Thursday, June 8, 2023

The Exception That Proves The Rule: Julia Wertz's Impossible People

There's a scene late in Impossible People, Julia Wertz's recovery memoir, where she meets New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. Chast reveals that she's a big fan of Wertz, because "it's not from the cartooning world. You don't follow any rules, which makes it unique and fun!" Wertz starts to follow this up about not really even knowing the rules before she's loudly interrupted by Chast's bird saying "Who cares?" This is pretty much Wertz in a nutshell. She does a lot of things as a cartoonist that I would hate from virtually anyone else, but her ability to draw you into her particular kind of storytelling is so all-consuming that I simply don't care as much. 

Impossible People is somehow both way too long and not long enough. It covers way too much ground sometimes, and the deleted scenes that Wertz has posted on her Instagram would have added the kind of rich detail found in her best book, The Infinite Wait And Other Stories. At the same time, Impossible People meanders, loses its way, picks up loose threads again, and is held together not by the fact that it's a recovery story, but rather that it gets at what is referred to as the "root" in recovery terms. Wertz bites off a lot more than she can chew in terms of the cartooning and character design, but her sheer determination and ambition to finally tell this big story somehow makes all of that less important. There are a lot of ways to think about the book, but let's start with the obvious. 

Wertz has a profound understanding that memoir is a genre like any other genre, one where the artist can manipulate any element they want to produce the story they want. "Truth" is irrelevant so long as a good story is told, yet "truth" has always proven to be an important marketing element for memoir. If something is true, it creates a voyeuristic thrill absent from fiction, and in many cases creates a window of misery porn for readers. Wertz absolutely rejects all of this, to her credit. The subtitle of the book is "A Completely Average Recovery Story," in part because every recovery narrative, no matter where rock bottom happens to be, tends to fall along certain patterns. The key to starting recovery that actually works is coming to terms with negative emotions and all the ways in which we seek to conceal them, usually by lying. Being honest is the first and hardest thing one must do in recovery, and it has to continue throughout--especially in not lying to yourself. 

Wertz uses a lot of recovery language in Impossible People and gives us glimpses of meetings, sponsorships, and accountability partners. A key character is her brother, a recovering drug addict who provides a lot of hard advice and compassion. The thing that makes Wertz a great writer--her ability to spin anything into comedy--is precisely the thing that made recovery difficult. By minimizing her own pain and attempting to laugh it off, she delayed getting to a lot of her root issues of exactly why she started drinking. Notably, Wertz doesn't go into much detail as to these events, but the truth is that it doesn't matter much what they were, so long as you're able to talk about them out loud to a therapist, sponsor, or peers. The Blue Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is mostly filled with recovery narratives. Recovery is a kind of belief system, beginning with giving yourself over to the infamous Higher Power, and so recovery narratives are really conversion narratives. 

One very smart thing that Wertz does in the book is explore the problematic aspects of recovery, beginning with the higher power, the religiosity of AA, the misogyny inherent in its origins and execution, and much more. She doesn't linger on it, as this book isn't a critique of AA in particular, but what her brother points out and what she learns is the most profound lesson of recovery: isolation is death. 

This is the heart of the book. Wertz has always painted herself as a misanthropic curmudgeon for comedic purposes, but the reality is that she's simply a shy but socially curious and empathetic person. However, worrying that your problems aren't "big" enough, feeling unworthy of love, friendship, success, etc, feeling like a burden to others and other ways we trick ourselves into isolating. For addicts, what happens is either lapsing into addiction, or worse, trying to white-knuckle sobriety. I would argue that this is uniquely exacerbated by the rugged individualist ethos of American culture. Seeking help is weakness. Buck up and stop complaining. No one wants to hear your problems. If you don't do it yourself, it's not of value. All of this is illusory, of course, whether or not people want to admit it or not. For an addict, it takes a lot of work to purge this social pressure, but the reality is that at a genetic level, humans are social animals. They need each other. They want to communicate with each other and always have--dating before even language. Our trauma is what tricks us into isolating ourselves and making ultimately ineffective choices for our coping mechanisms. Our culture encourages us to do this. Trauma isn't a contest as to who's had it worse; rather, it should be understood as something we all experience and need to reach out to others to cope with. 

