It should surprise no one when an artist tries to capture lightening in a bottle. NYC artist George Cochrane sure can’t help himself. The Buddha once taught that the mind is as restless as a monkey. “Who you are,” said the great sage, “and what you think of as your ‘self’ is constantly changing—like a river, endlessly flowing, one thing today, another tomorrow.”

I spent some time recently at Cochrane’s studio, in the warehouse district of Long Island City, Queens, which exemplified this whole notion of morphology. First off, I was surrounded by dusty record albums, an abundance of jazz literature, CD-Rs of every single Bob Dylan show ever performed (not kidding), paintings and drawings of Cochrane’s own work, tubes of color, brushes, easels, canvases, and heaps of discarded strips of paper all over.

The New England-raised Cochrane is nothing if not obsessive. His latest series began in April 2008 and remains a departure for an artist who studied painting in college. Cochrane creates comic books, something he has dedicated himself to with typical infatuation, and does so by overseeing every aspect of their production. It may not sound like a huge thing, but comics are a medium that traditionally require large amounts of collaboration—not all of it welcomed by the artist. As such, Cochrane’s books don’t have the usual retinue of editors, inkers, colorists, marketing men, and publishers pushing brutal deadlines.

So far he’s done just four issues of Long Time Gone, the series he inaugurated in 2008 with a combination museum show and publishing date. What the artist has done with the genre represents something of a break with both tradition and with the current wave of indie/alternative comics.Both breaks are subtle.

Before Cochrane jumped into the project, he did his homework. Two huge bookselves are lined with solid volumes of collected illustrations from the genre’s masters of the 20th Century. Cochrane claims that he poured the bulk of his income from previous gallery exhibitions into collecting and self-educating himself on comic history. As such, he has landed upon a frame for his work.

Long Time Gone follows a loose schema based somewhat on Homer’s The Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Cochrane hopes to get to 24 issues, which will mirror Homer’s 24 chapters in The Odyssey. (He’ll run out on Joyce content by chapter 18.)

At his studio, Cochrane showed me a notebook of complex storyboarding he’s devised using transparency paper to overlap the literary motifs so that they merge with his own personal story in New York City chapter-by-chapter, year-by-year. To that degree, many of the links with Homer and Joyce fall away more with each page, though Cochrane tries honorably to maintain the ties that bind. What emerges is the artist’s attempt to make sense of these and other strands running through his head.

A hallucinatory rendering of George Cochrane's Long Island City studio.

A hallucinatory rendering of George Cochrane’s Long Island City studio.

His comic panels are often punctuated by Bob Dylan lyrics, references to other literature, including but not limited to Cervantes, Dante, and Salinger, not to mention a rhythmic pace that draws on the improvisations of jazzman Charlie Parker. Book 1 starts off at the end of Parker’s “Bird Gets the Worm,” beginning with the final bars of the saxophonist’s seminal work. But any straight narrative thread is quickly lost on the reader, the pages blurred by a sense of psychobabble as Cochrane tries to gain his mental balance at 4:44am.

We join him in awakening to a world where his five-year-old daughter, Fiamma, needs readying for school. NPR flows from the clock radio, coffee brews and Cochrane’s mind bustles with the myriad duties his day entails. It is a mass of uncontained energy that badly needs a frame.

Herein, the simple task of making a sandwich for Fiamma becomes an effort in untagling mental madness. Cochrane’s “hero” can’t remember whether to put peanut butter or bologna on the bread. It’s the same as yesterday, yet he dizzyingly struggles to recall exactly where he is. By the time father and daughter are out the door, the hero is reduced to a few blurry scribbles, like a nude descending a staircase.

The first steps into the rainy outside world become skeins of chaos, a search for order in life and order in the comic book format, but none is found. Getting into his car and driving through the rain—a barrage of song lyrics, heavy traffic and thick fog—the manic, uncaffeinated Cochrane’s trek from Brooklyn into Manhattan seems downright dangerous, even as the artist struggles to transform the entire affair into an angst-ridden poem.

Book 1 ends abruptly with the car stopped in a vacant side-street where nighttime lifts, the rain stops and sunlight beams in through the windshield, the verbal noise ceasing for a brief respite. I was, truthfully, worn out at this point just trying to keep up. But perhaps that is the point.

Each issue of Long Time Gone comes with an interpretive index at the back, Cochrane’s attempt to render some context to the interweaving of images overwhelmingly paired to Bob Dylan lyrics such as: “When your days are numbered and your nights are long, you might think you’re weak, but I mean to say your strong.” In this context, a song like “Sign on the Cross” from Dylan’s Basement Tapes becomes more than background. It’s a redemption song. But whose?

Apologies if I couldn’t help but think of another lyric that might help Cochrane work through all this: “Lighten up while you still can/Don’t even try to understand.”

By Book 2, it’s clear Cochrane has no intention of slowing down his busy mind. These are not so much meditations as psychological purgings. The artist tries again and again to make sense of both the past and the future ahead, much at the expense of the present. Indeed, the present often falls to the background, where Cochrane’s studio space becomes a blur of foggy colors and hazy line work, overlapped by story bubbles and circles of information flooding around his mind as if to suggest that he’s anywhere but present in the room.

