Thursday, July 30, 2015

Heart-Shaped Box: Babak Ganjei's Early Learnings

Babak Ganjei is an interesting cartoonist whose publishing concern, Records Records Records, has released several noteworthy comics. However, he's taken a quantum leap forward in his own work with the minicomic Early Learnings. Jumping back and forth in time with a corresponding change in line weight, the comic covers young Ganjei's experience with racism growing up in England, the way music and popular culture shaped his identity, and how he glommed onto Nirvana's Kurt Cobain as a way of breaking out what he perceived as a predetermined societal and cultural role. This isn't a typical bildungsroman, however; Ganjei critiques his own current identity and identification with Cobain as much as he looks back fondly on it.

While this comic is frequently grim at times in terms of how Ganjei was treated (he was referred to simply as "Paki" by many of his classmates), what comes through the most is Ganjei's absolutely pitch-black and perfect sense of comic timing. I don't think I've read a funnier comic all year than this one. Ganjei deftly navigates the line between shaping his narrative to include a number of riotous gags while still getting across pain, sadness and alienation. Ganjei portrays his parents as being affectionate but entirely clueless; he even pokes fun at himself as an unreliable narrator in a scene where his parents can't remember how old he'll be on his birthday. "I'm not sure", his mother says, "the references in this work are all over the place. It's that confusing blurry time where childhood innocence meets some sort of sexual awkwardness.What does happen is that his parents invite his entire class to a showing of Dead Poets Society for his birthday, and Ganjei imagines his father saying "This is totally not a bad idea."

There's witty line after witty line to be found in this comic, and they're made all the more hilarious in the way they contrast with the palpable desperation and loneliness felt by young Ganjei. The formal qualities of this comic are quite interesting, as Ganjei's younger days are done in two or three panels per page. As he enters his more frantic teen years, Ganjei crams more and more panels on each page, paradoxically giving those small panels more detail than his bigger ones. There's crosshatching, shading and extensive background detail. Contrast that with the modern day scenes, rendered in a dense line that almost abstracts any detail beyond the figure drawing. Interestingly, the modern scenes are also mostly two or three panels a page.

Finding Cobain and identifying with Nirvana after years of listening to pop and wanting to be Marty McFly does little to solve any of his problems, especially when he orders a t-shirt that's several sizes too large. When detailing how much Cobain meant to him, a friend questions the wisdom of using the lyrics of a 21-year-old as a foundation for his current adult point of view, blasting away at it in reasonable point after reasonable point. This only leaves Ganjei to regret writing her into the story and then lamenting "This isn't even a date". Once again, Ganjei finds a way to acknowledge the importance of Cobain in his life while puncturing just how self-important and silly it is to take that much solace from a rock icon. Balancing sincerity and self-deprecation with a stinging wit and expressive cartooning puts Early Learnings on my short list for best mini of 2015.

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