Sunday, November 15, 2009

Artist Introspective, Part 2: Like A Dog

Rob reviews Zak Sally's collection of early comics, LIKE A DOG (Fantagraphics), as the second entry in a three part series on artists with recent publications that look back on their careers.

If the mood surrounding Paul Hornschemeier's ALL AND SUNDRY felt a bit chilly and reserved, Zak Sally's collection of his RECIDIVIST material and other works was positively pugillistic in nature. Of course, the battle Sally was fighting was with himself and his place in the world, both as an artist and a person. In republishing his first mature works, Sally went out of his way to directly confront the feelings he was experiencing at the time he was writing these comics and contextualize where he was at the time, both literally and psychologically. The extended endnotes written by Sally were one of the most bracing but inspiring pieces of writing I've ever seen by an artist on their own work. It's a statement of purpose not just as an artist, but as a human being. Sally simply embraced every misstep he committed as an artist, every mistake made as a person, every pang of doubt and self-hatred felt--because in the end, one has no other choice if they're going to continue to create. LIKE A DOG is in many ways a journal of a restless artist drawn to comics and frightened of them at the same time, with these two impulses tearing him apart as his own pattern of constantly uprooting his life reflected this conflict.

Sally was a member of the rock band Low, a group that achieved a certain level of fame and critical regard in the last decade. Being in the band meant a lot of travel and a rootless lifestyle, something that suited the restless Sally just fine when he was younger. At the same time, he found himself drawn to comics as a form of expression very different from his musical career. It was his first love, but a pursuit that left him constantly frustrated. Never allowing himself to have roots was, in a sense, a way to cut off the possibility of having to confront the idea of commitment. Comics, to Sally, represented a very particular kind of relationship and commitment that was especially difficult, yet impossible to deny. The result was the publication of a couple of issues of his elaborate minicomic RECIDIVIST, both of which were reprinted in this volume.

The first issue is rough compared to his later work, with a lot of overrendering and shaky lettering. Still, it's a compelling read because of the way he's able to establish his unique narrative tone. Sally often writes in second person, like in "All My Friends Are Giants", a squirmingly uncomfortable story about a literally tiny person who is a relentless manipulator. His nonstop blather is such that this feels like someone Sally dealt with on a regular basis. "Dresden" dialed back the intensity, both in terms of the visuals (heavy on blacks but otherwise rendered in a more minimal manner) and the story. Sally wisely let the disturbing events he witnessed speak for themselves, an inexplicable scene at a club he was going to perform at involving a striking young woman & what appeared to be a priest. The final story, "Severed" reflected Sally's obsession with the true existence of human beings as bags of meat. This was another story told in second person, as the body alerted the person that they had violated a contracted and that relations (and a tendon) were officially severed. It was a statement of disgust with himself, as well as being unable to live in his own skin as both person and artist.

The second issue was a big leap forward. While this collection wasn't quite able to capture just how intricate it was in terms of its cover, there's a stunning beauty in its design, especially the endpapers. He mentioned writing it, between tours, living in a 10x6 room so compact that every inch of it "had to make sense". I think as a result, this forced a similar sense of structure on his comics, which became at once more ambitious and more disciplined. "You're Going To Fry" was the most over-the-top strip in the issue, a brutal allegory about Hollywood culture written once again in second person. Its tone is less of an imperative one than his other stories of this ilk, but Sally's final visual, showing the film discussed in the strip merely reflecting the hellish reality of life in Los Angeles, spoke volumes.

The highlight of the issue, and the book, was "At The Scaffold", an impeccably researched and intensely moving account of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's time spent in prison. Jailed for speaking out against the Tsar (in the mildest of fashions), he spent his time in solitary confinement wracked by pain. Still a young man, he forced himself to focus past the pain and write. The parallels to Sally's own situation were obvious, and Sally was clearly moved and inspired by the letters of the young man who would later go on to be one of the greatest authors of all time. It was also an admonition to himself to stop wasting time, to let go of his past bitterness and self-loathing as an artist. It was fitting that in the first story that Sally wrote that wasn't actually about himself, he wound up revealing more of himself in a direct manner than he had before. It was reminiscent of what Ivan Brunetti would later do in SCHIZO #4, as he wrote biographical stories about famous figures that Brunetti identified with.

