Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Life Sucks

I've been reading Jessica Abel's comics since the Xeric grant-funded Artbabe #5. Her greatest skill is her character work, especially in terms of the verisimilitude of her dialogue. In portraying little snippets of the lives of her 20-something characters, she managed to get at the core of their concerns and lives. There is a vividness in her character portrayals that made her stories linger long after reading them. With La Perdida, she once again created a vibrant set of characters, this time in a much more extensive narrative. Her running theme of characters feeling lost and trying to find their place in the world was put to dramatic effect, adding a frenetic element of action to her story. She made the bold choice of presenting us with a cast of characters who were mostly unsympathetic, especially the main character. By telling the story from her point of view but making it eminently clear that this character was deeply flawed, Abel made some telling points about identity and authenticity.

With Life Sucks, Abel is aiming a book at a different audience. The problem with this book is that its intent, flow and execution all seem to be at odds with each other at various points, which led to a comic that feels disjointed and overly labored. I'm not sure if this came about because she worked with another writer (Babe Soria) and another artist (Warren Pleece) to illustrate it, but the end result was largely unsatisfying. The book's high concept is very clever: a 20-something man is a vampire and is the servant of another vampire (the one who "made" him). As his servant, he's expected to work--in this case, the night shift of a convenience store. We meet his friends, the human goth girl he has a crush on, and his antagonist as the story unfolds. The effect we get is Vertigo comics meets Kevin Smith's Clerks.

The problem is that this comic is neither fish nor fowl. The rather predictable plot gets in the way of the kind of languid character set pieces that Abel excels at. We don't meet characters, we meet character types, and the main character is the flattest of them all. Dave is the familiar kind of sniveling, put-upon passive protagonist whose story arc is trying to screw up his courage to woo Latina goth girl Rosa. Dave is a "vegetarian" vampire, meaning he doesn't want to suck blood from humans and instead gets his nourishment from plasma. He's spurred into action by his irritant vampire friend Jerome (the bloodsucking Randal to Dave's Dante, to compare it to Clerks), his human roommate Carl but most especially by his rival Wes. Wes is a rich, spoiled vampire who has multiple slaves and furthers the whole "slobs vs snobs" plotline. He is determined to win Rosa, mostly as a way of annoying Dave.

After 90+ pages of this story, there's a shocking act of violence committed by Wes that reminds us that vampires are powerful and amoral. The violence is jarring and certainly changes the tone of the story momentarily, but we then return to the regular story with Dave. He then gets the girl when she realizes that Wes has several lovers, loses the girl when she realizes that Dave concealed his vampiric nature from her and refuses to turn her into one, and then has a big confrontation with Wes after she begs him to "make" her. This leads to a surprisingly downbeat ending where Dave makes a sort of sacrifice to win her her freedom from Wes.

There were aspects of this book that I found were done well. A leaner book with a tighter narrative built around its high concept could have been fun, especially if there had been a few more twists and turns in the plot. Alternately, a book that forgot about the plot and stayed with the high concept but concentrated solely on fleshing out the characters beyond the one or two notes that we saw in this book could have been a winner. Instead, we got to see way too much of Dave's vampiric sidekick Jerome, too much of the "old school" owner of the store Radu, and too much of the too-easy goth caricature Alistair.

The biggest problems, however, are the romantic leads. Dave is so put-upon and self-pitying that it's impossible to root for him. While this can be a bold decision (as noted above with La Perdida), it backfires in a familiar narrative like this that demands that the main character be at least somewhat sympathetic. Rosa is an even more frustrating character, with her falling for the trappings of the goth world as a means of rejecting her family; her eventual shallowness in choosing to become a vampire speaks to how underdeveloped she was. If those characters had had more than one dimension, or had been part of a tighter narrative, then Life Sucks would have been a much more engaging read. Warren Pleece's art walks a pleasant edge between realistic and cartoony, but does little to liven up the narrative. It's functional but unremarkable. I think it's quite possible that I'm not the target audience for this book, and that it may well be aimed at a teen demographic. That may be the case, but the rather graphic violence would seem to be at least slightly at odds with that goal in terms of marketing (though perhaps not appeal). I think if some of the more dramatic twists that were crammed into the end of the story had been employed throughout the story, or if the whole story was a more amiable (if oddball) slice-of-life story, I would have enjoyed either story more wholeheartedly. Life Sucks tries to be too many things at once, and while I admire the ambition of its creators, the execution of that vision simply didn't coalesce.

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