Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Autobio As Spoof: Nick Sumida

On the surface, it may seem strange to cast Nick Sumida's gag-heavy work as being autobiographical, but Snackies, a riotous satire of self-importance and common knowledge, is so successful precisely because Sumida himself is the main character in his stories. Starting the comic off with a filthy Sumida's roommate bringing him a video game called "Snackies", in which "you play this narcissistic millennial with a an art school degree and an addiction to external validation". The collected version is superior to either of the first issues of the same title, in part because the way the book was edited makes it far more cohesive (there are some funny interstitial features) and in part because the color scheme is a perfectly-chosen midnight blue and sea foam green.

The first killer story is "Fake It Til You Make It", wherein Sumida pretends to know how to use PhotoShop in order to get a job. The freak-out Sumida depicts when he realizes that he can't fake his way through is over-the-top (my favorite is a toothy Sumida ordering pizzas, being told "Ma'am, calm down" and Sumida screaming "I'M A BOY!"), and it gets even better when he tries to pass off things like "a picture of a cartoon vagina smoking a joint" as his assignment, to which he replies, "That, I do not recall..." What makes Sumida such an effective humorist is a perfect sense of building and how to build a premise in such a way that the comedic payoff is almost always unexpected. For example, in a strip about how Sumida deals with stress, we are suddenly jolted into his demented brain, as we see him taking a chainsaw to a mannnequin, huffing paint and setting fire to a car. A strip about being disappointed about seeing a potential crush on a subway, only to be disappointed by his haircut turns into increasing levels of crazy, as he repeats the premise only to see him growing Lord Voldemort out of his head and turn into a terrifying monster that licks him. We are then thrust back to the beginning, with Sumida's eyes bugging out, afraid to check out the guy that's really in front of him. Another strip has Sumida as a physical trainer giving practical exercise tips while telling the subject to tapping into their "wellspring of deep emotional trauma". Another variation on this theme finds Sumida giving baking tips while trying to eat his sadness over being alone on Valentine's Day.

Sumida is one of the few cartoonists who manages to engage the concept of social media as a societal force in an original and funny manner. The interstitial bits in the book are iphone chats with God, who is either insulting or uncaring in his communications with Sumida. It's a great running gag, because it's sort of the ultimate check on narcissism. Sumida also plays around with tired old gags such as the ROFL acronym and takes it to absurd places, like ROFWHAMUTSH (Rolling on floor while holding a mirror up to society's hypocrisies). The acronym is funny enough, but Sumida sells it with the drawing--a serious, even self-righteous figure holding up a mirror.

Like his contemporary, Michael DeForge, Sumida is skilled at adding body horror as an over-the-top way of satirizing our common understanding of societal mores. There's a strip about a "how'd we meet" situation that winds up being about ritualistic grisliness. A strip about revealing secrets in a relationship turns hilariously grim when, after a minor revelation from a partner, Sumida reveals that he is, in fact "a pile of seven furby dolls stuffed inside a human skin suit". The fact that furbies are unnerving enough to begin with makes his uncannily accurate drawings all the more effective.

A strip where he obliviously asks others about which pair of glasses to buy while the apocalypse occurs around him has a clever idea, but once again, it's the tiniest of details that he gets right that makes it so hilarious. It's the fact that "Nick" gets self-righteously pissed off that no one's listening to his dilemma, the fact that he has preconceived notions about why any answer is wrong, about how he only starts to freak out when he realizes there's no internet that turn a one-note joke into a delicious self-indictment. Sumida transforms his obvious anxiety and emotional rawness into the stuff of brutally honest and frequently absurd gags. The line between autobiography and what serves the gag is one that ceases to matter, because in Sumida's hands, they become one and the same. His humor is painfully true, and his own anxiety is painfully hilarious. The attention to detail in terms of design and use of color is a tribute both to Sumida and his publisher, Youth In Decline.

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