Sally's admonition for change was further reflected in "You Won't Let Yourself Be Touched", a dream comic told in first person, but where we never see the narrator. It's a desperate plea to himself to find a place to settle down into, but he wasn't quite ready yet. As Sally himself noted, this story saw him shift into his mature style in terms of his line. The line is expressive & simple, and much less reliant on the use of heavy blacks or intense rendering. It's the first time he showed a great deal of restraint as a draftsman. The story reflected his sense of disgust for how he was living ("like a dog"), that he was somehow less than human, and represented the first step on his road to transformation.

The rest of the book contained short stories from a variety of sources, including MOME and COMIC ART. There are some real stunners here: Sally was down on "The War Back Home" because of its timing around 9/11, but this scratchboard comic was one of my favorites in the book. It's one of the most clever stories about self-destructiveness that I've ever read, as Sally anthropomorphized every item in his apartment in terms of being allies or enemies in a constant battle, concluding with his worries about a potential alliance between the beer and his blank drawing paper. "21" was a hilarious (and as it turns out, autobiographical) story of a waiter who encountered an unusual guest who only ordered orange from room service--but wanted something altogether else from her waiter. "Dread" was a standout story from MOME, one where he incorporated the unusual lettering he'd been developing as a story device that heightened the sense of existential terror the narrator felt. "The Man Who Killed Wally Wood" was Sally at his best in that it was an autobiographical story that revealed a lot of crucial personal details, but did it as a secondary concern to the real story. That story was one of the struggle of the artist against exploitation on top of an everyday battle to gain inspiration, and the EC Comics flourishes in it were a nice touch. This story also displayed Sally's pitch-black sense of humor; despite the relentlessness of his style, Sally is far from being a miserablist.

In his afterword, Sally first provided context for each and every piece and then evaluated them. There's a brutal honesty to his approach that eschewed both a narcissistic sense of self-validation as well as self-negating self-deprecation. Rather than simply declaring all of his old work to be worthless, he treated it as part of a process. Some of the work he was still proud of, some of it he saw as a breakthrough in some way, and some of it was a dead end. All of it had value, because it was documentation of what led him to his current status as an artist. He noted that "somehow, making these comics forced me to work some shit out. And that the process of 'working it out' is real, and it's got value..."

It's obvious that this is true, because while not all of the work here is strong, one can see a voice developing and sound some truly interesting notes. The third issue of RECIDIVIST was one of my top comics of the decade, and his SAMMY THE MOUSE series clearly touches upon a number of events that he experienced as a younger man as well as his older works. Sally quit his band, settled down, bought his own press and has become comfortable with the process of making and publishing comics. He's quick to deflate his own sense of self-satisfaction, along with the idea that anyone's got it figured out. In the end, he says, "it's the work that counts". It's what mattered when comics frightened him, and it's what matters now that he's more settled. While Sally wanted to provide the reader context and his own view on his work (because he liked that sort of thing reading other collections), his opinion about his art was no more or less valid than the reader's.

It's a crucial point, because a difficult part of being an artist is declaring when something is done and can be experienced by others. The work becomes a separate entity, a monument to what the artist has created that has the potential to have an impact on its readers. Whether it's positive or negative is obviously out of the artist's hands and may or may not wind up affecting what the artist does later. There are certainly hard-working artists who have never produced a single worthwhile work, but the point is that unless the artist continues to release work, it is absolutely certain that they will never get better. The work is all that's left after the ephemeral nature of process and emotion fades away. It's the responsibility of the artist to create the best work of which they are capable, to have the courage to publish it, and to have the discernment to figure out how to ge better. I'm reminded of Lynda Barry's Two Questions from WHAT IT IS: if the artist immediately focuses on the questions of "Is this good?" and "Does this suck" instead of their actual inspiration, they will be in a constant state of paralysis. It's a struggle that Sally obviously was afflicted by, but has found a way to overcome it, and LIKE A DOG is a testament both to the struggle and the triumph.


  1. Rob - I've enjoyed your writing a lot over the years but this has to be one of your best reviews. I really admire the amount of respect you show the artists you write about (I wish more reviewers would follow your lead) while still remaining objective.

  2. Wow, thanks Marc. I appreciate it. My review of Sally's book has been rattling around in my head for about a month. I consider him to be enormously underrated--I think he's one of the greats.

  3. Gotta get this book ... I am glad you noted that the 3rd ish of Recidivist is one of the decade's best: I feel the same way, but I haven't seen it on many lists. I picked it up when Sally was in town at the Fantagraphics Store promoting his latest Sammy release. Great stuff. Good music that night, too.

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  5. Oh great!
    A totally compelling read.
    I also haven't seen that this was coming out, thanks!