Friday, May 9, 2014

More A-Holery From Lance Ward

Lance Ward first came to my attention with his autobiographical collection K-Mart Shoes. It is one of the most honest, blistering and brutal series of autobio strips I've ever read, as Ward recounts a youth filled with indifferent and later abusive parenting, mental illness, and bad decisions leading to an arrest. Drawn in a loose, expressive manner on a steady 12 panel grid, Ward's talent for narrative storytelling shone through on every page. Ward does other kinds of cartooning, including raw, brutal and scatological gags collected in (Lance Ward Is An) A-Hole. If his autobio comics are a way to coherently analyze and address the many painful incidents from his life, then his humor strips are a way for him to let off feelings of rage. That is personified in his absurd Tater Tot Diaper Man character. He's a guy wearing a diaper with a dirty pillow case on his head who sits on top of buildings that throws M-80s (his "tater tots") at random passerby. Sometimes he dispenses his wrath in a just way, and other times he's just a symbol of mayhem. There are other pointlessly vicious characters like Pink Eraser Head (the name says it all), a muscled meathead who inflicts harm on the likes of poor saps like Colostomy Bag Joe. Ward frequently finds ways to subvert his own creations, like in one strip where a winged demon bursts through a window, wanting to discuss his feelings with a woman. Another is a strip where Pink Eraser Head gives Colostomy Bag Joe a "testicular exam" (grabbing his balls and mashing them), only to have a look of horror in the next panel. The payoff panel features Joe at the doctor, being told he has testicular cancer. It's a brutally hilarious, nihilistic gag that shows the brains behind the mayhem.

The second issue isn't quite as funny as the first; its descent into nihilism rivals the early issues of Ivan Brunetti's Schizo for the bleak, violent and fatalistic vignettes depicted in this comic. It's a less focused comic, one that goes from railing against injustice to a random act of violence in the blink of an eye. It's less colorful and has fewer coherent gags than the first issue, even if the drawing is excellent, maintaining its raw power while tightening up across the board. As in response to that approach, the third issue is much tighter, featuring just two stories. The first is the origin of his character "Lord Harold", a disfigured misanthrope who recounts years of prison abuse just to get information on a repository of fabulous wealth. This is a kind of warped, sci-fi story that features some excellent drawing, repulsively grotesque character design and grim, dark laughs. The same can be said of the second story, "The Apocalypse Chronicles", features Ward's familiar autobio caricature going up against the zombie apocalypse. What's funny about this strip is that it's really not all that different in tone from his other comics in terms of the horrors and hypocrisy of civilization. The zombie apocalypse is just a little more honest about it. Both of these stories were interesting because they deviate significantly from Ward's 12 panel grid that he uses for quicker, more expressive work. Here, he frequently works big, employs a lot of greyscale shading, and varies his panel and page design. If he wasn't so clearly meant for humor and satire, Ward could be a fair genre cartoonist.

The fourth issue was a real breakthrough."One Day In 1978" and "Another Day in 1978" are informed in part by his experiences of growing up in a suburb with little to do, and they feature a key element in all of his comics: how parental and familial relationships often degenerate into simple, brutal power relationships. In the first story, a little kid discovers some violent comics by a neighborhood teen named Ronny. His stepfather, Bill, confiscates every thing he does like from the kid and puts it in his tool box. Bill owes money to a cocaine dealer who is getting angry and anxious about getting paid. Ward sets up the dominoes and they begin to fall when Ronny steals the toolbox and stashes it in the bushes. The kids, in search of more comics, find the toolbox and start looting it. Ronny comes by and starts savagely beating one of the kids, until a frantic Bill comes along and demands the cocaine, which has been thrown away, which starts him savagely beating Ronny. That continues until the dealer comes by and savagely beats Bill, caving in his face much like Ronny's character did in the comic he drew. What's especially remarkable about this story and its sequel is the way Ward captures the warmth and importance of young friendships and the impulse to create one's own adventures in a boring suburb along with the low-level dread of random acts of violence being perpetrated upon you. The second story focuses more on that friendship between the three young boys; while it has a no-holds-barred quality in terms of dialogue, there's also a sense of sweetness and naivete. At the same time, there's once again that circular relationship with violence, as the bigger fish metaphorically devours the smaller fish.

