The third, and sadly final, squarebound Hotwire Comics anthology, makes no significant departures from the successful trashy formula editor Glenn Head employed for the first two offerings. Murders mix with lowbrow illustration, provocative humour with inexplicable events, the vulgar aesthetic perfectly distilled by Mats!, providing eight single pages following a repulsively sordid night out (sample spread left).

As seen from his own cover, Head likes his illustrations busy, and they don’t come busier than Steven Cerio’s extraordinary six pages of ‘The Magnificent Pigtail Shadow’, a cornucopia of strange creatures and discarded parts eventually providing the creature on the right of the sample spread. Elsewhere David Paleo works a theme of heads bursting forth from confusion or atrocity, while Mark Dean Veca reconstructs Popeye and his cast from muscle and bodily parts. All are intended to disturb and do.

Much of Hotwire’s previous comic content has rested more easily upon a metaphorical fence balancing humour and unsettling horror, but Tim Lane makes the leap into extremely uncomfortable territory with ‘Spike’. A period story about a fourteen year old boy running away and jumping trains is slathered in dark shadows by Lane, as the boy meets others in the carriage he’s jumped. Lane sustains a disturbing tension throughout a creepy masterpiece. Taking an entirely different tone, but equally creepy is Head’s strip about the perverse relationship between ventriloquist and puppet, although that’s very funny also.

An editorial preference is for completely individual vision. Head doesn’t mind a few rough edges in strips for which the creator’s mind is an essential ingredient. No-one else would have conceived the content of Max Andersson, Matti Hagelberg, or Mack White’s strips, and while it’s possible other creators might have experienced relatively similar concerns about buying a gun, none have Mary Fleener’s refined cubist approach to comics. She limits that, however, and her memoir is less interesting for it.

While still good, this is a slightly weaker collection than the previous two editions. It’s a quicker read for having more pages devoted to illustrations, and some contributions fall flat. At fourteen pages commemorating a much loved car, David Sandlin’s ‘Infernal Combustion’ overstays its welcome, and little is said in Onsmith’s ‘Dispossession by Tornado’. Also surprisingly flat is R. Sikoryak continuing his adaptation of literary classics. His imitation of Hank Ketchum’s Dennis the Menace is artistically perfect, but transmitting Hamlet via Dennis loses something not lost in earlier conflations. Rick Altergott also trades in imitation, his hero worship of Wally Wood’s art always impressive, and allied to an admirably perverse mind. He and Doug Allen and Karl Willis’ work scores higher than others here on the basis of allying their vulgarity to some thought, while Johnny Ryan’s crudity no longer shocks. It’s more surprising that he’s able to adapt his cartooning to imitate newspaper gag strip The Lockhorns.

Over three squarebound anthologies Hotwire Comics presents prime early 21st century underground cartooning and lowbrow illustration. Each contains some absolute delights, while the proportion of opposites is minimal. Anyone who loved Weirdo in the 1980s and 1990s should certainly seek out all three volumes.