Against Pain is a large (240ish pages) hardcover book collecting twenty years of short comic strips by Ron Regé, Jr. first printed in a huge variety of publications including McSweeney’s, Kramers Ergot, NON, Rosetta, Arthur, The Comics Journal, Duplex Planet, Coober Skeber and newspapers including The New York Times, L.A.Weekly, The East Bay Express, The Village Voice and the S. F. Bay Guardian.

The title of this collection is taken from a sequence of ten one-page strips – ‘Considering The Nature and Purpose of Mental Pain and Anguish’, ‘Considering Physical Pain’, ‘The Ambiguous Delivery of the Sensation of Pain’ and others. They start with an autobiographical retelling of an incident that stretches Regé, Jr’s abilities to their limit physically and emotionally. They go on to explore what happens inside the body when we are hurt, how the sensations of pain manifest themselves and what (if anything) is the purpose of suffering.

Wide-eyed and slightly trippy philosophical exploration is a core theme running through this work, which gives a distinctive, individual slant to stories about how people relate to each other and the world around them. Among the longer pieces here are ‘Cruddy, chapter 8’ adapting a short extract from a Lynda Barry novel seamlessly into a typical Regé, Jr scenario: two teenage girls hiding out in the woods have an elliptical slangy dialogue with a stranger and get high with him. ‘Boys’ is an alt-comics classic, a twenty-two page collaboration featuring explicit investigation of incidents from the sex-life of Joan Reidy, the behaviour of the boys she encounters and how she deals with them. Each page is a single story, and the drawings are beautifully timed to create funny, poignant and elegantly expressive little dramas. ‘High School Analogy’ is an interpretation of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s Spider-Man created for the Marvel tribute book Coober Skeber. Regé, Jr drops all the subtext to compress several plots into one typical adventure for Peter Parker who seethes with frustration at school; “GOD, some of these girls are so amazing, but they don’t even notice me. I’m fucking SPIDER-MAN, baby! I’m more man than you’re EVER going to find in these tennis-playing TWERPS!” He goes out on patrol, monologuing “It’s cold out here. My arms are tired. I’m so lonely,” while he defeats The Vulture, and gets into a fight with Johnny Storm, aka the Human Torch: “Guys like him always win, and dictate how the rest of us have to live. I hate him and everything he represents!” Undercutting the superhero action with his lightly cartooned designs makes for an elegantly pure riff on Spidey that really works, and this memorable experiment garnered a lot of praise when first published.

Against Pain is beautifully produced, presenting colour and black and white strips in a variety of styles and modes bringing together Regé, Jr’s widely dispersed output in one place. Later collections of his work such as The Cartoon Utopia move into more esoteric areas, so for new readers this Ignatz award-winning book is the one to start with.