Friday, June 7, 2013
Lost and Found: After School Special
Dave Kiersh's recent book, After School Special, feels like a distillation of his themes with a conclusion that's far more hopeful and perhaps personal than much of his work.This story about two high school kids named Jed and Lisa is still packed with his typical themes: pain, longing, desperation, and alienation, but it allows for a kind of connection that's unusual in Kiersh's comics. Indeed, it almost feels like lonely characters from two separate short stories crossed over into each other's narratives, radically improving the course of events for both of them. As per usual, what makes Kiersh's work interesting is the way he's interested in exploring a particular set of melodramatic, adolescent emotions through the lens of the culture he was weaned on and the blandness of the suburban environment he grew up in. Indeed, the very title of the book refers to the frequently didactic, moralizing TV series aimed at teens, depicting them in trouble with drugs, sex, rebellion, etc. This comic, and much of Kiersh's oeuvre, is a sort of response to that kind of cultural saturation by providing a response from the teen's point of view while dealing with the litany of stressful, alienating circumstances typical of the genre.
In this book, Jed expresses his detachment from the baby boomer generation, noting the contradiction of the "Leave It To Beaver" blandness they were raised on, their "free love" phase and how they returned to such 50s cliches when it was time to have children of their own. He's living with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend, who is constantly telling him to turn down his music until he throws his stereo out the window. Lisa is new in town after having had an abortion, thanks to getting impregnated by a jock. Her "reputation" follows her to her new school, where she randomly meets Jed and they hit it off. At first, they represent a means of escape and/or rebellion, an outlet for frustration. There's a hilarious scene where Lisa's watching the cult classic Slumber Party Massacre 2 (complete with stills!) and Jed calls her up, playing at being the obscene phone caller. As the book proceeds and each segment of the book is introduced by a journal written alternating between the two characters, their relationship deepens and becomes more lyrical.
As with all of Kiersh's comics, there's a sense of the protagonists wanting to freeze their small moments of happiness in time. That sense of not wanting to grow up is another theme in Kiersh's work; like Peter Pan, his characters want to keep flying and "Never land/Neverland". While that's true here as well, as Lisa tells Jed that she's not ready to have sex yet and he replies that he's in "no rush to become an adult", there's also the sense that this couple will find a way to remain in each other's lives. That's unusual for a Kiersh comic, as is the way he portrays both characters as fully sympathetic. Kiersh often portrays what he refers to as "dirtbags": losers with no sense of direction. Jed and Lisa may well have been precisely that kind of character in this book if it wasn't for each other. Both characters start to flourish because each believes in the other and don't judge. The book starts off in Kiersh's simplified line with full color, as Jed melodramatically despairs over his life, but then switches to the dense, smudgy line that Kiersh is best known for now. The simple figures and backgrounds are given weight and power by the thickness of the line that he employs, which allows them to stand out against the shadowy hatching and smudges. The effect is like watching a show on a small black & white television; something that's alien to people over a certain age but possibly quite familiar to Kiersh, who grew up in the 80s. The connections to TV are quite deliberate; the cover looks like an old test pattern and the panels are rounded like an old TV tube. Kiersh's comics have been marinating in the melodrama of outsized teenage emotions for nearly fifteen years, and I feel like this book is the bridge to a new area of exploration, and it's an elegant, frequently poetic bridge at that.