Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Art of Awkwardness: PS Comics

Rob reviews Minty Lewis' collection of stories, PS COMICS (Secret Acres).

Minty Lewis first came to my attention with a funny story in an SPX anthology (the travel-themed edition) about featuring anthropomorphic fruit as her characters. Her PS COMICS minis have alternated between the travails of various fruit-oriented characters and the lives of anthropomorphic terriers. The cuteness of her character design boldly contrasts with the bitter awkwardness of her slice-of-life stories. Lewis mines the humor of cruelty for her characters, especially the office-life set-up for the fruit character stories. It reminds me a bit of the UK version of The Office, in that there are a number of characters who are desperately lonely and unhappy but don't know how to reach out without inflicting pain on others. In Lewis' stories, it's the most pitiable characters who often wind up saying and doing the most awful things. The clarity of her line and the sharpness of her dialogue make this a compelling read. The juxtaposition of her cute drawings (which grab the reader's eye and are just funny drawings) and the nastiness of tone both more effective. A naturalistic style of art would have made these comics feel somewhat leaden, but the simplicity and flow of Lewis' pages help the reader fly across these pages, soaking up the dialogue.

There are a number of highlights here. "'Me' Time" features the simultaneously abrasive and lonely Apple rejecting his obnoxious workmates because he was inspired by a character from a TV show who did the same thing. In a creepy but hilarious sequence, Apple has a running commentary with this character (Lemon), pretending that she was actually with him as though she were her soul mate. When Apple stayed home the next day from work (at the "urging" of Lemon), he was stunned to see a TV interview where she described the character as a loser and used method acting to inhabit the role. Chastened, Apple sought out his coworkers for after-work recreation, even if he still hated them.

"Bitter Fruit" was a stunning account of workplace romances gone horribly wrong, as Pear is rather casually dumped by Banana in favor of Kumquat. Apple stepped in, rather clumsily, in an effort to offer comfort to the bitter Pear (who said things to Kumquat like "Check it out, Apple! The monkey learned to shave its face!"), first insulting her and then trying to advise Pear to start writing. Apple, who felt like someone somewhere on the Asperger's spectrum, tried to get Pear to come over to his place to hear him read his script. Faced with that and the possibility of having to hang out with Banana & Kumquat at an after-work get-together, she chose the latter. There were some hilarious images in this story, like the (literally) pear-shaped Pear being thrown out of her ex-boyfriend's apartment wearing sweat pants.

"Out of Season" featured Apple trying to hit on the new temp, Strawberry, only to discover the she was even more unbalanced than he was. She turned out to be the sort of borderline personality disorder person we've all met from time to time, rigidly defining everyone she came into contact with as either friends or enemies. Apple, with his rigid ideas on how to advise others, naturally managed to alienate her even as he was trying to hit on her. The highlight of the story came when the office went to see Pear at an open mic poetry night, which included lines like "And my vagina remembers/what you used to feel like/every morning...there is cereal/but every night...there's just slices". In each story, Apple makes a ridiculous protagonist, someone who is acutely aware that he's at the bottom of the social power structure and hates it, but will press any small advantage he can find. He wants to be "understood", but is such a narcissist that he can't understand other points of view and experiences. He wants to be considered compassionate and understanding, but is completely devoid of empathy. In short, everything he does makes everything worse, and provides a lot of bitter laughs.

I wasn't quite as drawn to Lewis' stories that star Yorkshire Terriers, with the exception of "Yorkie Matrimony". The humor in the other stories isn't quite as biting and the drawing felt a bit more stiff, especially with regard to character interaction. "Yorkie Matrimony" was so over the top yet true to life that it felt agonizingly real. The story involved a pair of female apartment mates, one of whom gets engaged. The other roommate feels betrayed and abandoned, worried that she won't be able to take care of herself. That started a series of passive-aggressive moves on both of their parts, culminating in a bridal shower game of Scrabble that featured insults to the groom.

Lewis has a knack for relating the power struggles at the heart of many relationships and how we choose to engage them. That sense of push-and-pull, where we need intimacy but also have the urge to dominate and control our partners and friends, powers the tension of her stories. The ways in which humans interact with each other, trading in self-deception, is absurd on its face, which makes Lewis' storytelling choices all the more resonant. Humans are ridiculous, so why not portray them as fruit or dogs or salt shakers? It's a way of softening the blow while playing up the humor inherent to the pain of human interaction. This collection, by playing up the connections between stories and characters in subtle ways, actually strengthened the original source material and gave it a surprising coherency for material collected from so many sources. Secret Acres once again provided a public service by getting stories that were once part of minis out to a wider audience.

1 comment:

  1. A thoughtful, insightful review of a brilliant, fun-to-read book. Kudos!