Friday, September 9, 2016

Secret Acres: MK Reed, Robert Sergel

Palefire, by MK Reed & Farel Dalrymple. Secret Acres has built their backlist on collecting minicomics into full-length books. MK Reed and Farel Dalrymple's Palefire is something more unusual, as it's a comics novella originally written and drawn by Reed and now adapted by Dalrymple. Dalrymple has collaborated with Reed on other projects and strikes me as an ideal partner because his ability to depict naturalism and body language fits nicely with Reed's dialogue-driven comics about relationship conflicts. This one's about a teen named Alison who is interested in Darren, a suspected firebug that everyone warns her about. The book follows their interactions at a party and then what happens afterward when they leave.

The strength of Reed's work has always been her ear for dialogue, but I also liked the way she gave every character a fair shake in the book. Darren was obviously a creep, but Reed made him sympathetic. Alison's unwillingness to listen to the judgment of others was her major flaw, but her willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt was her greatest strength. I especially liked the character of Tim, the self-righteously obnoxious junior EMT who rescues Alison at the end and has a huge crush on her. His bluntness and lack of tact made him seem like an almost borderline Asperger's type, only with a bit more social awareness. Still, Reed managed to make this "heroic" figure insufferable and the villainous character sympathetic without warping the story or playing favorites. Everyone in the story is flawed. Dalrymple is adept at making the worst tendencies of each character evident simply through his visual representations without doing it in an obvious way. The way Tim dresses and stands betrays his awkwardness. Darren's posture makes him look like a predator. Alison's trusting nature is revealed through the way she sat relative to Darren. Reed cleverly upset expectations that might have been created thanks to teen-story cliches, as sometimes it is best to trust the instincts and experience of others.

Space, by Robert Sergel. This is the quintessential Secret Acres publication, as they've collected various minicomics by Sergel in one smart-looking package. Considering that these quasi-autobiographical stories are all connected over time, this collection and the way it was edited and arranged made it a particularly appropriate choice for the publisher. Sergel uses a stark, clear line with lots of black and white contrasts but little in the way of greys or hatching. The naturalistic but deadpan drawings combined with the crisp and thin nature of Sergel's line made for a "cool" reading experience in the McLuhan sense. The drawings are restrained in every way, especially emotionally, as Sergel forces the reader to pay close attention to what is being said and done in order to pick up cues as to what's really going on. It's a smart decision, because the strips in this book are actually packed with emotional trauma, anger, and bitter resentment.

It's also frequently quite funny, like the strip where a guy eats lobster's brains and says "I know things". Another example is "The Talk", where the book's protagonist (as a kid) asks his father about sex. His father, watching a baseball game, doesn't even bother looking away from it as he says "It's when a man puts his penis into a woman's vagina". That's followed by the boy asking his dad to explain the infield fly rule. More typical of the tone of the book is "Thirteen Bad Experiences Involving Water", which is funny in a cringe humor sort of why, as the young man encounters a series of humiliations involving water, like being spotted peeing off the side of a boat by some girls or being ridiculed for having to wear ear plugs in the pool.

"My Famous Grey Sweatshirt" is both a chronicle of the most trivial of objects (a beloved article of clothing) but also an account of the main character's obsessiveness. "Up Up Down Down" is a chilling story about him remembering a friend dying in an accident immediately after being dressed down by our familiar protagonist for hurting him by accident. Here, Sergel demonstrates his skill in using the slightest changes in expression to convey far greater emotional meaning, aided in part by his panel-to-panel transitions and tendencies to linger on key images. "Growth" is another fascinating story about coming to grips with mental illness; in this case, it's panic disorder. He goes to a disco as part of immersion therapy to confront his fears. One technique that Sergel used in the book was to have the narration comment on the images in unexpected but sometimes clinical or detached ways. In this story, the symptoms of a panic attack are listed as he's clearly about to lose it, until a bride-to-be at her bachelorette party asks him to dance and then later asks him to spank her. It's about as much of a best-case scenario as can be imagined, until the reader learns that she was doing it as part of a "bachelorette scavenger hunt".

The final story, "It's An Awesome Thing When The Spirit Leaves The Body", was clearly the most directly autobiographical vignette in the book. It's about the protagonist and his mother deciding to track down her black-sheep uncle, who turned out to be an illustrator. It's a delightful story about forming unexpected connections, both for his great-uncle (whose gruff manner was just a cover for his generous spirit and loving nature) and for the protagonist, who was fascinated by the way his great-uncle consistently bucked his family's desires for him to conform. It's also a story about how creating those connections is a powerful comfort in times of loss. It also connects the central theme of the book: the relationship of bodies in relation to each other. He starts off with Ptolemy and ends with Galileo, noting along the way whether the sun revolves around the earth or whether the earth revolves around the sun, metaphorically speaking, is less important than the fact that the two objects have a relationship with each other. In making this comparison, Sergel both acknowledges and cleverly undermines his own position as protagonist (the center of the universe), because their relative places in the heavens, so to speak, was less important to his great uncle than the fact that he had someone there. There is no single story, only a series of orbits in space.

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