Friday, October 7, 2016

Uncivilized: Mike Dawson's Rules For Dating My Daughter

The one constant in Mike Dawson's widely varied narrative choices in his career is that no matter what he's doing, he always tends to use a bit of narrative misdirection in establishing his true themes. For example, Freddie And Me is ostensibly about growing up as a fan of the rock band Queen as he transitioned from living in the UK to the US, but it's really about the properties of memory as they relate to identity. By the same token, his collection of essays from Uncivilized Books (by my count, his fourth publisher to date), Rules For Dating My Daughter, bills itself as "The Modern Father's Guide To Parenting". In reality, the book is about moral and ethical paralysis, as Dawson repeatedly finds himself confronting the question "Am I Good?", especially now that he's a parent.

A word on the cover. I've been baffled by some internet comments I've seen about the cover that claim it's glorifying gun use, toxic masculinity and Dawson's privilege as a straight white male. One look at the book's contents (and the story the image is taken from) quickly reveals that this is an ironic image, one that's deliberately made as hypermasculine as possible. These are issues that he quite explicitly explores, without finding a way to resolve them adequately in his own mind. Indeed, the entire book reads like a philosopher carefully weighing both sides of an intractable issue, unwilling or unable to issue an appropriate, all-encompassing ruling. Dawson is exploring the world of ethics throughout the book, and the only firm decision he seems to come to terms with as a moral imperative is becoming a vegetarian, though the argument he makes for this position is personal and arbitrary. Otherwise, one of Dawson's missions in the book is thinking about extremist moral positions and how uncomfortable he is with them, even as he understands that having a framework that he didn't question would make his life much simpler.

Dawson begins the book by addressing a classical ethical quandary: is having good intentions and ideas enough to make one "good", or does it require a specific set of actions? Is believing in social justice or gun control in itself sufficient to be "good", or can only only consider oneself good if one is working directly to make change--especially if that person is in a position of relative privilege? Dawson is well off enough, as he relates in the book, to work part-time from home in order to draw and telecommute while taking care of kids, but he also has a part-time nanny. It's important that he acknowledges all of this up front, that posting political links on facebook and twitter is literally the least he can do in order to live up to a certain nebulous ideal.

The title story explores the idea of a "feminist father" t-shirt about the rules for dating his daughter, that in essence, she makes the rules because it's her body. He explores the idea of "you'll need a shotgun to scare off the boys", which is of course problematic for all sorts of reasons. It treats his daughter like property, it denies her agency, it turns relationships into primitive shows of strength, etc. Dawson deftly puts himself into that mindset and then tears it down as he imagines the future version of his daughter demanding her own agency, and then even his son objects to the idea of that possessiveness, asking if it was OK if other fathers wanted to shoot him. Dawson goes over a number of variations on "the rules" before concluding that the more rigid one is about future events, the less likely it is that your rules will have any relevance or value. More to the point, worrying about that hypothetical future only detracts from being able to build trust and foster agency now.

Throughout the book, Dawson's focus shifts from quotidian strips about what a day is like in his life at the moment as he and his wife raise their children to a particular point he might choose to bring up. His art is in the style of his recent book Angie Bongiovanni, which is to say using a lot of big, stylized heads and smaller bodies and an emphasis on naturalism otherwise. His frequent use of an open page layout instead of a traditional gig gives the book a deliberate photo album feel, especially when he starts stacking panels on top of each other.  Work/life and art/life balance is the subject of one strip, where he once again concludes that any notion that he has to have a certain level of productivity is arbitrary and an idea that simply isn't relevant for him anymore. In other words, if life dictates that he spend a certain amount of energy simply being a dad and being present with his kids, then so be it. It's a decision that female artists have had to repeatedly make throughout history.

He also flips to more explicitly political pieces, like one where he uses a couple of alpha male types in different poses to underline that Americans don't in fact like underdogs, they like underdog stories. Stories like that don't affect their equilibrium; in fact, it becomes part of the American myth. Dawson's further point that Americans hate underdogs is right on, although I'm not sure it's entirely because they "hate a loser for losing" (though that's part of it, since winning is an endemic part of American culture. I might posit that there's a belief that an underdog winning represents an open threat to them and their way of life, and it plays out in topics like immigration, race, gay rights, etc. Something that represents a gain for someone else is automatically perceived as a loss for them--and "losing" is intolerable.

In the most chilling story in the book, "overcompensating", Dawson takes that brew of toxic masculinity, glorification of violence as a solution to one's problems and an unexamined stance towards one's own beliefs and privilege and sets it squarely on himself. Throughout the book, Dawson takes great pains to show himself in a warts 'n all manner with his family. Sometimes his children frustrate him. Sometimes he yells when they're not listening, or are endangering themselves. There's a story where his daughter in fact draws him yelling. This story relates a time when he was younger and a girlfriend left him for someone at her job, and he went down to confront him about it. Things got physical. Dawson described himself as full of righteous fury, interspersing drawings of himself with 80s action heroes like Clint Eastwood and the Punisher. Throughout the story, he pops in domestic violence statistics and gun violence statistics. The comic is not an attempt to justify his actions in any way, but rather to express the remorse he felt for his pointless actions and attempt to understand what brought him to that point. This story is Dawson admitting that he's part of the problem and has tried to change, but is that enough?

Does being a vegetarian make him good? Does acknowledging his privilege, over and over, make him good? Does raising his children in a loving and supportive way make him good? What Dawson hints at throughout the book is that while this is perhaps the most anxiety-producing topic there is, as it is doing nothing less than figuring out where one stands in the cosmic scale of things, it's also beside the point. Worrying about the semantics of being good is less important than the intuitive properties of kindness, mercy and acceptance. It's not unlike the ethical approach to Lynda Barry's famous two questions. This is in relation to what happens when one looks at a story or a drawing or anything you've created, and instead of simply enjoying the action of creation, you start to ask "Is this good? Does this suck?" Similarly, asking "Am I good? Do I suck?" leads to the sort of moral paralysis that we see throughout the story. The reality of our situation is that we make hundreds of small ethical decisions every day, and after a while it becomes obvious which decisions are selfish and destructive and which decisions come from a place of kindness and empathy. Having an open mind, a willingness to change and evolve, and the ability to understand the beliefs of others are the keys to "goodness" in my view, where kindness and a simple respect for the humanity of others intuitively guide our decision-making instead of the sort of titular rules that are incapable of dealing with nuance. It's Dawson's ability to shift from all-judging editorial cartoonist to flawed but always striving husband and dad that display precisely that sort of kindness and empathy. It may not be something that comes easily or naturally, but Dawson's whole point is that it can be learned.

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