As a result, Wertz presents an array of characters who are fully fleshed out in a way that she's never done in any other book. Sure, her friends and family have had supporting roles, but not to this extent and not to this degree of openness. Cartoonist friend Sarah Glidden and recovery friend Jennifer are prominently featured, with the latter particularly grounding Wertz and calling her on her shit. There's a boyfriend (Jeff) that Wertz becomes devoted to (to the detriment of her recovery), only to have him tell her he's cheating on her as he breaks up with her. The one problem with all of this is that Wertz's character design (beyond her own iconic avatar) has always felt perfunctory at best. Furthermore, Wertz's work has always had a static quality where body language, the relationships between bodies in space, gesture, and other key elements of cartooning have felt limited. It didn't matter as much when Wertz was just going for jokes, but it made things more awkward for the deeper, more interpersonal discussions that made up so much of Impossible People. The problem is that Wertz didn't seem to be able to create avatars as interesting or evocative as her own for anyone else, giving them mostly a vaguely generic cartoony naturalism that wound up not being enough of either. As drawings qua drawings, they were sometimes distracting. 

Fortunately, Wertz is well-suited to draw the other co-star of the book: the buildings of New York City. Her level of detail, care, and precision in rendering buildings stands in contrast to drawing people, but it nonetheless added so much flavor to the book. The other fortunate thing is that Wertz's talent as a writer is so prodigious that the cartooning issues melted away not just with her always-winning one-liners, but also her deeper, more interpersonal relationships. Her frank talks with her brother, her heart-to-hearts with her best friend Jen, her hard-won wisdom from her sponsor, and even the flirty banter she has are all totally absorbing and have such a strong rhythm that it holds the very loose plot together. It's less of a plot than episodic storytelling, albeit with a strong thematic throughline. That throughline and lesson of recovery is what gives Impossible People its very warm heart. The sarcastic Wertz is really someone who is quite sincere in how much she loves so many people in her life, and the lesson of the book, as it is for all of those in recovery, is learning how to practice gratitude for the loved ones in our lives. One may not feel like you deserve it, but practicing gratitude, reaching out, and being there for others just as they are there for you is the essence of all community and the key ingredient to fostering mental health. Julia Wertz explores the lessons of recovery and emphasizes that sobriety on its own is irrelevant with community, all while never deviating from everything that made her funny in the first place. 

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Time for more Van Scivering!

As a teacher and editor, Noah Van Sciver is one of my favorite examples to bring up of a cartoonist who had to work hard to find his voice, hone his craft, and relentlessly face rejections until his talent simply became too undeniable. He simply set his mind to being a cartoonist and never stopped, studying countless other artists in order to help develop his own style. As a result, Van Sciver has now entered a groove in his career that sees him releasing monster tomes like his Joseph Smith And The Mormons while still working on multiple side projects and collections. 

Van Sciver's always had a restless curiosity to his work, never settling on any one style of storytelling. He's worked on a number of illustration jobs, he's written biographies, he's done slice-of-life fiction, he's done plenty of gag work, and also a great deal of autobiographical work that often dips into metafiction. Cartooning about cartooning can easily become dull and played-out, but Van Sciver constantly finds new ways to examine the art and profession of cartooning from fresh angles. In fact, his 2022 collection from Fantagraphics, As A Cartoonist, is all about Van Sciver dipping into his weird childhood and revisiting it here as a cartoonist who is constantly examining his own status as a creative professional. 

