Pascal Girard goes yet deeper into the realm of squirm humor with a protagonist who goes from being pathetic and unlikable and skates into loathsome territory. Some have invoked Larry David's name when talking about Girard's comics, but David's "social assassin" self-caricature in his Curb Your Enthusiasm TV show is always an active agent in his life. With Girard in comics like Reunion and his new Petty Theft, he's more like a grown-up Charlie Brown. He's constantly defeated by life, but so many of his problems are a result of his own passive (and sometimes passive-aggressive) behavior. There's a touch of late-era Charles Schulz in Girard's line: his figures are cute, his line is thin to the point of being fragile and wobbly and there's a tremendous understanding and use of compact space and body language in order to generate slapstick gags. The lack of border panels only serves to emphasize the fragility of the line and how much negative space there is on each page. I have no doubts as to Girard's skill as a cartoonist nor any regarding his storytelling. One does wonder about a cartoonist whose self-caricature not only defies the reader to sympathize with him, but actively made me as a reader want to punch him repeatedly in the face.
Part of that is a result of the way Girard draws his self-caricature. With the stooped posture, oversized glasses, huge dot eyes, and oversized chin & nose, he's a sort of walking "kick me" sign. He's both the schlemeil and the schlimazel, to put it in Yiddish terms; in other words, he's the cause of accidents and also the recipient of bad luck. In this book, Girard is at a particular low point after a break-up of a long-term relationship; already a neurotic narcissist to begin with, his self-worth is in desperate need of a pick-me-up. He's couch-surfing with a friend, wants to abandon cartooning in favor of a more manly career like welding and even ponders going back to school. He's the epitome of the "first world problems" meme and so helplessly bourgeois that he can't see beyond his own ridiculous self-pity. When he's a bookstore and spots a pretty girl shoplifting a book that he drew, it launches him into the truly absurd career of "detective", as he starts following the girl around.
Girard makes fellow autobio cartoonist Joe Matt look confident, secure and healthy. Like Joe Matt, Girard is fascinated by the limits of breaking the social compact and engaging in squirm humor. That humor of awkwardness is at its zenith whenever Girard is following the thief around, daydreaming about first having sex with her and then having babies with her (!). He manages to contrive showing up at the cafe' at which she works and eventually ask her out on a date. Girard loves starting a premise and then throwing on as many crazy obstacles as possible in the path of that premise. For example, a date with the girl where he promises to cook her dinner is hindered by an eye injury incurred at his welding job, which makes it difficult for him to see, much less cook. After botching a kiss, Girard bumps his head into a shelf. That's after he carried a giant paper mache' head of his ex-girlfriend downstairs and literally bumps into the thief.
There is an eventual confrontation between Girard and the woman about her thievery and the various "noble" things he does to make up for it. Of course, she has other bizarre tics, like laughing loudly and inappropriately at comments she makes, not to mention her near sociopathic willingness to steal books from anyone and everyone. Naturally, Girard winds up with her in the end, healthy relationships be damned. Girard's self-flagellatory depiction, his masterful use of slapstick and the page design all serve to heighten discomfort. Petty Theft is a hundred page ride of awkwardness that never lets up, never encourages us to sympathize with its lead while never punishing him for his behavior in any direct way. In a sense, living in his own skin is its own punishment.