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UI alum’s forthcoming graphic novel tackles social issues with watercolors that are as gentle as they are powerful


See nAMUH at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art through Jan. 17, 2016.
Check out Ryan Bentzinger’s nAMUH exhibition at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art through Jan. 17, 2016.

The origin story for Ryan Bentzinger’s nAMUH could be summed up this way: right place, right time.

As a University of Iowa student studying studio art in 2009, he was in the right place when UI professor Chungi Choo suddenly appeared one day and announced she needed an assistant.

Choo, in addition to keeping him busy, would critique his art, and in 2012, when she knew Sean Ulmer of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art was coming to the university, she encouraged Bentzinger to show his best work.

That work included watercolors featuring monsters and robots. Ulmer was impressed.

“Sean liked how I handled the watercolor medium,” the 26-year-old artist said, “and I was just pumped that someone liked these crazy monsters and robots and took it seriously.”

At the time, those monsters and robots were in their formative stages. “It was bare bones at the time…I had just finished [a couple] of characters that week,” Bentzinger remembers.

According to Bentzinger, Ulmer wanted to know if he was making a book. He thought the work might be interesting to display at the museum. The artist remembers giving the impression that he was, indeed, working on a book. He remembers thinking, “I’m totally making a book. I don’t know how to make a book, but I’m 23 and if you’re going to offer me a museum show…”

Bentzinger's exhibition at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art exhibition unfolds across two galleries.
Bentzinger’s exhibition at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art exhibition unfolds across two galleries.

Jump forward to 2015, and the watercolors that make up the first chapter of Bentzinger’s book are, in fact, on display at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, timed (in another moment of right place, right time congruity) to complement a science fiction exhibition the museum has been hosting. In addition to the art on the walls, a video display cycles through the other four chapters that make up the first book of what Bentzinger says will be a five-book series.

“You can’t tell an epic tale in five chapters,” he said.

And nAMUH is a certainly an epic tale. Bentzinger imagines a post-human world (note that the book’s title is “human” spelled backward) in which robots and monsters live separate lives on an environmentally altered world. Smog had become so thick that cities can be built on it. On the surface, islands with names like “kretivitee,” “criime,” “salvaj,” and “povertee” are home to a variety of creatures in desperate straits.

The naming conventions give the book the feel of an old fashioned allegory, and Bentzinger admits he has some points to make, saying the book is sometimes a “way of venting about how we blow out the ozone layer, or eat garbage and call it food, or about the unequal distribution of wealth.” He shies away from calling himself an activist, but he is mindful that for his “12-year-old self, all my role models were fictional characters,” and suggests nAMUH might be “a way to give a message without slapping you in the face with it.”

The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art exhibition is deeply engaging, with Bentzinger’s story unfolding across two galleries, the title cards providing description and dialogue as the plot unfurls across images of various sizes. Each character’s dialogue is rendered in a different color, and various supplemental materials featuring Bentzinger’s notes add context. These materials include details about the characters that have the feel of “Dungeons and Dragons” character descriptions, and work-in-progress style considerations of how the world has ended up in its impoverished state.

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Each painting has a rough and tumble, almost unfinished feel, appropriate for the story Bentzinger is spinning. As one moves through the exhibit, one notices that the images were not always painted in the order in which they appear. Developments in Bentzinger’s style are highlighted by these jumps forward and backward in time. Nevertheless, the first chapter unfolds with drama and humor, convincingly laying the groundwork for a tale of adventure.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a comics artist at all,” Bentzinger says, but nAMUH is undeniably a graphic novel—a graphic novel the artist is in the process of self-publishing. He’s collecting pre-orders now via the museum’s gift shop and at his web site, ryanbentzinger.com, and his hope is to have books printed before the exhibition closes on Jan. 17. That would be in keeping with the right place, right time momentum that has driven the creative process so far.

Meanwhile, he has the next four volumes of his story outlined and a plan for completion. A larger studio space and more familiarity with the medium in which he’s working will speed the process. And he’ll be building on his current momentum. “I’ve developed the characters, I know the story, I have my rhythm now,” he said.

This is all to the good, because people who enter his fictional world are going to be eager to explore it fully. And while the book is sure to be appealing, the exhibition is a spectacular way to slip into Bentzinger’s imaginative space. Be in the right place at the right time—catch it before it closes.

Rob Cline seeks out the good and bad across the comics landscape as the Colorblind Comics Critic. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 188.


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