Tessler’s second comic book published by Fantagraphics is a short, strange trip that finds influences from such diverse people as R. Crumb, Cole Porter, and Carl Jung. It is a psychedelic trip through the subconscious filled with wild visuals, sly humor, and is filled with pages that would actually make for a really great coloring book.

I’m not sure it makes a lot of narrative sense, but I’ll try to give a rough outline of the story, such as it is. A magician named Mangus has lost his lust for life despite his magnificent dancing dog act getting rave reviews at the cocktail bar where they perform. He visits Dr. Silkini, a psychiatrist, who promises to frisk his noodle and turn it inside out, shaking all of his problems away. Silkini and his dimwitted sidekick Smudge have secretly seen Mangus’ act and are desperate to know the secrets of the magician’s dancing dog.

They all drink some psychedelic tea and the not-so-good doctor explores the inside of Mangus’ mind (this is literally depicted by having Silkini crack open Mangus’ skull and dig into his brain with a pick axe). What follows is a wild, sometimes hilarious, often very weird journey through Mangus’ subconscious, or perhaps Daria Tessler’s imagination.

A few of the things they encounter there: a band made out of bones, a comforting fish bag (as in a bag with a literal fish inside of it), and a group of dogs who talk like 1940s movie gangsters playing poker. My favorite bit has Silkini finding a banana with a zipper on its peel. He unzips it, throws the banana out, vomits into the peel, and zips it back up. He then finds himself face to face with a giant banana with a face, arms, and legs who is none too pleased with his exploits.

As I said, it is a very weird book.

The art is in black and white and the drawings remind me a bit of R. Crumb, the characters have that same almost amateur-looking absurdist quality. But there’s also a mixed-media collage quality to it. There are lots of posters and signs and what looks like scraps of paper cut and pasted from…somewhere. That gives it a real textile quality.

It is a short book with fairly minimal amounts of writing and so I breezed through it pretty quickly the first time without really understanding what the story was. Honestly, I had to look up a few reviews to get a feel for the story. But then I read it again and lingered on the art. It is incredibly imaginative and there are lots of little visual gags hidden around the edges that make it a real pleasure to read again, and again.

Salome’s Last Dance is likely not for everyone. But if you dig 1960s-era psychedelic art and absurdist storylines and humor, there is a lot to love.

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Mat Brewster

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