Van Sciver has become a master at creating a rhythm in his anthology work, and there's a sense in which this book is kind of an extended version of his anthology series Blammo! Indeed, it collects a few stories from the comic that fit snugly in here, as well as stories from the Fantagraphics anthology NOW and other stuff. There's also a great deal of previously unpublished work that forms a through-line for the other stories. This book is about cartooning, cartoonists, and what led Van Sciver down this path. It opens with several portraits of cartoonists like Jackie Ormes and Bill Mauldin and ends with Van Sciver delineating a number of comics and cartoonists that meant a lot to him (along with small doodles of those books). However, Van Sciver is a master of transitioning between sincere expressions of appreciation and setting up gags, as his "19th Century Cartoonist" character follows that initial lineup of cartoonists as he once again reveals his own general awfulness. This character is Van Sciver taking the piss out of the frequent overpraising of older cartoonists like this who were pretty much just hacks, but it's also of course a cautionary tale for himself and how he sees himself as a cartoonist now and how others will see his work in the future. 

The through-line for the book is "Mellow Mutt," a dinosaur toy that young Van Sciver is given that becomes a sort of personal totem. Van Sciver's strips about living in a ramshackle house in New Jersey made up his memoir One Dirty Tree, and they are the backbone of his new series with Uncivilized, Maple Terrace. Van Sciver has really struck gold with these depictions of life with a checked-out dad and multiple siblings who are all too happy to let him know his place in the pecking order as the second-youngest kid. They are funny and terrible all at once, and while young Noah is certainly put-upon, he's also presented as kind of a self-tormenting asshole as well. The "Mellow Mutt" stories in As A Cartoonist offer a brief window into Van Sciver's young life, as most of the book's stories focus more on his career as a cartoonist as an adult. 

For example, "White River Junction" is a perfect example of a modern-day Noah unable to relate to virtually anyone, in part because he's not sure what he believes in. He inadvertently manages to offend a number of students at the Center for Cartoon Studies when he tells them he used to be a Mormon, and Van Sciver really plays the awkwardness of those scenes for laughs in an exquisite manner. He's an accidental tormenter (which is rare for Van Sciver in a strip), but also the tormented. The way the strip resolves in nature is the beginning of a growing sense of peace for his character that slowly develops as the book proceeds. 

Van Sciver bookends a single-page strip titled "Fante Bukowski" (his poet character who is sort of like an obnoxious alter ego of his) where he asks Jules Feiffer for advice at a signing with "Comics Festival 2016," a highly self-conscious homage to Woody Allen's film Stardust Memories. Van Sciver is a successful cartoonist going to a show in Europe, but he has celebrity-level fame and is constantly being asked for sketches and favors. A callback to an earlier strip finds aliens saying they prefer his "earlier, funnier" comics and the story ends with a gag about not being able to provide good endings for his stories. There's something else at work here, though: an appearance from his father. In a later strip where Noah visits him, it's revealed that his dad abandoned the family at a time when Noah was in desperate need of guidance as a child. While much of As A Cartoonist is about Van Sciver coming to terms with cartooning as a profession, it's also about finding ways to grow up and come to terms with his past. 

One can see that in strips about moving to Columbus and his initial loneliness, and later strips about meeting his wife Amy and the birth of their son Remy. The story "Jonah" is also about finding ways to accept his siblings (especially his buffoonish and outlandish younger brother) as they are, warts and all. The climax of this story is at an art opening featuring Van Sciver's work, and his brother (not invited to the event) makes a ridiculous spectacle of himself, hitting on random women. What's funny is how Van Sciver lampoons himself and his own pretensions, as the story imagines him talking to art world wheeler-dealers and a writer from the New York Times. "Saint Cole" is a much more down-to-earth account of a foreign tour, where a stop in Paris yields just one fan at a signing but also the realization that cartooning has taken him to a lot of places. For Van Sciver, the disease of more gave way to an understanding of what he had made for himself and his family, as well as the grace to not only forgive his father but to make his stories part of his source material. 

