Friday, January 26, 2018

NBM: T.J. Kirsch's Pride Of The Decent Man

T.J. Kirsch’s graphic novel debut, Pride Of The Decent Man (NBM), is admirably brief and direct. It is ultimately about intentionality, responsibility and the forces that pull against both. Its principle character is Andy, the kind of loser who tends to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is easily manipulated by people he thinks are his friends. Andy’s best friend is Whitey, the kind of chaos vortex of a person who sucks people into his craziness and doesn’t let go until something horrible has happened. Not a deliberately bad person, necessarily, just a selfish and stupid one who lives enough of a charmed life to get away with things. Their dynamic forms the basis of the mostly episodic plot.

Andy twice trusts Whitey and gets badly burned twice. The first time, Whitey accidentally burns down the restaurant Andy works at because of his recklessness. The second time, Whitey talks Andy into robbing a convenience store, a scheme that goes horribly awry. Horrified, Andy realizes that there’s a kid in the store with the owner. Andy gets sent to prison and Whitey gets off with a slap on the wrist, thanks to some political connections. The through line and connective tissue of the book is Andy becoming a writer in college, in an effort to capture the world so that he can remember it later. That writing becomes the book’s narrative captions, which comment both directly and indirectly on what we see on the page.

The essence of Andy’s character is that he accepts responsibility for his actions. He doesn’t blame Whitey for roping him into the caper, or for getting out of jail scot free. Andy understands that even someone without a great deal of agency ultimately does wind up making decisions, even if it’s a decision to drift into the orbit of a sociopath like Whitey. A person is to be judged by their actions but also has the capacity for change and redemption, simply by choosing a different path. Andy is seemingly rewarded when a daughter he never knew opts to come into his life. Suddenly, his life has greater purpose and meaning.

That’s where things become problematic for Kirsch. Instead of figuring out how such a reunion would actually work out in the long run (a much more difficult storytelling choice than what he opted for), he decided on a tragic ending. This wasn’t necessarily a terrible decision, and the denouement of the story is actually quite effective, as his daughter chooses to live in the little shack in which he had resided, proud and happy to have at least met her father and understand his motives and the path he wound up on. The problem is that Kirsch had to come up with a series of plot contrivances that rely all too much on coincidence and convenience, punishing Andy through cheap irony. One can see those devices grinding away on the page, detracting from the genuinely soulful character work done with Andy and his daughter.

It’s unfortunate that Kirsch didn’t quite stick the landing, because there’s so much to like in this story. Kirsch’s figurework is solid, even blocky at times in a way that reflects on how much Andy changed his body while in prison, going from skinny to built like a cement block. Kirsch excels at exploring small details, but never loses panel-to-panel transitions nor individual panel composition. He excels at depicting bodies in space, interpersonal interaction and gesture, using an unfussy drawing style that simply gets the job done in its mix of naturalism and Clowes-like flatness. More than anything, Kirsch draws Andy as a man who’s not quite in step with his environment, and that’s symbolized by this huge man with a small pen and notebook in his powerful hands, attempting to gently create something beautiful with ill-equipped instruments and comically bad luck.

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