Friday, August 31, 2018

Retrofit: Tara Booth's How To Be Alive

Tara Booth's uniquely and deliberately crude, quotidian and hilarious comics have always impressed me with both their sincerity and their willingness to go over the top at a moment's notice. In her longest collection of comics yet, How To Be Alive (Retrofit/Big Planet Comics), Booth really managed to stretch out a bit in her comics that look less like drawings and more like painted constructions cut out and slapped on top of a page. It's this aesthetic that works so well for her, because any movement on these pages feels weird, exaggerated and yet somehow still agreeable. The character Booth inhabits on the page is goofy, gross, sweet and absurd, and she always lets the reader in on the finest details of her everyday life.

The comic is entirely silent, which makes sense because Booth is such an extraordinary visual storyteller. Her self-caricature is weird and sometimes off-putting because the way she crudely draws her eyes and mouth is in distinct contrast to her loving renderings of complex patterns on clothes and backgrounds. Indeed, the way she draws herself naked has a similar quality of crude absurdity; she has a strong understanding of the ridiculousness of being embodied while totally embracing it as she shares this experience with the reader. The first image of the book features Booth (or her stand-in; I will refer to her as "Booth" for reasons of convenience) sitting down and reading a guide called "How 2 Write A Fucking Book". It's a serious statement of purpose as he clearly wanted to stretch herself but it's also a way to prick the balloon of pretentiousness.

Booth uses an open-page format for her mostly one-page strips. This provides a fluid reading experience, both as individual images but also as a collective punchlines. From the first two pages which simply feature her put on lovingly-rendered and painted clothes to the next strip, where she tapes up her breasts in order to elevate them a bit. Even though the way she draws her eyes and mouth are deliberately simple, it doesn't mean that they're not expressive; indeed, in this strip, her narrowed eyes and frown carry the storytelling day.

Much of the comic centers around her being alone finding ways to engage herself while dealing with many emotions and mental states. There's a page where she lines up all of her medications and forces a cheesy grin while crying. That use of an open format is especially revealing when she draws herself flitting from place to place in her apartment throughout the day, trying to keep busy. There's a sort of divine and colorful clutter in her apartment that makes these strips stand out from those with just white backgrounds: Booth wants to be understood as part of the context clues her surroundings evoke, as well as the way her apartment makes her feel secure. As she loosens up in the book, Booth draws more gag strips like getting sunburned on the beach, turning her apartment into a disaster prepper's stronghold, and feeling coins fall out of her thighs after going bottomless  in her apartment. That's a hilarious and embarrassing image, but Booth has a way of killing shame in her work and making it just one more quotidian detail to absorb and laugh at.

Booth's take on sex and her own sexuality is as funny as the rest of the book. There's a strip where she squats over a mirror, solemnly considering her own genitalia. Another strip finds her on her period, as she angrily eats an entire bag of cheetos, getting her mouth stained in orange powder while working on a journal called "Feelings". Later, she experiences an equal amount of stress when she's extremely late for her period and swallows a whole packet of birth control pills. Booth switches from silly (pulling out every sock from her dresser, unable to find a match) to funny (buying a bunch of pointless stuff online while high) to the deeply poignant and absurd (constructing her own bedmate boyfriend out of a pool noodle, paper plate and discarded clothes). As I've noted before, the essential sweetness in these strips ties into her willingness to confront issues that are hidden or couched in terms of shame. On the saddest and happiness of strips, Booth forgives and celebrates herself. She allows herself to be human and to be alive, and it's that self-affirmation that acknowledges the title and shines on every scrawled but carefully-assembled page.

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