This was also the period of time when Van Sciver went from good to great in terms of his cartooning and draftsmanship. The White River Junction story is so effective when he calls out for good in the forest because he had moved beyond his limitations as a draftsman and put in the work to give his work a decorative sense of beauty it had never before possessed. That's especially true of his nuanced and restrained use of color; even on the brightest pages, there's a naturalism at work that never overwhelms his linework. However, at heart, Van Sciver has always been and will always be a gag man, and his cartooning reflects a style that mixes the ridiculous and the sublime. Van Sciver's mustache is practically a character of its own, adding an arsenal's worth of expression to the face of his self-caricature. Van Sciver namechecks David Collier as an influence, and you can see it in the increasingly-gentle way he's gone about describing his world. Van Sciver, like Collier, is an observer, but he has drifted away from his put-upon schlub persona that so many cartoonists influenced by Robert Crumb seem to adopt. That keen eye, combined with his wit, has allowed Van Sciver to make a deeper dive into older ideas with renewed gusto.

That takes us to Maple Terrace #1, published by Uncivilized Books. Uncivilized is one of the few publishers releasing well-designed comics in something akin to the mini-comics format. They've already done a few series like this, with comics by the likes of Gabrielle Bell, Craig Thompson, and Tom Kaczynski himself. Van Sciver's Maple Terrace is in this vein, giving Van Sciver another low-pressure format akin to Blammo!, but with a much tighter focus. Each issue will have a single story dating back to Van Sciver's childhood at around age eight. (I wouldn't mind seeing him revisit his skater boi persona as a teen featured in My Hot Date, however.) There's a funny throughline in this comic: virtually every male character depicted reads comics. This being the early 90s and the rise of the speculator's market surrounding early Image comics, there was a mix of people reading because comics were a wise investment opportunity and people reading these dumb, quasi-literate masterpieces done by the likes of Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee because of the cool factor. The "value" of the comics, as well as Van Sciver wanting to read something scary in Spawn, provides the key to the plot. 

Mostly, this comic is about Noah trying to negotiate life with his family, being regarded as worthless by the parents of his friends, and the terror of his father and older brother Ethan. There's one amazing scene that I hope is based entirely on real life when Noah's father tells him, "Todd McFarlane is for boys, son. Barry Windsor-Smith is for men." Pious young Noah wants to avoid the wrath of his older brother when he accidentally rips the cover of his Spawn comic, and things happen to work out for the best when a bully gets his just desserts and Noah benefits. The essence of the comic is that creeping sense that children have when they sort of have to accept their surroundings and get used to, for example, sleeping on the floor like Noah does because there aren't enough beds to go around. 

However, they also get the sense that while this is what they're used to, it's not normal, like when the kids see the moldy, leaking roof and cockroaches run across Noah's face every night. It's a sort of recurring form of PTSD that has to be ignored for the sake of survival. In Van Sciver's case, he's reworking it into a kind of cringe-inducing gag strip, where his bushy head of hair and spindly limbs are all part of the visual humor of the series. The bigfoot humor and slice-of-life looks at poverty is somewhere between Don Martin and Dave Berg on the MAD scale, and Van Sciver makes it work. Above all else, this is a funny comic, even if it's frequently heartbreaking. Van Sciver spent a lot of time as an artist making his drawings like tight with tons of cross-hatching and other techniques; with Maple Terrace, he's learned to loosen up again, resulting in some of the liveliest drawing of his career.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Keith Knight's Good On Both Sides

Gentleman Cartoonist Keith Knight is a polymath. From his days as a musician, to his TV show Woke (based on his own life), to his prolific career as a cartoonist, he's always been doing it all, all the time. As a cartoonist, he has three different outlets. The Knight Life is his syndicated strip, and he has the three or four panel approach for the punchline down pat. The K Chronicles is his classic single-page strip, usually with multiple panels that talk about something personal or cultural. Then there's (th)ink, his single-panel editorial strip. While political and cultural issues are essential to all of his work, especially with regard to race and police brutality, (th)ink is notable because of its format. Knight excels at clever turns of phrase and images with regard to some contemporary issue.

His latest (th)ink collection, Good On Both Sides, tackles the fertile subject of the latter years of the Donald Trump presidency. Reading a collection of these strips, one understands that Trump was almost too fertile a subject for scorn and parody. When you have a person who feels no shame whatsoever, loves attention, and changes the outrage narrative every single day, it makes a satirist's job nearly impossible. As such, some of the comics in Good On Both Sides reference events that I can't remember. The tidal wave of toxic nonsense was just too great to keep track of everything, and there's only so much a political cartoonist can do to explain a reference without it resulting in literally spelling out every aspect of a joke. 

