Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Greg Farrell's Hipster!

Greg Farrell is the sort of young cartoonist who started self-publishing minis that reflected the ways in which he was very much a work-in-progress. However, his devotion to comics showed in the way he worked relentlessly to become a better draftsman, cartoonist and writer. His On The Books, about his experience as part of a union working for New York's Strand bookstore, was a huge leap forward for him. It reflected a purposefulness that had been largely absent from his meandering earlier comics, and a cartoonist without agency is one who is going to flounder. Farrell's collection of shorter stories, Hipster!, reflects a similar level of maturity even as the subjects are much more familiar. Indeed, much of Farrell's early work focused on gag humor that he never quite got right, but his more personal stories had a raw energy and brutal honesty that was compelling.

Farrell takes that energy, refines it just a bit, and creates a loosely-crafted narrative that connects all of these stories. It begins with Farrell describing a life growing up in the Long Island suburbs and dreaming of moving to New York or Brooklyn. It's a life he describes in great detail, for good and ill. For example, "Plagued Out" describes the reality of living with roaches, mice, rats and other vermin in old apartments, with bedbugs being the most hated pest of all. The energy and immediacy of the city has many trade-offs for someone who is not extremely wealthy, and that includes the frequent necessity for getting flatmates and having to deal with noise from one's upstairs neighbors. None of these are exactly revolutionary subjects, but Farrell's blunt, cynical and funny takes on these subjects makes them worthwhile. Farrell has a slight air of detachment when telling these stories; often, the more upsetting the subject happens to be, the more Farrell makes it seem like it's happening to someone else.

That's true in his story about an abusive, mentally ill ex-girlfriend and their massively dysfunctional, toxic relationship. According to his narrative, she would often initiate physical abuse in her anger after issues threats and insults, and his aim was to diffuse it as much as possible until she calmed down and apologized--and then sex would generally ensue. Farrell is pretty matter-of-fact about the whole thing, backing up some of his claims with statistics, even if his is a narrative that's not common in everyday conversation. In many respects, this story is where his art shines. Farrell's art is ugly, blunt and direct. His aim is to tell a story by doing the basics in terms of figure work and not much more. This is a blunt and ugly story, and the grotesque qualities that Farrell brings to his art (the panels where he draws himself with an especially hairy ass stand out) bring out that raw ugliness in a way his more dispassionate prose does not.

Farrell writes lovingly about local restaurants, growing up with video games and the way it bonded him with his brothers, his obsession with a certain rap album, his relationship with marijuana and his experiences dealing with sensitivity to electronics. There's also a brutally on-point comic about the inevitability of humanity's destruction at the hands of climate change that was originally published in World War III Illustrated. Throughout the book, the reader is given a sense of being given a pleasantly rambling tour of Manhattan & Brooklyn as well as Farrell's own life. It's a tour for insiders, with a few popular tourist destinations here and there but mostly about hidden spots that tourists don't know about. Farrell touches on a lot of typical autobio topics, but he also veers off in some interesting directions. The book has an uneven quality at the end, as he starts writing essays (with a few support strips here and there) about teaching comics for the first time. This really merited a full narrative treatment, and I'm not sure why Farrell opted for the essay format. On the other hand, he wrote a fascinating essay about his dealings with legendary (and controversial) small press publisher Microcosm, who published On The Books and from whom he has received no royalties, thanks in part to a bad contract he signed. Cartoonists rarely talk openly about business like this, and once again Farrell's hyperbole-free, matter-of-fact attitude about the experience was interesting, especially in how it led him to crowdfunding this book. In fact, Farrell makes pointed arguments that publishers in general may be completely obsolete from a practical, not just moral position. Farrell is by no means a finished product as an artist, but one can definitely see that he's starting to find his voice.

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