Monday, December 12, 2011

More Autobio: Kat Roberts, Bill Burg, Jason Young

Here's a look at three different kinds of autobio minicomics.

March, by Bill Burg. The bulk of this diary comic takes place over the course of March in two different years, but as the cover indicates, it's also about the inevitable march of time. The cartoonist chose to begin a daily diary strip in parallel with his friend Rob Ullman at a crucial time in his life: shortly after the death of his beloved father and right when he and his wife found out she was pregnant. His line reminds me a lot of Ullman's, in fact: simple, supple lines and slightly cartoonish storytelling. This comic is all about the attempt to come to terms with grief and how hard it is to balance that grief against the emergence of new life and new responsibilities. Implied is the challenge that Burg finds it hard to become a father while no longer being his father's son.

Given that this is a diary strip, there's plenty of quotidian details and little jokes that fill up its pages, but they're all tinged with a certain melancholia as Burg frequently finds it difficult to find joy in life. It's not that he's not working or being dutiful or inattentive to the needs of his wife, it's that the things he used to enjoy no longer hold the same attraction. In other words, he was going through a particularly difficult grieving process. One of the things I found most interesting about this comic was how Burg explores the feelings his father had for his own father, who died a few days after Bill Burg was born. That man was abusive and awful in any number of ways, but Burg's father loved him deeply despite his many flaws; reconciling the memory of a loved one with the reality of their existence is one of the toughest parts of the grieving process. Later in this comic, Burg does very much the same thing with his own father. While his dad was always kind, attentive and loving as a parent, he had his detractors with regard to his career as head of a power company in Ohio. Burg reports that his dad was on many "worst executive" lists and many people had demanded his resignation at various times. Burg doesn't try to refute these charges or defend his father; he simply states the facts as they were as part of an effort to understand and accept his father, warts and all. While this comic didn't provide the sort of catharsis he had hoped for (as he addresses in one strip), it seems like both the process of making it and the journey he took as a father himself did put him in a different place by the end. The thoughts expressed by Burg are familiar, but there's a wonderfully humane, understanding quality to his work that elevates it above standard autobio fare.

You Are Always On My Mind, by Kat Roberts. This is a collection of dream comics that tie into autobiographical moments. It's a handmade comic with some full color segments and is a lovely overall package. The tenor of these dream comics is amusing, with titles like "I Lost My Virginity To Jim Morrison" and "The Nude Suit". There's a wispy, ethereal quality to her line that makes it all the more effective when used for comedic effect. While the notion of Morrison showing up in a thirteen year old's dream as a life-changing event is ridiculous (if fitting, given the perfect fit between the histrionics of the Doors and the moods of a teen) and Roberts plays up the laughs, she also is careful to note how serious this was to her at the time. "Nude Suit" is played for both laughs and terror, as Roberts performs in some kind of forest theater in a "nude" bodystocking, dancing to a song whose lyrics went "my nude suit! my nude suit!". She tries to play it cool, not knowing the song would go on interminably--but the audience did. There are a couple of other, more typically jumbled dream stories involving eating her sins and building a boat after chopping down a tree; these stories feel like standard dream comics. For someone who's best known as a webcartoonist, Roberts has crafted a comic whose tactile qualities are a large part of its appeal.

Veggie Dog Saturn #5, by Jason Young. These autobio stories mostly focus on tales from Young's youth and are played for (frequently off-color) laughs. The book opens up with "Salad Days", a story about young Jason going to a restaurant, eating nothing but the salad bar, and then vomiting into the restaurant's bathroom sink. The punchline involves the next person who walked into the bathroom and the dirty look he threw Jason's way. Throughout the book, Young spins tales of a family gleefully visiting a cemetery to plan out a family crypt, meditates (in excruciatingly funny detail) about what music one would really want in a "desert island scenario", and muses about his past as a casual shoplifter. "The Tape" is about his brother's magical ability to find naked women on a video cassette, turning into a surprisingly emotionally earnest (if amusingly gross) anecdote about the connection he shares with him. "The Day I Met Kenny Rogers" sums up the nature of these anecdotes: randomly profane, mostly innocuous and funny both in and of themselves but also mocking bad past behavior. Young doesn't always have great control over his line; some of his figures are cruder than others and his line weight sometimes fades to near-imperceptibility. What makes it work is a steady, amusing self-caricature--both as a child and a bearded, almost Muppet-like adult.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, Rob! Thank you so much for your thoughtful critique of my comic.
    Looking forward to getting my hands on Jason and Bill's work.