Knight mostly manages to get around that problem by using clever visuals to take a specific reference and apply it to Trump's wider universe of greed, sexual harassment, white supremacy, anti-intellectualism, out-and-out lies, and the general alternate reality that the ex-president and his supporters live in. If Trump's an easy target, it's because he's too vast to possibly ignore, and too crudely stupid to resist direct hits. Knight's skill is taking an outrage point (like Trump saying there were "very fine people on both sides" with regard to a white nationalist rally) and shifting the joke (there's an angel and a devil on either side of him, and Trump is feeling up the angel). Knight's stumpy, cartoony figures are exaggerated and rubbery, giving his characters a kind of sweaty, neurotic energy. Knight is not only funny, he draws funny, and he rarely varies from this style in all of his material. There's an almost gentle, welcome quality to his drawing style, providing a little distance for when he goes all-in, like his incredible "White Power Rangers" gag. He's also proficient at taking a news item (like a golf club calling the cops on a group of black women playing on the course) and pulling out a dagger of a punchline ("...they're swinging at something WHITE!")

There are also moments of sincerity, as Knight honors figures like Bill Nunn, Billie Holiday, and Thurgood Marshall with naturalistic portraits and key quotes. In this political climate, simply honoring Black figures from American history is a political act. Knight suggests that like it or not, simply being Black is a political act, and he's not afraid to say this out loud. He's even more unsparing in his lectures about police violence; if anything, he mostly pulls his punches and goes for gags in (th)ink; he could be a lot meaner. The final comics in the collection address the then-incipient Coronavirus; he nailed the conspiracy thinking surrounding it from the very beginning. Despite the fact that so much of this book is so contemporaneous of roughly 2018-2020, the strips relating to race are not only still relevant but are even somewhat understated when one considers right-wing attempts at whitewashing everything. Knight's foresight, comic timing, and cartooning skill elevate Good On Both Sides from a standard collection of editorial cartoons.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Julia Gfrörer's bleak Vision

An underlooked part of evaluating comics (and a highly subjective one) is the sheer visual appeal of the art. What is appealing is subjective, as some people can love the ligne claire style of drawing, some love Gary Panter's ratty line, and others like exaggerated and rubbery cartooning like Peter Bagge. As both a reader and critic, I appreciate a style that is idiosyncratic and personal for the artist, especially after reading so many mainstream graphic novels that use the same line weight, styles, and color schemes. (Note to YA cartoonists, in particular: mix it up!) As such, there are some artists whose lines are simply a sheer pleasure for me to look at, regardless of story or subject matter. One of them is most definitely Julia Gfrörer.

Having followed her career from the beginning, I've always appreciated her fragile, ratty line that often seems like it's about to disintegrate at any given moment. Given that she loves to explore the intersection between sex, bodies, and horror, her drawings have a visceral quality that is at once erotically charged, disturbing, and desperately familiar. All of this is on display in Vision, her 2020 book from Fantagraphics. At its heart, this is a story about desperate loneliness and yearning, mixed with a series of betrayals and boundary violations. It's also deeply steeped in BDSM concepts, as the lead character Eleanor is a widow tending to her perpetually-ill sister-in-law and her distracted brother. She also regularly talks to a demonic spirit in a mirror, who orders her to strip naked and pleasure herself, even as he calls her out as someone who desperately wants to be used and degraded. 

Set in the 19th century, Eleanor's choices are even more limited because of the era, and how her voice is constantly silenced by those around her. All the while, her vision is starting to go thanks to cataracts, leading to an encounter with the eye doctor that is at once a violation and arousing because it is a violation. One of the best things about Gfrörer's work is that her narrators are often unreliable, and that the reader must follow what they do rather than what they say. For Eleanor, despite all of her stiff-upper-lip performative strength, she's a shattered woman clinging only to her desire for meaning. That desire is toxic and unsustainable, whether one takes the supernatural elements of the story at face value or sees them as a manifestation of her own insanity. In the end, it doesn't matter. 

