Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Tranny and 40 Hour Man

Steve Lafler, artist of the BUGHOUSE series of graphic novels that are among my favorite comics, just self-published an intriguing collection. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I published an excerpt of one of the stories ("Cat Suit") in Other magazine, for which I am the comics editor. Of course, I wouldn't have published it if I didn't think it was a hilarious, bizarre story--just what one would expect from Lafler. Lafler's new collection, TRANNY examines, celebrates and explores the world of cross-dressing from a very personal point of view.

Indeed, Lafler's cross-dressing alter-ego is named "Fiona Mallratte". In the first story, "Drunken Lady", Lafler details the origins of his interest of dressing in women's clothing from the time he was child, then fast-forwards into some excerpts from his "The $99 Drag Makeover", a hilarious yet practical guide for cheap cross-dressers who still want to look fab. This story was the first time he talked about the connection between being a transvestite and having a secret identity like a superhero. The effect is literally transformative, where having this different persona becomes an entirely different way of looking at the world. The superhero conceit is then carried to its obvious conclusion in "Stupergal's Slave, Jimmie Ogler", a parody where Jimmie is as interested in Stupergal's outfits as he is in her. The bit where he's angry that she doesn't have a pair of "spike heel booties" is particularly amusing. "Halloween Mashup" is pretty much more of the same, this time substituting Halloween and monstrous transformations for the cross-dressing urge.

"Cat Suit" is the collection's best story, and one of my favorite-ever Lafler stories. It's a mash-up of Lafler's various interests, as we follow the cat-suited Manx around town. He's a bored, rich guy who puts on a cat suit as a way to alleviate his boredom and help him figure out what he wants to do with himself. Lafler then takes a left turn into his metaphysical ideas, as Manx realizes what he wants to do is publish a book about his theories about time, that all moments are the same moment. The story is classic Lafler, going back to his old Dog Boy stories. The story rambles on pleasantly, as Manx meets a sexy woman at a club, smokes dope, joins a homeless man in a street band, grapples with an amorous but vicious psychotherapist, shoots a waiter in the head with a Drano-tipped dart, and smokes dope. The whole story is a play on the fetishistic power of transformation and otherness that wearing the suit brings, as Lafler makes a connection between cross-dressing and the appeal of superheroes.

It's all done very playfully, as is the entire book. Lafler's purpose isn't a heavy-handed treatise on cross-dressing or being trans, but rather a light-hearted look at a way of life that's obviously been enormously beneficial and liberating for him. Lafler has always had a very elastic view on reality, and this looseness plays out on his comics pages. As he's matured as an artist, he's tightened up his imagination on the page a bit into something with more narrative coherence, but he still retains his essential free-flowing spontaneity in what he draws. There's a sense of great joy in Lafler's line, one that draws in the reader's eye and follows it wherever it may go.

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How do you measure someone's worth? In a society where one's career is supposed to define one's self, what does this mean for the millions who work minimum-wage, soul-crushing jobs? Even for those who work to support whatever it is they really want to be doing (not uncommon in the comics industry), how does one come to terms with those 40+ hours where we don't get to do what we want? Stephen Beaupre and Steve Lafler's answer is to laugh to keep from going insane in 40 HOUR MAN.
Back in 1990, writer/poet Beaupre and writer/artist Lafler began an anthology called BUZZARD, which more or less took up a role not unlike the classic anthology WEIRDO. That anthology was created by Robert Crumb and later edited by Peter Bagge and Aline Kominsky-Crumb. Its title said it all: Crumb liked publishing the unusual, often outsider art, continuing in the vein of the underground movement that he helped to create. Beaupre & Lafler were clearly working in the same continuum, though they also weren't afraid to get overtly political. Their anthology was completely unpredictable, publishing the likes of Gerald Jablonski, Joe Sacco, Mary Fleener, Julie Doucet, Phoebe Gloeckner, JR Williams, Mario Hernandez, Lloyd Dangle Tom Tomorrow and many more. The editorial duo also published a number of their own stories. Lafler's BUGHOUSE graphic novels started here, and the duo collaborated on an early serial called "Duck and Cover".
In BUZZARD #7, they teamed up for "Almost Chinese". There were four panels a page, but instead of a standard comics panel featuring dialogue, there was a text box running above it. Some of the panels had dialogue that was directly illustrative of the narration. It was somewhere between a comic and illustrated text.
With BUZZARD #8, Beaupre and Lafler repeated the formula by beginning "40 Hour Man". The hook is simple and powerful: Beaupre recounts every single one of his jobs, starting from his teenage years in the 70's up until the end of the dot-com bust. Beaupre's slangy prose is perfect for pointing out the absurdity of each job he happens to wind up in. He's both blessed and cursed by having a brain: he understands the tediousness of each job and hates it, but at the same time can't quite play the corporate game either. In every job, he found as many ways as possible to goof off, get drunk or high on the job and otherwise have fun inbetween the drudgework. Despite these diversions, one can sense a certain desperation slipping through the cracks of his humorous narrative. "40 Hour Man" ran until the series ended with #20 in 1998, but the story itself wasn't quite done.
The authors finished the story and are publishing the compiled result through Lafler's own Manx Media. The images were blown up a bit, with one panel per page. The result is a page-turning experiences that compels the reader to race through it. Beaupre starts with teenage jobs like stockboy (fired for "basic incompetence"), dishwasher, maintenance man, etc. Then things get weird, with trying to maintain a putt-putt golf course run by a poodle-obsessed woman and her hard-drinking husband. Part of the job involved driving around the beach town he was in and trying to drum up business by shouting into a loudspeaker. Growing quickly bored of his script, he instead started ranting about whatever came to mind. This becomes a constant theme: Beaupre is quite willing to pretend to be a diligent employee to get a job, but simply doesn't care enough about the job to stop him from amusing himself by whatever means are at hand. The threat of the axe, especially as a younger man, was simply not a deterrent.

