Saturday, April 25, 2009

Skin You're In: A Mess of Everything

Rob reviews the second volume of Miss Lasko-Gross' autobiographical high school vignettes, A MESS OF EVERYTHING (Fantagraphics).
Miss Lasko-Gross' self-caricature in her autobio stories is an interesting mash-up of a typical teen with low self-esteem and that of an indignant outsider determined to make her increasingly confident voice heard--and loudly. While she is constantly bombarded with the message that she doesn't fit in, she's weird, she's not "cute" like other girls and this message certainly takes its toll, by the end of this book one can tell that the volume of this message grows more and more muted in her own head. It's easy to internalize this message, and to a degree she does, but her own stubborn individuality and sense of generalized outrage constantly talks her out of it. At the same time, her utter contempt for anything resembling an institution (especially of learning) is magnified all the more when she "succeeds" in school as she learns to play the game of what is expected of her as a student.

It was this rock-solid sense of self that anchored her as a younger girl in her first book, ESCAPE FROM 'SPECIAL', giving her the ability to rise above the realization that the world has a way of punishing the naive-but-different. "Outrage" was her touchstone in this book, as her anger at everything gave her the fuel to rise above her own doubts and anyone who dared mess with her. Fundamentally, she wasn't really just angry about specific injustices (such as feeling that all the schools wanted were unquestioning sheep spitting back desired answers), but rather that qualities such as honesty, empathy and compassion were not only not encouraged by the culture-at-large, but openly derided. In her own eyes, she was doing everything "right" but was not only never rewarded but frequently punished. While despondent over this understanding, sometimes to the point of no longer wanting to live, she nonetheless kept plugging away.

Lasko-Gross lays out a fairly conventional narrative in terms of time and flow, but breaks it up with short vignettes. In the first book, the vignettes accreted an eventual collective weight that was greater than the sum of its parts. Lasko-Gross alternated between small, funny moments and the larger snapshots of personal drama. In this book, with several sustained subplots, the formal choice of using the vignettes worked in the opposite manner: it broke up a "heavy" storyline and made it more palatable by feeding it to us in smaller doses, punctuated by occasional sillier stories that also served to lighten the mood a bit.

This was a needed approach, because the "after-school special" nature of a friend with anorexia threatened to bog the book down at times, even as Lasko-Gross is careful to tie this in with her own sense of self and what a friend is obligated to do. It was obviously tough to deal with, given that this was based on Lasko-Gross' own experiences, but she perhaps threw in one vignette too many that repeated the same themes and exchanges. That was obviously done to reflect her own frustration in dealing with her friend (and the friend's eventual behavior toward her) and the conclusion of the story was certainly powerfully & skilfully handled. At times, however, I thought this subplot was in danger of taking over the book. That said, Lasko-Gross was careful to illustrate why this relationship was so important to her, particularly in the way she showed how she struggled to reveal her "true" self to others.

It's interesting to compare this book to Ariel Schrag's work. The former was done in the moment during high school and lacked the perspective of time to evaluate what it all meant. Of course, such an approach also prevents a bit of retroactive editing of memory. Lasko-Gross has a very particular sort of story that she wants to tell, but the use of vignettes to break up the narrative helps remove some of the temptation to make more sense out of one's own life story than is really there. Indeed, she goes out of her way to not just be self-effacing, but to even point out that she's a sort of "type" (the rebel), with a whole host of expected behaviors. It's actually that realization that allows her to break out of that role when she starts failing at school and smoking pot. Her strong sense of self is balanced with how her behavior affects others, including her family.

Lasko-Gross' greatest strengths as an artist are her character design, gesture and use of body language. It's the way she stages her characters that makes looking at each page interesting. She uses a muted palette on pages that are mostly filled with grey, and jams every panel with either decorative details or fills them with moody shading. When Miss is feeling a strong emotion in the comic, there are often strange little noodly lines that surround her that remind me (oddly enough) of mainstream artist George Perez. I love the touch of the exaggerated and the grotesque that she injects into her drawings, distorting faces and bodies to reflect emotional tumult. Lettering also serves as a way to depict exaggeration, and the organic quality of her lettering often reveals emotional states in a more direct way than the actual words themselves.

Ultimately, what saves the character of Lasko-Gross in this story is the feeling that she can escape this world by running off to art school. Her identity as an artist and increasing confidence in her own ability is perhaps the leading factor in caring less and less about what mainstream culture thinks about anything. At the end of ESCAPE FROM 'SPECIAL', she found a way to work herself out of being abjected into so-called "special education". At the end of this book, she stopped rebelling against the machine and instead pretended to play ball, never once internalizing the voice of authority, just so that she could escape from "normal". What was left unresolved here was the way her aggressiveness protected her from the world also isolated her emotionally; it'll be interesting to see if this becomes the main thrust of the last book in this trilogy. The last story in the book, coming as an epilogue of sorts, indicates how much connections come to mean to her.

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