She's not allowed to grieve her husband openly, and any emotions she feels are immediately shot down by her sister-in-law Cora and her brother Robert. While the book opens with her talking to her magical, quasi-demonic mirror that is her effective voyeur dom, she really does have the best interests of her family at heart. Her brother, it is implied visually, is sexually assaulting his physically and mentally ill wife in her sleep, tearing open her nightshirt that Eleanor rebuttons. For both Eleanor and Robert, there's a sense that their desires cannot be contained and are making both of them want to act with no restraint. Only Robert is allowed to get away with it openly, however.  

When Eleanor tells the ghost in the mirror that she wants to go where he is, it's a desire to be touched and act on her sexual impulses--but it's also implied that this is a self-annihilating act. The ghost is dead, in hell, or someplace even worse, and Eleanor has a firm suspicion that she's hellbound no matter what. With her self-cutting early in the book, it's clear that she's trying to externalize the pain and scarring she feels emotionally, but the ghost feels like a chance to evade this. The ghost makes her feel desired and reads her for what she truly is: a submissive who seeks out pain, seeks out degradation, seeks out and wants to revel in sexual debasement. For a sub, being able to access this kind of emotional space with a trusted partner can be deeply healing; for Eleanor, she only has more pain to look forward to. 

When the doctor treats her cataract, the ghost demands she describe the pain in detail, with the procedure described in such a way as a dom controls and gives pain to a sub. The ghost's reaction mirrors her own in a way; it cracks, mimicking Eleanor cutting herself earlier. The mirror is possessive and jealous of Eleanor, and what remained her sole outlet for her desire is cruelly cut off. The leads to her spiralling, as her tolerance for her situation evaporates. She welcomes advances from the doctor (despite the ghost smashing a paperweight in protest), poisons her sister, and gets lost in laudanum dreams as she fantasizes about joining her ghost lover. In the end, her ghost lover never returns, and she makes a fateful decision for her brother and herself. 

This is perhaps the grimmest of all of Gfrörer's stories, and the one with the least humor. While her protagonists either tend to be in bleak situations, victims of outside forces, or predators in their own right, Eleanor is doomed from the beginning. She's grieving but given no space to grieve; her desire, need, and loneliness are all subsumed to the needs of her family; and there's no real way out. Even the doctor who wants her cares less about social calls (despite his veneer of respectability) and more about dominating her. A soft dom, perhaps, but a dom nonetheless. The only being who understands her is either a figment of her imagination or a largely malignant spirit. In the end, it doesn't matter, given the hopelessness that she understands all too well. She chooses self-annihilation over misery, as she can't see a way out. The pain expressed in this book lingers long after it's read. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Indy Life: Leslie Stein's Brooklyn's Last Secret

Leslie Stein's work has veered between direct memoir and her "Eye Of The Majestic Creature" series, which is essentially fabulist memoir. Brooklyn's Last Secret represents a fictional story that nonetheless is deeply personal. It's about a slightly aging indy rock band from Brooklyn (hilariously named Major Threat) that embarks on a tour of America that operates out of a van. Stein has written a number of books, but she's also been a professional guitarist for a number of years as well. This book feels like an ode to a thousand road trip stories that she and many people she knows have collected over a lifetime. It's affectionate and wistful, as some of the characters are filled with regrets as they grow older while the younger characters are trying to imagine their futures. 

I've often thought that the indy rock and indy comics scenes had some similarities. Beyond the obvious comparison in that many cartoonists are also musicians, and that many cartoonists have done rock posters or album art, there's a deeper level here. There's not a lot of money to be made in publishing a book or releasing an album. Self-releases have limited reach and costs that have to be covered by the artists, while label/publisher releases have costs built into limiting royalty payouts. To compensate for this in music, there's a national network of clubs that host bands, where they might get a cut of the gate but also get a chance to sell merchandise. The past 25 years have seen a similar rise in smaller shows aimed at zines and small press comics, running nearly year-round now for cartoonists who want a chance to move their books directly to an interested audience. Touring and tabling are both frequently frustrating and demeaning, but every now and they have transcendent moments. 

