J.T. Yost has established himself as a distinct voice in independent comics, self-publishing well-crafted fiction, personal narratives and dream diaries. That his Birdcage Bottom Press previously produced modest pamphlets makes his latest publication, "Digestate," a surprise. Why a hefty, nearly 300-page anthology? And why would as vague a subject as "food and eating" inspire this epic endeavor?
The answer is that despite no warning from the title or cover art, "Digestate" has an agenda. As army manuals, religious tracts and airline safety cards have demonstrated, comics can be an effective tool for teaching and propaganda, and this book is a multi-voiced exploration of the politics, philosophy and practice of vegetarianism. Though not every contributor got the memo (one of the most compelling stories is Alex Robinson's non-meat-centric eating disorder confession), the majority try their hardest to convince and convert.
The centerpiece of the anthology is Yost's own "Slaughterhouse Stories." At 25 pages, he could have published it as an individual comic, but I suspect he realized that it was so disturbing and difficult to read that it was prudent to buffer it between 50 other artists' work. Even though that army of inkslingers includes revered creators such as Jeffrey Brown, Danny Hellman and Renée French, Yost's piece, lushly illustrating interviews with disgruntled hog butchers, is by far the most beautiful and ugly one in the collection. Although the content is horrifying and the vivid, detailed descriptions of inhumane hog slaughter are gruesome,Yost deftly avoids the kind of gore imagery that could reduce this to horror cliches. Instead, his seductive, quiet designs make the real-life horror viscerally tangible, as the full-page illustrations of pigs drowning in blood, being euthanized with lead pipes and attacking workers, are horribly lovely in ways that make this propaganda painfully effective.
All of which necessitates the comic relief of absurdists like Sam Henderson ("I'm a zeegan … I only eat things that begin with the letter z!"). But all the humor in the world can't make you un-see Yost's visuals — and won't make eating another ham sandwich any easier.
Jake Austen is editor of Roctober magazine and co-author of "Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop." He lives in Chicago.
By J.T. Yost, et al, Birdcage Bottom Books, 288 pages, $19.95