Annie Murphy has long been one of the most thoughtful and intelligent cartoonists in comics. She has a particular talent for relating biography to larger cultural, spiritual and political issues. Her latest project, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, is a biography both of the city of Portland itself as well as key figures who passed in and out of the Rose City. Murphy's voice is a rare one in that she spends a great deal of time processing and synthesizing facts and history, making interesting and bold connections and challenging the reader with forceful opinions based on this synthesis. Murphy is that seemingly-rare animal: a native of Portland. (I can relate to this as I am a native of Miami, another "weird" city with a transient population and a dubious history of racism, exploitation and an inflated sense of its own identity.) As such, she has little time for Portlandia quirkiness and instead delves into Portland's secret, dark past and murky present.
The first issue, "My Own Private Portland", spends a great deal of time talking about the actor River Phoenix and his death in 1994. The first eleven pages are essentially a glowing evaluation of Phoenix's impact as an actor, especially on her as she was growing up. Then she makes the connection: he was born in Oregon and lived in Portland during the filming of Gus Van Sant's film My Own Private Idaho. That was a movie based in part on Phoenix's own life, as a young hustler and busker who used his youth and intense charisma in order to survive and support his family. Murphy neatly lines up the dots: Van Sant was fascinated by lost young boys with secrets, the openly bisexual Phoenix made for a magnetic lead, especially opposite Keanu Reaves, and Portland's relatively pleasant weather drew a lot of homeless kids from the Northwest. Van Sant was white and wealthy, dabbling in the lives of kids from the streets and letting them stay in his big house. Murphy also points out certain racist aspects of Van Sant's films while noting that Portland's long had a history of an underground sex industry--particular one that had young "straight-looking and acting" men selling their bodies to older men.
From there, Murphy connects other dots: Van Sant fancying himself a modern-day William S. Burroughs (without considering the negative connotations of what that meant), the introduction of heroin into street culture, and Van Sant's favorite "hunting ground" for finding street boys to put into his movies, which just so happened to be Murphy's own high school. There's an amazing passage, set to drawings of high school yearbook photos, that describes their fates: "Many never made it out of Portland. They wound up in the Willamette River, or under the Suicide Bridge...on a gurney with a swollen arm, in front of a speeding train". Murphy ends the issue by calling out Van Sant for depicting heroin use as a "blissful, sub-urban dream" when the reality was convulsions and death. She also connects another dot: the protagonist of Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy was based on a neo-nazi friend of his named Ken Death.
That leads into the second issue, "Ken Death Is Dead". Murphy relates the deaths of Phoenix ("my Kurt") and Kurt Cobain (just three months apart) to each other, and then goes into more details about Phoenix's life as a child. In particular, she relates the way he was sexually exploited from a very early age, thanks to the cult his parents were a member of. It gave him hard-won lessons that made him keenly aware of life's bullshit, but they took a brutal emotional toll. Murphy talks about his experiences making the film Stand By Me (including the incredible story of Rob Reiner asking him if an adult ever let him down and betrayed him before a particular scene, resulting in raw emotion in the next take) and how it was the first time he had a circle of friends who truly accept him for who he was. And then she fast-forwards to Portland and Phoenix hanging out with Keanu Reaves during the filming of My Own Private Idaho, as part of this sort of utopian Portlandia.
Then Murphy talks about a brutal, racially-motivated murder perpetrated by skinheads, one of whom was Ken Death. She doesn't go into detail about this, but Oregon was initially founded as a white utopia, with African-Americans not welcome or invited in. As such, the lack of racial diversity in the state and in Portland in general was deliberately engineered, and when immigrants started to arrive their presence was not welcome. Indeed, immigrants and young men entering the city were often forcibly introduced into the city's thriving underground sex trade. She then draws up all the lines connected by the dots and talks very specifically about how Oregon is a "goldmine" for white supremacist movement recruitment, drawing a comparison between that recruitment of young men and the way abusers select their marks. She also points to something else: giving media attention to white supremacists by way of the trial didn't make them pariahs; instead, it made them heroes and martyrs. The result of the trial was irrelevant, because the movement in laid-back, liberal Portland was now given extensive free advertising.
In her account of this history, Murphy is in turns academic, impassioned, despondent and sardonic. These are not comics per se; they are instead half-page images with her own cursive scrips on the bottom half, written on lined paper. The fact that it's scrawled in her hand-writing is an important aspect of the overall work, adding to the warmth of each page. It's history as though it came from Murphy's own secret diary, and her own swirling, muddy drawings add to the overall intimacy of the project. These are drawings of things that Murphy knows only too well: people and places she loves as well as people and places she despises for what they represent. Murphy's really going somewhere in this series, and it will be interesting to see her continue to widen the scope of her inquiries.