There is a key difference that Stein highlights near the end. The "band dad" Ed, who's now in his 40s, is a professional tech guy in his day job. He's not especially fond of his co-workers and their smarmy attitudes about being a musician. At the same time, he hates being on the road, hates being hit on, and is pretty much a ball of anxiety. When bandmate Lilith calls him out on this, his reply is simple: I like to play the drums, and it is not a solitary pursuit. Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones used to say much the same thing, where when he was at home, all he wanted to do was go out and play drums, and when he was on tour, all he wanted to do was go home. The joy of music is performance, and unless you're playing on your own, you're dependent on others. This is in striking contrast to the solitary existence of the cartoonist; part of the fun of shows is simply being with other cartoonists. 

The structure of Stein's book is beautifully and conveniently episodic. It starts off with the band's agent setting their tour itinerary, and there's a running joke where the drunk/stoned members of the band fell asleep and they didn't get good food guarantees as part of their rider. The first show is a hometown show, and Stei elegantly reveals details about each of the four main characters organically as the tour proceeds. Ed never feels comfortable in any world, as the biracial son of academics who's a coder and rock drummer. When the band drives in Montana and they're stopped by police, he makes sure to sit in the back. Lilith is recovering from heartache and wondering what to do next in life as she realizes she's starting to get older as well. Marco is the young new singer, full of energy but also cagey about his life outside the band. Dave is the bass player who is mostly quiet and enigmatic, floating through a charmed life. 

By the end of the book, Stein unravels their backstories and mysteries to give the story more structure. None of that was really necessary, though. The real attraction here is the aggregation of anecdotes, the shared experiences on the road with this group of artists. What they share is not exactly friendship; indeed, Lilith points out that the road is no place for expressing your feelings. There's a hilarious sequence where she is upset and about to talk about her breakup with her bandmates, before she catches herself and instead "confesses" that she's "really into progressive electronic music right now." This elicits far more sympathy and understanding than a confession about her love life would. As in all of the book's vignettes, Stein's expressive cartooning is absolutely masterful. Her control over her spare line that suggests forms more than actually depicts them, is augmented by her tasteful and restrained use of color that furthers the narrative on several fronts.

As Stein describes it, being on the road is a long series of inconveniences, humiliations, tight quarters, drunken numbness, and the occasional transcendent moment. All of these things are endured to get to those moments as artists, seeking the sublime, as well as a few moments of mutual understanding from their peers and energy from the audience. Musicians need to play, cartoonists need to draw, and sometimes life is just picking up the mess that's made in between these fleeting, but deeply connected, moments of beauty. When the musicians in the book have on of those moments, they aren't just experiencing that one moment, but rather a continuum of that beauty across time, for every instance that they were in touch with the sublime. Being an artist is a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, and Stein depicts both with comedic grace and deep sensitivity.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The Perverseness of Nick Maandag: Harvey Knight's Odyssey

As a comedic writer, Nick Maandag follows a kind of logic that defies standard expectations of what a comic narrative should be like. In his new book, Harvey Knight's Odyssey, he's downright perverse about taking readers down blind alleys, subverting expectations, telling shaggy dog stories, and otherwise refusing to end his stories on anything resembling a conventional punchline. For Maandag, the humor is found in that repeated defiance of reader expectations that follows its own torturous logic. It reduces personal narratives to banalities at best and deluded acts of violence at worse. He is absolutely ruthless with regard to the concept of the quotidian, slice-of-life story, satirizing it like a wrecking ball. He's even meaner when it comes to the cruel pointlessness of religion and work culture, even if the satire doesn't seem to be his main objective. Maandag engages in vicious absurdity for its own sake, escalating absurd premises beyond a reader's comfort level until they go so far off the rails that they deliberately abandon the story's original idea and frequently reason itself. 

