Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Retrofit/Big Planet Comics: Summer Pierre's All The Sad Songs

Summer Pierre's short autobiographical vignettes in her minicomics series Paper Pencil Life have established her as a sensitive, philosophical and quirky presence in the ever-growing comics memoir genre. Her dedication to exploring her interior life creates its own set of narratives, often complete with punchlines. All The Sad Songs is her first extended work at over a hundred pages, and it's on the surface a love letter to the role that music has played in her life. Of course, what becomes evident about halfway through is that the book is really about Pierre's unprocessed PTSD and her subsequent treatment.

Pierre's art emphasizes a heavy use of black, dense hatching and a strong sense of atmosphere. At the same time, her figures are warm and inviting to look at, drawn in a beautifully clear style that accentuates gesture and expressiveness. The result is deeply intimate, as Pierre warmly welcomes the reader into her story and invites us to be there with her through every moment of pain and joy. There's little use of negative space, as Pierre asks the reader to immerse themselves into her world and memories. It's a daring approach for an entire book, but Pierre's gentle wit assures the reader that the experience will not be a suffocating one.

The running theme throughout the book is not just that music was something that had a powerful effect on her, even as a teen, but that it was something she felt the urge to share with others. As such, the book pays loving attention to the clunky old mix tape. It's a format that's now dead, but at the time, having the power to record music off the radio or an LP was remarkable, especially when portable formats became available. Moreover, a mixtape was a personal message: a juxtaposition of songs given new meaning by the intentionality of the person making them. It's a testament to the fact that editing is its own art form and means of expression, like a good editor with an anthology.

Mixtapes were a way of expressing excitement, affection (especially for new crushes) and friendship. And the technology had something to do with this particular expression, because it was often a tedious, long process to make a mix tape. Furthermore, when you listened to a mix tape, it wasn't easy to simply skip a track and go to another one if you didn't like a song. Listening to a mix tape was just as much of a commitment as making one. There were no other options for recording music until the CD burner came along and the digital music revolution. It's in this setting that Pierre's book takes place.

If her book is really about PTSD, then its twin themes are intentionality and seeking meaning. As a child of a musician and someone in the rock business, music was just something that was part of her natural atmosphere. It was like breathing; she didn't even have to think about it. As such Pierre notes that a lot of the mix tapes she made in her youth and young adulthood were a reflection of that river of music that was was floating down. It surrounded and carried her, rather than being something that felt like it was hers. For a young person, finding that song or band that just gets you can be a crucial process, one that she didn't achieve until the riot grrrl movement of the early and mid 1990s. More to the point, it pushed Pierre from the passive act of listening to actually learning how to play guitar.

That led her to become a part of Boston's folk music scene. She played every open-mic night, every bar, every shop that would let her play. The key section of the book is her articulating chasing the feeling "of being found, of being known, of being heard in songs", looking for a specific kind of sublime aesthetic experience that can't be forced; you must be lucky enough for it to reveal itself to you. It's an experience that binds song and listener together, conjuring from thin air a combination of words and melodies that explains how they feel as someone living in this world. For a moment, that itch in the back of one's brain is finally scratched. We have peeked behind the curtain and saw the glory of creation, and we get to remember it for a little while.

That feeling does not make us immune to pain and trauma, nor is it a cure for it. Leaning on it too heavily can be like any form of self-medication: effective until it reaches the point of diminished returns--and then no longer effective. Pierre describes in detail how denying one's own pain eventually comes at an enormous cost, one with somatic as well as psychological symptoms. For Pierre, she described this feeling of anger and betrayal that led to "the brick"--a feeling in the pit of her stomach that made it hard to breathe. It was a panic attack, brought on by years of PTSD being exacerbated by a continuous loop of bad relationship choices.

Music is something that was recommended to her by her first therapist, who used the "talking cure". At the time, music was the only thing that gave her pleasure and didn't cause anxiety. Her former loves writing and drawing led to those somatic experiences of PTSD as well. The problem was that Pierre sought validation, redemption and tranquility by chasing relationships, no matter how ill-advised they were. The more she chased the sublime as a means of self-medicating, the further away it got from her. It was only when she picked up, moved across the country and got a new therapist who focused on how her mind and body were out of synch that she began to get better. Focusing on mindfulness of her body when she felt anxious, breathing techniques and other meditative therapy made all the difference.

The book emphasizes that the experience of art, and music in particular, is an essential part of what it means to be human. Be it listening for that song that hears you or performing music as an expression of living in that joy, music has powerful, positive effects on us. What Pierre points out is that these effects are not the same thing as therapy, no matter how much we channel our emotions into it. Pain has to be dealt with openly and in a therapeutic setting as a way of putting us on the right course, and/or with the intervention of medication. Doing so allowed Pierre to write her first love song for a man who was leaving town and couldn't get involved with her.

It was a song about that feeling of sadness "without rage", without trying to get someone to do something, without trying to wound or lick a wound. It's a beautiful grace note of an ending, especially with the sly use of the book's framing device. The book was told in past tense as Pierre looked over her old mixtapes and letters, and one of the final images is a current image of her husband and son--and her husband looks an awful lot like that man who had to leave her many years ago. It's a beautiful grace note as she offers up music not as a cure, but as a hook--something that lets us know that we are alive, we are heard and we are seen. Sometimes that's all we need to point us in the right direction to make our lives better.

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