Theo, the character at the center of Desert Decay, from Columbus artist Bryan Christopher Moss, is a pathetic, fearful man-child.
He’s emotionally stunted and violent, holed up in solitude and convinced the world around him is filled with monsters that want to feast on him, and that in turn need to be destroyed. At one point, he constructs an exoskeleton from bones of his kills, describing it as “great protection for this soft machine,” though it somehow just makes him look more broken, more contemptible.
Even Moss has no sympathy for his creation. “He’s a laughable character,” the artist said in a late-September interview at a Clintonville coffee shop.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t invest himself in getting this pathetic figure just right, sharing how he went through 10 different character designs before landing on the right look: haggard, leathery skin stretched over bone, a beard like untamed hay, and a tallow-like complexion that makes it appear as if his entire being has been bleached by the decades spent in the desert sun.
Though short, Desert Decay has a lot to unpack, and it’s possible to read any number of interpretations into the narrative. There are echoes of the right-wing media silos into which people sink, gradually becoming more paranoid and more conspiratorial. Or it could be a commentary on the lingering effects of COVID-era isolation, which have pushed society to a new fracturing point.
“Coming out of COVID, I started developing anxiety, and I’m not an anxious person,” said Moss, who traced these newly surfaced nerves to the “performative” aspects of art and the outside noise that can sometimes surround the act of creation. “And so, I started isolating myself and not giving myself to the world, because I wanted to subvert that idea of performance. … And that aspect of isolation, I’m able to express it through these other characters.”
Then there are other, comparatively surreal interpretations, including one offered by Moss in which Theo’s self-constructed exoskeleton serves as a womb, of sorts, from which he’s eventually reborn.
“And it’s funny, but the monsters could be sperm, and he’s fighting them off because he’s adverse to it, and he doesn’t want to be born,” said Moss, who will have copies of the comic available , where he’s tabling alongside . (The local scene is further represented at the annual comics celebration by the likes of , and , whose latest graphic novel, Time Under Tension, releases on Fantagraphics in late October.)
For Moss, his comics work is a chance for him to take a stray thought and bring it to reality with relative speed. This is how former pimp Don “Magic” Juan came to serve as Desert Decay’s narrator and critic, garish drawings of Juan emerging after Moss found himself struck by a series of interviews on “Soft White Underbelly,” which led him down an internet wormhole researching pimp culture. Another concept in the book – Outer Heaven – comes from the video game “Metal Gear Solid,” with the artist describing how he was drawn to the almost visual nature of the term, which he then gave his own twist on the page.
“When you read it, it’s quick, snappy, almost kind of playful, because the goal is to put out these ideas,” said Moss, who was further inspired by a trek to Japan, where he witnessed firsthand how manga comics are mass-produced, printed volumes practically spilling from the doors of shops. “That’s my approach now with comics, promoting this idea of getting your thoughts down. It doesn’t matter if it’s drawn well. It doesn’t matter if it’s manufactured properly. … I want to get people out of the mindset of branding, or the mindset of numbers, like, ‘Oh, you have to have this many [social media] followers,’ because that actually messes with people’s psychology and disrupts them as artists. And none of it matters.”
Moss said his approach to carving out a career in art has evolved in similar ways. While he still focuses on his own output, which takes the form of fine-art paintings, comics and even murals (that’s gracing the west-facing brick wall of a law firm at 1450 E. Main St.), in recent years he’s leaned even more heavily into mentoring youth, working as an art teacher for more than 30 students.
This idea has bled over into his larger perception of art making, which is less self-driven than perhaps it once was, and more informed by a sense of growing community.
“Working with artists like Steyven [Curry] and Raeghan [Buchanan], helping put them in a position and then seeing them documented and having their success, all that does is make the city stronger, make our group stronger,” he said. “Our tribe, we have a bunch of us, and it spreads like a virus. … The goal now is to take that concept and give more people positions and connections and then seeing what they can do with it, how they can thrive.”