Monday, December 9, 2013

Once Removed: Couch Tag

Jesse Reklaw's Couch Tag is an example of what I call mediated autobiography. In each of the five chapters of the book, Reklaw uses a particular narrative structure and an accompanying aesthetic & decorative strategy in order to get at certain deep, painful feelings and events in his life. Much like in his highly-structured, year-long daily memoir comic Ten Thousand Things To Do, Reklaw uses these structures as a kind of safe space and even distraction that allows him to get at powerful, formative memories and how they relate to his current life. The core question that eats away at him is identity and how it is created relative to one's friends and family, and what the state of his identity is as he struggles with mental illness. The rawness of his emotions, especially as the book winds on to its conclusion, tend to spill over and swamp his structure, leading to some narrative and pictorial unevenness as his current mental state at the time of drawing the stories about his past has everything to do with how the story appears on the page.

In the first chapter, "Thirteen Cats of My Childhood", Reklaw introduces the reader to his family by way of listing every cat they had as pets. This is an ideal device, given the way people tend to project their emotions and fears onto their pets and use them as an outlet for affection, especially when that affection is difficult to come by at home. While Reklaw stays within this framework, the emotions and fears immediately come spilling out, as he reveals how his father's tempo frightened him as a child and how his family completely disintegrated when his mother divorced his father and his sister moved out of the house at the same time. The breakdown of his family is disguised by the trope of the Cute Cat Strip, complete with each cat getting its own personal logo and quips on either side of that logo. One of the repeated themes of the book is how Reklaw's young mind was unable to fully process and understand the chaos occurring around him, leading him to the the family "nothing" (in the words of his sister). The only way to get to these feelings, even now, is to trick them by capturing them with these literary devices.

The way each chapter addresses slightly different but overlapping concerns leads to some repetition in the memoir, but only in the sense that certain events and people are viewed from differing perspectives from chapter to chapter. For example, the second chapter, "Toys I Loved", rewinds from the divorce discussed at the end of chapter one and examines his family and life growing up yet again. The first chapter also established how many times Reklaw's family moved and how he often felt rootless and lonely as a result. The second chapter, with each section compartmentalized with a memory of a particular beloved toy, is all about his experiences in each of these locations, focusing on his young sexual history, as well as the way sex in general was brought up in his house growing up. With hippie parents who established few boundaries but also declined to make the world less mysterious, Reklaw was bombarded by a lot of information that was difficult to process. Some of that played out in terms of the "dirty" games he enjoyed playing with some of his friends, but he mostly portrays that as simple childhood pleasures that are rarely discussed as opposed to something pathological. This chapter is also about power and hierarchy, and how he often felt powerless against his older sister when he fought and the time he whipped a friend with a belt just to understand what that sensation felt like. The writer Michel Foucault explicitly connects power and sex in the first volume of his History of Sexuality, and this chapter very much plays out this way, as sex and sexuality are used and abused with regard to children based on hierarchy, power, familial superiority and other exploitative ways.

The third chapter, "The Fred Robinson Story" is about the ways in which friendships, especially male friendships that don't always allow for open expressions of affection and intimacy as children, are often mediated through activities like play and sports. In Reklaw's case with his friend Brendan, this chapter is a kind of love letter to the history of their friendship that was mediated through games, creative projects and music. It's also a love letter to comics in general, both the superhero comics of Reklaw's youth that obsessed him and the possibilities that comics opened up to him as a creative person and a collaborator. It's a chapter that intersects with the rest of the book in terms of talking about his family and interests, but it's also a chapter that very much works entirely on its own. It's tonally different than the other chapters, which tend to wind up being more downbeat and more explicitly about disintegration, decay and disarray. This is also the funniest chapter, as it details all sorts of collaborative pranks and shenanigans that wound up being a kind of special language spoken by Reklaw and his friend Brendan. There is a kind of bittersweet tone at the end as the friendship faded a little over time, but it concludes in the present day and notes that the friendship has endured.

The fourth chapter, "The Stacked Deck" is a family history in the form of all of the card games Reklaw learned to play as a child. Each anecdote starts with the rules of the game, a quick story about learning to play it, and then a family story related to the game. Once again, the chapter jumps back and forth but is roughly in chronological order. Some of the games mentioned (especially games involving working with a partner) resonate with the anecdote discussed, while others feel like a more cursory attempt to stick with the chapter's high concept and then move on to the story he really wanted to tell. Reklaw cleverly connects the element of chance in the games he played with the random element we must face when dealing with our extended families; the vagaries of genetics often lead to strange, seemingly arbitrary connections. At the same time, the deck was stacked against Reklaw growing both because of genetics but also the family history itself. Reklaw also talks about his regrets in not doing more to get to know his beloved grandparents in a real way as an adult, in part because he wanted little to do with so many of his crazy aunts and uncles. It's the first time the book touches on mortality, as this chapter turns characters in Reklaw's own internal narrative into real people who disappear and are unknowable.

Finally, "Lessoned" really gets to the heart of the matter in this memoir. It's a chapter about mental illness in his family and himself, told in the form of an A to Z primer.  The style of art here is the collaborative, rough, full color and sketchbook-style seen in his minicomic LOVF. The above gif is from his girlfriend Hazel Newlevant's blog, as she did the underlying blue pencils and Reklaw added the rest. It's fitting that even in his own memoir, Reklaw sought out others to work with him. This is a difficult chapter to process in many ways because it's so viscerally concerned with pain. If Reklaw's entire life was marked by chaos, a lack of structure and disorder, then many of his comics bear the mark of someone using a tidy, neat grid and a restrained, relaxed line. That's certainly true of the earlier chapters in this book, which are unusually smooth-looking even for Reklaw. However, all of that chaos simply spills over as Reklaw can no longer contain that pain, or perhaps is no longer interested in trying to conceal it. The book ends with an anecdote from his youth where he talks about an extended illness and a simple decision to no longer be sick. Couch Tag similarly is an exercise in personal agency. Designated as "the nothing" by his sister--a passive bystander who still managed to suck up emotional energy--his entire career as an artist can be seen as Reklaw creating something out of nothing. It's a portrait of an artist creating his own portrait that begins with formalist tricks, as though Reklaw is trying to trick himself into writing about these things by removing their immediacy by making them about something else on the surface. By the end of the book, that artifice is only superficially present as Reklaw's acknowledgment of his own struggles goes hand in hand with asserting his worthiness as a human being, all mediated and assisted by the way he creates art. If the book is uneven in tone and feels like it loses its way narratively at times, it's a side effect of artistic and personal freedom and agency. That raw self-discovery and revelation more than makes up for the book's rougher edges.


  1. See, this is why everyone needs to pick up LOVF as well! To illuminate, as Rob puts it, "[Reklaw's] current mental state at the time of drawing the stories about his past."
    This was an insightful take, thanks for the fun read.

  2. See, this is why everyone needs to pick up LOVF as well! To illuminate, as Rob puts it, "[Reklaw's] current mental state at the time of drawing the stories about his past."
    This was an insightful take, thanks for the fun read.