Thursday, April 25, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Solace of the Road: Abandoned Cars

Tim Lane is one of those 20-year overnight successes in comics. He's been doing comics and illustration work for quite some time, but it's only recently that his work has become widely published. In places like Typhon and Hotwire, Lane's spare, stark pulpy stories have stood out. It's to his credit that they work even better as a collection, and Abandoned Cars feels spun from whole cloth rather than carefully stitched together from a number of disparate sources. It's an unusual work because the stories seem so familiar, which is not surprising given the broad array of influences that Lane freely admits to. At the same time, they don't seem to be particularly derivative of a single source, but are rather a fusion of inspirations from comics, film, literature and a hard-lived life. While Lane's goal was to highlight some aspects of what he refers to as "the Great American Mythological Drama" as a broad experience, the way he does it is intensely personal.

In terms of subject matter, his biggest influence is Jack Kerouac. He's drawn to the author's attempt at creating that American myth, especially in terms of wandering about the vast spaces of America. Every one of his characters is restless and unsettled. Some openly take to the road as a kind of temporary relief, while others run from their misery in more metaphorical terms. Unlike Kerouac, Lane isn't interested in building up that myth around himself; even in the autobiographical story about train-hopping titled "Spirit", he openly admits to being in the shadow of his heroes. Lane takes a big cue from Joe Sacco in this regard; not only does his art have a lot of the unfussy, naturalistic characteristics of Sacco's line, but his own self-presentation is decidedly self-deprecatory. Lane becomes one of his own characters: lonely, a little desperate, searching for something and hoping to find it on the road.

There aren't any morals or even real beginnings or endings for most of his characters' stories. There's a touch of the grotesque and the absurd in his stories that lightens and even deflates his narrative style. It's a bit reminiscent of Daniel Clowes in that respect, and I think both artists drew from a lot of the same 1950s illustration influences. Lane goes in a slightly different direction than Clowes in his use of noir stylings. The use of shadow, stark black & white imagery and close-ups recalls the work of Charles Burns, along with his character design. That said, Lane's stories aren't really like Burns' or Clowes'. The more eccentric influence of Clowes is mitigated by the spare, unadorned frankness of Ernest Hemingway.

Many of the stories center around bars and the way that they can act as refuge, crucible, storytelling center or deathtrap. In "Outing", a couple of friends narrowly dodge death in a bar filled with crazy characters, only to meet a grim end on the road. In the book's biggest standout story, "The Aries Cow", the barkeep tries to imagine the life of an old man who comes to her bar to escape his demons, only to give him a tantalizing bit of information that winds up leading him to his end. "Sanctuary" is a classic tale of a man who's done something horribly wrong and knows that he'll be punished for it, having a drink with one of the men who will be meting out that punishment, defiantly delaying his fate just a bit longer. Even Lane's version of "The Story of Stagger Lee" takes place in one of the most disreputable bars in St. Louis. Lane is clearly drawn to the bar as a place whose purpose is not just inebriation, but the possibility of human contact and communication.

If the bar represents community for Lane, the car represents not just the possibility of escape, but the illusion of solipsism. Cars are tied closely to notions of identity and triumph over one's situation. In "Cleveland", a man at the end of his rope drives to Cleveland to be present at the birth of his best friend's first child, and manages to find a spark of inspiration. "Ghost Road" is about that urge to hit the road only to find that even talking to like-minded individuals doesn't dull pain. "Doo-Wop and Planet Earth" concerns the desperate urge to connect with another as one is ready to leave town, and how that attempt is both an act of cowardice and a leap of faith.

The stationary characters in Lane's world have generally descended into madness. In the book's interstitial pieces, a shut-in is consumed by delusions of grandeur and begins having demented daydreams. In the "The Manic Depressive From Another Planet", another shut-in dares to confront the world despite his near-crippling fear. "Spirit" addresses all of the book's themes: restlessness, the attempt to create meaning out of the randomness of our lives, the way that stories and legends accrue to create our understanding of America, and the need we have to connect our own personal narratives with those overlying American legends. Lane goes a step further in building his notion of American myth with other interstitial features like paper doll cut-outs of American originals like grifters, rockabilly dancers, Chuck Berry, good cops/bad cops, etc. He opens the book with a drawing of young Marlon Brando and ends with a drawing of an older Brando, bookending two views of an actor whose own symbology declined as he aged. Abandoned Cars will appeal to anyone who's ever sought out the comfort of the road, the urge to jump a train, or who looked for answers in the company of fellow patrons at a bar.

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