Cochrane’s daughter Fiamma contributes crayon drawings to the storylines of each issue, which, at this point, starts to feel quaint. The world Cochrane inhabits—that of the well-funded, middle class aesthete—is an interesting one to deconstruct. I’m just not sure Cochrane, in his attempt at a kind of Joycean subconscious, actually gets there.

Letting his daughter draw a few panels could be the Cochrane’s attempt to pay attention to young Fiamma’s world, but his own metaphysical quest continues to shut her out. She’s cries from the sidelines; Cochrane can only give it so much attention. He’s busy quoting literary greats.

By the end of Book 2, the human figure nearly disappears, as does the city iself, Cochrane filling the delineated frame with blocks of messy monochromatism. There’s an easel, but no one there to paint at it. There’s Fiamma’s drawings of a kitten, a push-scooter, and a broken heart, but more than anything there is the faint memory of structure. Not even Cochrane’s beloved song lyrics can punctuate the heavy fog of his mind. This part works brilliantly.

Cochrane's studio is a recurring theme, where the artist departs on a series of adventures.

Cochrane’s studio is a recurring theme, where the artist departs on a series of adventures.

Book 3 (entitled In the Mist) begins back at the easel and Cochrane’s character stands at it painting his world. But, at this point, the comic book itself doesn’t even include page numbers at the bottom and the dialogue bubbles of the medium’s tradition have been eschewed in favor of brief statements stacked one on top of the other.

Nothing coheres, even Cochrane’s own attempt to make sense of a youth spent chasing the muse of his artistic talent and familial history. It ends again in silence: four pages of dabbed, layered greens that draw on ’60s minimalism, but feel hallucinogenic, like awakening on the inside of a bad trip. Cochrane’s easel on the final page is a shadow, his own image reduced to a loose ink scrawl inside the shadow.

Book 4 is the most fully-realized issue to date. Titled Calypso Tap Number, it suggests a quest for escapism, for the placcidness of Caribbean rhythm and a general levity of spirit. Cochrane is renewed. The storm has departed. (The title also refers to chapter 4 of Ulysses.)

Here Cochrane’s command of the comic book medium takes another leap forward; the flow has been streamlined, as though he’s gained a modicum of ease within its stylistic parameters. It threatens to make sense of this whole project. Why would a classically-trained painter turn to comic books? Some answers are finally forthcoming.

The human body that incinerated completely in Book 2 reappears fully-realized on the first page of Book 4. Cochrane’s command of the self-portrait is adept. His thin body, his clothes, his appendiges, the shifting weight of his frame and the billowy nature of his clothes suggest a new bounce in Cochrane’s step. But the question lingers: How long can this hold?

Cochrane has now moved the scene of his work from Brooklyn to Queens, where on the roof of a Long Island City studio he attempts once more to capture the fleeting mood of the city as it passes his retina. Alas, the mind is still filled with debris.

Though the series comprises 24 hours, one hour for each issue, the comic books take Cochrane months, even years, to complete. He plays with this sense of space and time by giving the reader not 24 consecutive hours, but 24 random hours which must somehow cohere into a “day.” They are, instead, the snapshot of a life.

Halfway through Book 4 and rather unexpectedly, Cochrane cuts to the impassioned days of 1943 and the misty haze of S.S.-controlled Austria and Germany. In a strip titled “Verboten Liebe” (Forbidden Love)—based in the style of Bernie Krigstein and Harvey Kurtzman’s E.C. war comics—Cochrane’s landlord “Ted” (nee Mr. Ricki) attempts to understand his place amidst a world fast descending into chaos. Ted is a member of Hitler’s society and is in love with a young girl named Paula.

The romantic dyad are endearingly blind to the dark clouds that hang over their existence—the misty haze of Cochrane’s period style thickened by a visual/historical tragedy. There is no Bob Dylan here. It feels more like something out of Wagner (said with Woody Allen inflection).

The narrative is not quite Berlin Alexanderplatz; Cochrane’s way with dialogue is still too weak to build the needed tension of Alfred Doblin’s masterwork. Yet the imagery more than makes up for it by bristling with foliated impressionism, unraveling the mini-saga visually in the final panel, where we find that Ted, converted from his Nazi indoctrination, boards a U.S. plane to leave behind the only world he’s ever known. It is a redemption story that allows ample space for ambiguity.

The black and white drawings blend brilliantly by virtue of Cochrane’s loose brushwork, suggesting a range of emotion unconstrained by the polarizing weight of hardline politics. What we are left with instead is the knowledge that Cochrane’s world, in this moment in time, in Long Island City, is part of a slow march to adaptation. Without this page, cut from history, Mr. Ricki cannot be here today to rent George Cochrane the very studio he used to paint the art we now hold in our hands.

As Book 4 closes, our hero, like Joyce’s Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, finds himself taking a crap on the toilet—a last refuge of contemporary solitude, where the outside world’s next set of pressures and anxieties are kept safely at bay. From this vulgar nook we get to consider that nothing is more miraculous than our very existence. (Brian Chidester)

"In a Mist," flash page.

“In a Mist,” flash page.

All photographs by Stefania Zamparelli (c) 2015.