There's a panel later in the book when Beaupre is working as a cook in a nursing home where he has a smoke and tries to "imagine what it would be like to have a job that I actually liked." But he can "only imagine the same paper hat and milk crate". After being told to learn to work slower after he finished his chores, he quit. Later, he gets a job as a security job, and finds that "doing nothing might be more work than doing something". Bits of his life outside of work slip in, as he recounts when one mysterious phrase he espies at a job inspires a song for his band; or when he mentions meeting a woman after losing a job inspired by his aspirations as a poet. His time as a late-shift security guard found him musing about the daily life of those who worked in cubicles.

First and foremost, though, this book is funny. After getting hired at a steakhouse when he lost the stockboy job, he notes "Somehow I had managed to take my burgeoning flair for incompetence and move it two hundred yards to the left". Describing the poodle-obsessed wife of the putt-putt owner and their house, he observed "Chez Whoopie looked perfectly normal from the outside. But inside it was pure David Lynch deleted scene." While living in his run-down college dorm, he "awoke to a commotion outside my room. When I opened the door, I witnessed my fellow residents, armed with hockey sticks, chasing rats down the hall. This was the extent of Graham's sports program." Going through the types of employees at one of his job, he described one job that needed attention to detail. "But that was hard to come by. So instead they settled for chain-smoking, hard drinkin' women in their late fifties with silver hair."

Probably the funniest section of the book is the "Rock Star Petting Zoo" chapter, detailing his days working in a record store. The best bit is when his store is tapped to host an in-store appearance by none other than the Village People, at the height of their popularity. They turn out to be jerks, even whining about the pens they were using. In general, Beaupre loved the job until he was somehow promoted to assistant manager. Another subtheme throughout the book was the hindsight that whenever he happened to be happy in a job, it was doomed to end sooner rather than later.
Eventually, he wound up in "cube land", where not only could he no longer say what was on his mind (he once said "Fuck you" to one of his direct supervisors when she made absurd demands on him), everyone around him was deliberately using management-pleasing buzzwords in a desperate attempt to move up the corporate ladder. Eventually, the company starts hemorraging cash and he's downsized. He then winds up working for a dot-com, during the height of that insane era. That ends predictably, but it still gets to him as "over three decades of employment leading up to this one solitary impossibly-dumb moment. Is that all there is?"
Beaupre doesn't pretend that there's some greater overarching meaning to his work life. He tried to have as much fun as he could and his breezy writing style captured those extreme moments that fueled his story. Bad jobs, moronic bosses, mind-deadening tasks, insane coworkers all wound up as raw material for his narrative. The secret ingredients that prevent this from devolving into Dilbert are Beaupre's take on autobiography and the rubbery art of Lafler. Beaupre credits Harvey Pekar, the master of mining gold out of life's little moments. Pekar wrote a number of stories revolving around his workplace at the VA hospital in Cleveland, and Beaupre similarly found plenty of inspiration from the oddballs he met over the years. The main difference is that Beaupre was actively trying to play it for laughs, and that's where Lafler helped him. Lafler credited the genius of Harvey Kurtzman as his wellspring, with the creator of MAD's skewed and irreverent way of looking at the world. In particular, he was inspired by Kurtzman's constant assault on society's institutions. While this book has an undercurrent of personal desperation, it's also a polemic against the culture of capitalism and the American dream. But like with Kurtzman's MAD, it's a polemic that goes down smoothly, bending minds and bringing laughs.

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