Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Fantagraphics: LOVF, by Jesse Reklaw

I'm not entirely sure what to make of the book-length version of Jesse Reklaw's diary of madness, LOVF. One chapter was published as a minicomic by Robyn Chapman's Paper Rocket, and the effect of that mini was truly that of an all-out assault on the senses. This isn't really a comic in the traditional sense, though there are some comics sequences. Instead, it's what it purports to be on the cover: "The illustrated diary of a man literally losing his mind." There are two things has to consider when reading this book: the visual approach and the actual timeline. The timeline follows Reklaw's relationships in his residence of Portland starting to crumble, until one shattering day when he's brutally beaten by a guy after he stopped to try to help the woman the perpetrator was assaulting. That led Reklaw to New York, where he learned that his Medicare was stated-based, meaning that he couldn't get his psych meds since he had no money. That meant being homeless in New York, then managing to get himself to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and finally back to Portland again. Each city is roughly demarcated as a chapter and marked off as such by a different color of paper.

Visually, Reklaw collaborated with a host of guest artists (including some he was involved with romantically) and used a dense, dark mixture of colors on each page. There was also a side narrative involving an adventurer named Koldor that was the most visually interesting and funny part of the book; it was done very much in the spirit of Reklaw's Bluefuzz the Hero mini, which was meant to work both as a straightforward adventure, as a metacommentary about role playing games, and as a partly autobiographical series. There's also plenty in the way of eye-pops and other visual easter eggs on each page, but they were more in the spirit of a sketchbook jam than anything resembling a real narrative. The autobiographical story is told through Reklaw's hand-painted text, and the images are there more to reflect his state of mind than support the text with images that make it clearer.

Reklaw, in his career doing his strip Slow Wave and autobio projects, always struck me as an artist who thrived on creating order out of chaos. In transcribing the dreams of others, he put them in a solid grid and used a fairly naturalistic style to make sense of them. There was a solidity to be found there, just like in his diary strip Ten Thousand Things To Do and most of his Couch Tag book. Lurking underneath that order was the bubbling chaos of being in constant pain and dealing with the PTSD of a difficult childhood, along with other mental and emotional issues. He built structures to contain all of these things, and LOVF reveals what happens when the emotional and personal scaffolding of one's life is removed: total collapse. Tonally, what was odd about this book (and much of his other work) is how distant it all felt, like he was describing something happening to someone else. Reklaw's strategy in his autobio work was also to use a mundane and quotidian approach that the reader (and he) could latch on to, which allowed him to slip in the real roots of trauma or experience of depression or debilitating pain. He doesn't close such events in a big reveal moment; it simply comes up almost incidentally, as he frequently buries the lede with regard to his own life. There's no drama built-in to his work, which is not to say that there's no trauma.

What Reklaw describes in a matter-of-fact kind of way (giving away most of his possessions and leaving town) is actually pretty startling stuff, and the tone of the scene where he's beaten is almost bemused. There's a sense of almost denial that something could be causing him pain that eventually comes out in his behavior, like drinking to excess, saying hurtful and obnoxious things to others, and trying the patience of his friends. He's in and out relationships, charming and alienating people he meets, flirting with financial success and then having no money at all. At the end of the book he reveals what precipitated his initial journey to New York: a trip with his mom and siblings where Reklaw had a breakdown and walked away, eventually winding up in a nearby stream where the cops pulled him out. He was locked up, escaped from lock-up (!) and eventually got sent to a mental hospital. In other words, he started the book on a foundation of shifting sand to begin with, and without his meds that became quicksand. Reklaw is philosophical about it all, as he knows he could have killed himself or been killed in any number of ways, but it didn't quite seem to be his fate.

This is a difficult book to navigate. There are fascinating visuals and surprising twists and turns, but the restraint that has marked Reklaw's books in the past obviously went out the window, replaced instead with that strange disconnect that even Reklaw noted is something that he doesn't understand or relate to at this point in his life. Reklaw said it feels like someone else hijacked his life for a while and did this book, unconcerned with consequences and instead more interested in trying on different personae every day. It's a book about losing touch with reality and repeatedly self-inflicting wounds and burning bridges. Really, its main attraction as a comic to read is that secondary fantasy narrative that I wish had been fleshed out more in lieu of the book that we got, because it seemed to illustrate the chaos surrounding his life better than the other actual illustrations did. This is less an artistic masterpiece than an extended warning to himself and expulsion of toxins, a perilous journey with some dark but occasionally fascinating roadside attractions.

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