2020 is the year that will exist in all of our memories as our lost year. The world shut down in that March and even now, almost two years later, it still hasn’t returned to normal. And it’s looking more and more like it never will. In that lost year, we hunkered down, cleaned everything, dusted off our Netflix accounts to watch Tiger King, and thought that we were on a short break from the world. Maybe it’s now the benefit of hindsight but we deluded ourselves into thinking we were on a short break and everything would be back to normal in a couple of weeks. More than that, we suffered, we lost, and we mourned. One way or another in 2020, we all saw some real shit and are living in the wake of it. And now here we are in 2022. Just like that it’s two years later and what’s really changed?
For the past two years, we’ve seen our art and entertainment trying to adapt and react to our times but no one has done it quite like Simon Hanselmann. Taking to Instagram, he started creating webcomics that followed the lives of Owl, Meg, Moog, Werewolf Jones, and the whole menagerie as they went through what we did basically in real-time. Starting with Covid-19, moving into the summer of protests and social unrest, and even into our collective fear that the year was never going to end, Hanselmann chronicled the disease-ridden treadmill that was 2020 that we were never going to get off of.
As they were stuck in lockdown like we were, a lot of cartoonists were doing their pandemic comics, the true-life autobiographies where we saw that our own attempts at breadmaking or trying to find toilet paper weren’t unique as they showed their own attempts at these too. At least most of theirs were well-drawn. But Hanselmann was doing something different with his comics. They weren’t autobiographical (and thank God for that;) they were still fictional with the cast of characters that he’s built up over the past 10 years.
On the surface of it, there’s almost no one working in modern comics that can turn vulgarity and depravity into the soul-wrenching poetry that Hanselmann can. In more ways than one, Crisis Zone is not for the faint of heart. Werewolf Jones seemingly has no moral barometer but that probably relies more on how you define “morality” than on Jones’ own particular life choices. As the world enters lockdown, Werewolf Jones and his kids Jaxon and Diesel invade the quiet home that Owl, Meg, and Moog hare, turning their mostly-stoned TV watching pandemic life upside down. And they’re not the only ones as Mike, his mother Mrs. Mike, and Booger all descend on the same living room where Meg just wants to get high and watch some TV. That living room provides a foundation for these stories; it’s a certain thing in an ever increasingly uncertain world.
Let’s just say that Werewolf Jones moves the production of his Youtube channel where he will stick anything up his but into that living room and just leave it at that. And that’s just where all of the pandemic shenanigans begin.
Werewolf Jones is simply reprehensible and he brings everyone down with him. From his (non-existent) parenting skulls to his (let’s say niche) YouTube channel and through to his inability to even take partial responsibility for anything that happens around him, he’s the agent of chaos among this group who seems resigned to letting him be the storm that tears down everything around him. But that chaos also means that he’s the agent of change for all of these characters. When his YouTube channel turns out to be the most profitable thing around, even spinning off into its own Netflix reality show that morphs into the comic that we’re reading, he becomes the financial support for this group. The Netflix show Anus King just continues to highlight the directionless nature of these characters but it also gets them to realize just how lost they are in the midst of everything happening to them and the world.
From the Anus King show to Diesel’s journey to being a trans girl (no one is sure if it’s real or just an attention-grabbing stunt but eventually they all settle into Desi’s identity) Jones is just the absolute worst. And the weird thing is that he’s completely oblivious to the damage and hurt he’s causing. To him, he’s just trying to make lemonade when life is giving him lemons. In almost every instance, he’s just trying to make the best out of a bad situation. His moral compass just isn’t calibrated the same as yours and mine. We laugh or cringe (or both) at his actions but he owns them as best as he can even if he can’t own the effects those actions have. Whether they’re for his pleasure or his preservation, his choices end up being selfish and hurtful. There’s this giant blindspot for Jones where he just can’t see how his decisions affect his children, his friends, or anyone around him.
Having a character like Jones at the center of this cast during a pandemic has him taking it over by sheer force of will. Once The Anus King takes off on Netflix and Jones and everyone else become reality TV stars, Jones is the one supporting everyone. Owl may be the responsible one but Werewolf Jones defines the momentum of the group during the pandemic. And if there’s anyone who should not be making decisions for other people, it’s Werewolf Jones.
Hanselmann paints his stories with vulgarities and perversities. These comics are not for everyone as the crossing of the lines of civil discussion gives way to a realness of these characters, a relatability of what they were going through because it’s what all of us were dealing with during 2020. To borrow a tagline from an old-school reality show, Crisis Zone shows “what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” In his book, Hanselmann has his characters dealing with trauma, discovering themselves, accepting others as they go through changes, going through breakups, and trying to figure out what life means in this world that we find ourselves in today.
It’s easy to get turned off by the crassness of Hanselmann’s storytelling but that ends up missing the soul of this comic. It’s got to be said that Hanselmann is wickedly funny. The degree that these are just awful people creates these uncomfortable but humorous situations. From Owl’s over-the-top feeling of responsibility to simply the awful parenting of Werewolf Jones, there’s a release in seeing these people who are just worst than us. It’s fun but it’s also a bit reassuring that maybe we’re not all that bad. At least, we don’t have the ghost of David Choe (who I’m fairly certain isn’t really dead) telling us that the best way out of all of this is just to poison everyone, including ourselves.
These despicable actions pile up page after page, a catalog of just how damaging we can be to our own humanity. But the thing is that there’s a self-awareness to most of the characters and even eventually to Werewolf Jones that kind of promises a better tomorrow like such a thing is possible. Even as we find ourselves living in a Groundhog Day’s world, living the same day over and over, Crisis Zone affirms that we’re not alone in this feeling. Hanselmann shows real growth and development for almost all of the characters. It may be major (Mike becoming Jennifer) or more incremental (Megg coming to realize that she has to take a bit better care of herself to be better) but by the end of the book, there’s a bit of healing happening that Hanselmann wants us all to accept as a possibility.
Created in almost real-time on Instagram, Crisis Zone is a painful but promising artifact of now. It’s from 2020 but we’re about to enter the third year of this pandemic. We’re beyond the terrible twos and heading into another year of masks, of social distancing, of trying just to figure out how to deal with people, friends, and acquaintances who we may not see eye-to-eye with. We should be beyond this stuff and be back to normal and yet the world still sucks, we’re all sick one way or another, and we’re losing touch. But through these comic characters, Hanselmann shows us that there are ways to move forward and to maybe even be a bit better tomorrow than we are today. It’s hard and it takes work but it is possible.