Wit's End is a collection of stories more in the vein of K-Mart Shoes, only divided up by various subjects. Unfortunately, the version I saw was in black & white with greyscaling, instead of using the beautiful and narratively efficient water colors in his first book. It's not a dealbreaker, to be sure, as the art and writing are still both quite good, but Ward's use of color made K-Mart Shoes truly stand out. That said, this comic employs the loose, spontaneous style he prefers for his autobio pieces and thus is filled with that same sort of casual energy, paced along the pre-set 12-panel grid. The story divisions allow Ward to write in terms of shorter vignettes and loosely-connected ideas rather than the kind of chronological narrative he attempts in K-Mart Shoes. This looser strategy also allows him more moments of humor and comic relief in what is otherwise an in-your-face and honest portrayal of Ward's struggles with his mental health, physical health and history of trauma. Sections like "Kid Stuff", "Of Banners and Buffoons" and "Boot Camp" all relate fairly amusing anecdotes, either as a collection of one-pagers are as a short vignette. They balance out "Heart Attack" and "Dopes to Infinity", which are about his health problems and his crumbling marriage, respectively. There are chapters about the joys and pitfalls of drug use, but the most absorbing chapters are about becoming a cartoonist again after abandoning it as a teen and a variety of Ward's crazy friends. There are hints regarding the deeper, darker stories that Ward tells in K-Mart Shoes and elsewhere and there are certainly moments of despair and struggle, but Wit's End is largely an upbeat, funny comic that draws from both his autobio and his humor work. It's an excellent place to start for one curious about Ward's work.

After I finished this column, I received a copy of Ward's sequel to K-Mart Shoes, titled Adults Only. The events described in the new book make Ward's difficulties in K-Mart Shoes look like a birthday party. In this slender volume (about eighty pages), Ward returns to his crisp and vivid watercolors for his autobiographical comics, colors which help to heighten emotions and fill in blanks. The first chapter picks up right after the end of K-Mart Shoes, when Ward has managed to graduate from high school after overcoming any number of obstacles that included but were not limited to an abusive step-father, an indifferent biological father and a fickle mother. Ward's modern-day caricature frequently pops up in order to provide perspective and commentary, and there's one powerful scene where he recalls being intentionally shunned by his father's family after graduation. Modern-day Ward gets so angry in one panel that the lines threaten to fall apart, and he disappears altogether in the third panel. Some old hurts and betrayals simply don't get better when discussed.

While many of the stories told by Ward were upsetting, nothing compares to the second chapter. As he writes: "One day I woke up to discover that I was in a mental hospital." Ward had somehow managed to "lose" an entire year's worth of memory while dealing with the realities of being in an institution. This is a harrowing chapter, less so because of the hospital itself (which Ward credits as helping to save his life) and moreso because of the sheer terror of being alone, unwanted and having lost a huge chunk of one's memory and identity. Once again, Ward's use of color is clever: in the early part of the chapter, it's entirely black & white. Slowly, Ward adds a little color to his face but no other colors. As the chapter progresses and he slowly starts to get better, more color creeps back in. Much of the rest of the book is framed by a device where Ward actually gets to talk to a therapist for the first time in his life, as he slowly starts to try to piece together memories. He wound up in some horrific situations, like living with two co-workers who physically and then sexually assaulted him. The third chapter talks about a relatively more stable time, when Ward had a live-in girlfriend and a steady job at an adult bookstore. This raised other questions for Ward regarding his sexuality, which he talks about in a painful but cathartic way. Throughout the book, Ward manages to address a number of situations he got mixed up in with an absurdist's touch of humor, recognizing ridiculous events for what they were. At the same time, that blank year remained blank, despite some clues discovered here and there. It's a horrifying ending, even as Ward proves again and again that he's a survivor in the face of little to no support. Ward has no easy answers for himself or the reader; even as the steward of his own narrative, he proceeds in fits and starts, unsure of where to start or stop regarding certain parts of his life--especially those parts that he can't remember. This is rough, spontaneous and engrossing cartooning.

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