Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Hospital Week: DNR, Books 2 and 3

Mister V's comics are almost relentlessly crude and tangential but in a way that adds to their charm and that reflects the chaos of his life in the medical industry. By slicing up his narrative into bite-size vignettes (a function, in part, of his originally publishing these as webcomics), the pseudonomous Mister V is able to retain some sense of order in the larger narratives while pleasing himself and the reader with whatever interests him in a particular vignette. The second and third volumes of his series DNR detail a significant administrative transition in his job as a medical transporter on the night shift of a busy hospital and then his shift to a patient registration job in the same hospital, respectively. While V is the hero of his own story, he happily depicts himself as less-than-heroic at times, detailing mistakes, failures of his own courage, moments of pettiness and the fact that his brutal bluntness sometimes hurt others. Grounding the narrative in his own weaknesses as a person allows him a platform to address the injustices he sees all around him. One of the overarching themes of the book is the transformation of the hospital from a caring place designed to help its patients to a cynical money-making enterprise built on corporate double-talk, bureaucracy and out-and-out deception. Another theme is his desire for self-improvement and getting a better job, as well as developing as an artist. That ties into the book's end, when his job devolves into finding ways to soak as much money from the patients he encounters as possible, leaving him burned out and incapable of showing compassion.

The second volume, Best In The Nation, is at its best when V brutally takes down the CEO of "Sampla Medical Center", Bob Shakey. (Understandably, all identities in the book have been changed to protect patient and worker confidentiality, including his own.) V is a savage and profane critic who gets at the heart of Shakey's five bullet points that have little to do with medicine and much to do with feel-good doublespeak. He's also kind of an asshole who won't keep his mouth shut, even (and especially) when doing so gets him in trouble--but that's a large part of the entertainment. Immediately, a new axeman is hired to clean house in V's department, and V is told to take a paycut or seek employment elsewhere. This introduces a bizarre element to the story: it's quickly discovered that his new boss has a "leather daddy" profile and that he not only hires a bunch of his dubiously credentialed friends, but that evidence emerges that those who play along with him sexually get promotions. V makes it clear in other portions of the book that he's against homophobia, but the profane nature of his sense of humor and the position he's put  blurs that border in an almost casual manner. Of course, V himself realizes this in the course of the story (like when he says "This is so fucking gay!" about a dumb assignment to a gay co-worker, then slinking off in embarrassment) and offers some self-admonishment. (There's also a long bit in the third book where V goes out of his way to assist a trans person.) The climax of the book, when the tyrannical boss slinks away after an employee he fired at the drop of a hat slapped a harassment lawsuit on him, showed how even the pettiest of tyrants can be laid low when drunk on their own hubris.

This volume balances V's own growing disgruntlement, the frequently disgusting and sometimes hilarious nature of dealing with patients in a hospital setting, the ways in which even the tiniest amounts of power can go to someone's head, how arrogance and simple incompetence can lead to mistakes, and how sometimes the most powerful members of a hospital can be the pettiest. He also mixes in intraoffice intrigue and romance in a way that was certainly interesting but of questionable taste and even relevance, a decision that V admitted in a later strip was something he felt bad about. All told, the second volume is a tight and brisk read, one that reflects his improvement as a cartoonist. His style is best described as kind of a grungy, deranged Jim Davis: huge eyes, exaggerated poses, lots of cocked eyebrows, etc. It works, however, as every character has their own personality and a slightly larger-than-life quality. It also helps make the assorted bodily fluids that pop up throughout the book a bit easier to take as a reader, making them a bit funnier while still losing none of their visceral impact.

The third book, Too Long In The Wasteland, isn't nearly as strong a work. Part of this is that the setting simply isn't as interesting. Working in the patient registration area turned the series from an interesting exploration of the health industry into more of an office conflict story. Indeed, what was supposed to be sweet salvation after years of being puked on turned out to be more of the same: petty infighting, squabbles over the tiniest amounts of power, V's unwillingness to bend to corporate dictates regarding uses scripts in patient encounters, etc. It also meanders quite a bit more and veers off into some pointless bits of scatological humor. Some of the episodes, like one where V goes out on a disastrous date with a co-worker, are quite amusing but overall this collection had a lot of fat to trim. Fortunately, the book ends on a strong note. V essentially ends the story because there is no more story--just him at this same job. Of course, he provides a couple of amusing psych-out endings as well, along with giving as many "where are they now?" updates for other characters as possible. In the end, while V continues to wallop the increasingly-corporate nature of big medicine, he also places the blame on people like himself--cogs in a wheel, unwilling or unable to get off because they need a regular paycheck. At the same time, V also notes that he engaged in a lot of negative cherry picking; even the dumbest and laziest employees still managed to help patients and showed moments of compassion. In the end, what working at the hospital most instilled in him was a desire to create and to get better at it; indeed, there was even one grim strip that showed a suicide fantasy sequence where the only thing that kept him clinging to life was that he had so many ideas he wanted to commit to paper. That was a brutally honest strip, one that was done in the obvious throes of depression. The isolation and alienation that a workplace can create had gotten to him, but art was his only way out.

Mister V's other work tends to be funny and raunchy, blending in genre tropes and extreme, visceral gags. The House of Whorror is a good example of this, as it depicts a Nevada brothel featuring a line-up of women who fall into horror-movie tropes: a prostitute possessed by a demon, a half-fish working girl, a vampire who loves sucking all sorts of bodily fluids, etc. Into this mix comes "Fran", a putative Sex Doll of Frankenstein who escaped her maker's clutches and found herself working at The House and the witch who runs it as part of a very special auction: a virgin. There's actually very little nudity or sex in this comic; instead, Mister V prefers to lean on the horror side of things for laughs. At the same time, he doesn't glorify or play down the negative aspects of sex work in this book, noting that while the brothel's madam helped them when they were down and out, she still exploits them. The men (mostly government and religious types) who use their services are depicted as creeps or worse, often as a means of giving them their comeuppance. There's almost a sweetness at work in this story that involves a Candide-like innocent in Fran making her way in the world without totally losing her ability to care for others and see the other working women as friends of a sort, as fellow freaks that are all in it together. That genuine love of the individual characters gives them a bit of depth and context, even as it's all a background for sexual abasement on the part of both john and working girls. Hitting that sweet spot between warmth and nastiness is Mister V's specialty, as the best moments in DNR were cynical precisely because of how much V cared about what was going on.

The same isn't quite as true in Mister V's shorter comics, collected in his Arborcides minicomics. For every funny concept, like the Purple People Greeter (a monster who works as a Wal-Mart greeter), there's a misfire like the over-the-top parodies of communism in the strips featuring Mao and Karl Marx. What's missing here is the humanity that informs his other work. The gags here for the most part aren't even necessarily all that inspired; instead, they're simply visceral, angry and over-the-top. I get that Mister V wants to make fun of communist-chic, but he beats it into the ground instead of letting the gag go after a couple of pages. The problem with a cartoonist whose only mode is over-the-top, all of the time is that there's no modulation between page to page and story to story. There's no subtlety possible, no room for reader interpretation. Mister V strikes me as a humorist with a brain, not just a gag writer who wants to gross out his readers. The reason why his other comics are so much more effective is because of his ability to modulate between extreme scenes and scenes that actually treat the characters as characters, instead of joke delivery systems.

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