Maandag starts small in "The Plunge," the first of three stories in the book. It starts with a simple premise: Nick Maandag, in his office job, decides to start using a French press to work in order to make coffee instead of getting it from Tim Horton's. He's hesitant for a moment, for fear of being seen as pretentious, but then he reasons: why would anyone care or notice? Maandag takes that premise and takes it in an unexpected direction. In dialogue that is bone-dry and deliberately, maddeningly banal, his coffee-making goes in a different direction. His curious coworkers watch him go through the steps of using a French press and are fascinated by it, as he goes through a little narrative. Soon, his coffee-making becomes a ritual, as onlookers are excited for "the plunge," when he pushes the press down. Maandag even starts to become more elaborate in his narrative. The whole thing takes on a life of its own, until the entire office comes to watch. It ends on a newcomer saying, "That's it?", but the whole point of the story is not that this is interesting, but that so many people in this desperately soul-crushing environment gain the slightest bit of solace from a community experience that celebrates a moment of pleasure. It also attains a cult-like status (one co-worker says "We're always accepting new members"), even if the object of this cult is unbelievably trivial. 

Maandag runs with that idea in the title story. It starts with a crazy premise--a cult called the Church of the Holy Radiance--and goes in directions that utterly deflate the dogmatic qualities of the religion and reduce it to simple human greed and other base emotions. The religion believes that certain creatures are beings of light and others are beings of darkness, and humans are somewhere in-between. The Church aims to increase the light in humans (through obeying doctrines but also tanning beds), but this creates evil shadow beings that Church members now have a legal right to murder. There's an excruciating sequence where there's a lecture on which insects are dark and which are light that's every bit as arbitrary as any religious dogma. However, the titular Harvey Knight conspires against the cult's leader, steals his tanning bed, and eventually murders him. Harvey also hires a new assistant to do "experiments" that include skinning the old leader and turning that skin into a prop for a musical that includes maggots doing a can-can dance. The story and its characters get distracted and bored by their own narratives, forgetting to run their church or go to their own play. The ending is more of the same in terms of non-sequiturs, as a distracted and possibly addled Harvey decides to go explore the sewers. The "Odyssey" here rambles and makes no sense; it's like the antithesis of a Joseph Campbell Hero's Journey. Maandag's plain and simple line accentuates this, as he draws absurd things (Harvey's misshapen head is an inherently funny drawing) in a nonchalant fashion. 

The final story, "Full Day," is a recapitulation of both of the first two stories in the book. It's an "Odyssey" of its own, only it's far removed from the absurd premise of the "Harvey Knight" entry and more in line with the first story. It's a "day in the life" wherein Maandag goes through a series of extremely silly and annoying obstacles. A sweeping machine that only clears sidewalks in the daytime deliberately sucks up his hat because he's walking too slowly. An elevator closes on him repeatedly. A lecture from the boss on work-as-family is an obvious pretext to start firing people. Maandag faces a dumb and arbitrary performance review metric and gets increasingly in the weeds with it as the company sends someone to evaluate him in the middle of the task; Maandag gets in trouble for using folders wastefully. In the middle of the evaluation, he's asked to evaluate the evaluator in the most mind-numbingly awful survey ever. Maandag's failure to complete a task leads to a shaggy dog story of dead ends, pointless conversations, kidnapping, and abject failure. A homeless woman flashing him on the train leads to him being pulled into a complaint of being harassed, ending with a grief counselor chasing him to give him condolences.. The day is a pointless one: nothing is learned, nothing is gained, and all of it is a waste of time. 

It's a waste of time for everyone but the reader, that is, as Maandag's deadpan humor and drawings are a perfect conflation of ennui, absurdity, and total meaninglessness. This one doesn't quite have the more visceral belly laughs of his other recent work, but it's also fair to see that this book is much more conceptual in nature than his past comics. There's no hope or meaning to be found here, and that gleeful nihilism and total subversion of narrative expectations can be a gut punch at times. Maandag knows it too, and just when you think there's going to be a moment of character growth, Maandag short-circuits it with something absurd happening or that character (literally) choosing violence.