Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Indy Life: Leslie Stein's Brooklyn's Last Secret

Leslie Stein's work has veered between direct memoir and her "Eye Of The Majestic Creature" series, which is essentially fabulist memoir. Brooklyn's Last Secret represents a fictional story that nonetheless is deeply personal. It's about a slightly aging indy rock band from Brooklyn (hilariously named Major Threat) that embarks on a tour of America that operates out of a van. Stein has written a number of books, but she's also been a professional guitarist for a number of years as well. This book feels like an ode to a thousand road trip stories that she and many people she knows have collected over a lifetime. It's affectionate and wistful, as some of the characters are filled with regrets as they grow older while the younger characters are trying to imagine their futures. 

I've often thought that the indy rock and indy comics scenes had some similarities. Beyond the obvious comparison in that many cartoonists are also musicians, and that many cartoonists have done rock posters or album art, there's a deeper level here. There's not a lot of money to be made in publishing a book or releasing an album. Self-releases have limited reach and costs that have to be covered by the artists, while label/publisher releases have costs built into limiting royalty payouts. To compensate for this in music, there's a national network of clubs that host bands, where they might get a cut of the gate but also get a chance to sell merchandise. The past 25 years have seen a similar rise in smaller shows aimed at zines and small press comics, running nearly year-round now for cartoonists who want a chance to move their books directly to an interested audience. Touring and tabling are both frequently frustrating and demeaning, but every now and they have transcendent moments. 

There is a key difference that Stein highlights near the end. The "band dad" Ed, who's now in his 40s, is a professional tech guy in his day job. He's not especially fond of his co-workers and their smarmy attitudes about being a musician. At the same time, he hates being on the road, hates being hit on, and is pretty much a ball of anxiety. When bandmate Lilith calls him out on this, his reply is simple: I like to play the drums, and it is not a solitary pursuit. Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones used to say much the same thing, where when he was at home, all he wanted to do was go out and play drums, and when he was on tour, all he wanted to do was go home. The joy of music is performance, and unless you're playing on your own, you're dependent on others. This is in striking contrast to the solitary existence of the cartoonist; part of the fun of shows is simply being with other cartoonists. 

The structure of Stein's book is beautifully and conveniently episodic. It starts off with the band's agent setting their tour itinerary, and there's a running joke where the drunk/stoned members of the band fell asleep and they didn't get good food guarantees as part of their rider. The first show is a hometown show, and Stei elegantly reveals details about each of the four main characters organically as the tour proceeds. Ed never feels comfortable in any world, as the biracial son of academics who's a coder and rock drummer. When the band drives in Montana and they're stopped by police, he makes sure to sit in the back. Lilith is recovering from heartache and wondering what to do next in life as she realizes she's starting to get older as well. Marco is the young new singer, full of energy but also cagey about his life outside the band. Dave is the bass player who is mostly quiet and enigmatic, floating through a charmed life. 

By the end of the book, Stein unravels their backstories and mysteries to give the story more structure. None of that was really necessary, though. The real attraction here is the aggregation of anecdotes, the shared experiences on the road with this group of artists. What they share is not exactly friendship; indeed, Lilith points out that the road is no place for expressing your feelings. There's a hilarious sequence where she is upset and about to talk about her breakup with her bandmates, before she catches herself and instead "confesses" that she's "really into progressive electronic music right now." This elicits far more sympathy and understanding than a confession about her love life would. As in all of the book's vignettes, Stein's expressive cartooning is absolutely masterful. Her control over her spare line that suggests forms more than actually depicts them, is augmented by her tasteful and restrained use of color that furthers the narrative on several fronts.

As Stein describes it, being on the road is a long series of inconveniences, humiliations, tight quarters, drunken numbness, and the occasional transcendent moment. All of these things are endured to get to those moments as artists, seeking the sublime, as well as a few moments of mutual understanding from their peers and energy from the audience. Musicians need to play, cartoonists need to draw, and sometimes life is just picking up the mess that's made in between these fleeting, but deeply connected, moments of beauty. When the musicians in the book have on of those moments, they aren't just experiencing that one moment, but rather a continuum of that beauty across time, for every instance that they were in touch with the sublime. Being an artist is a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, and Stein depicts both with comedic grace and deep sensitivity.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The Perverseness of Nick Maandag: Harvey Knight's Odyssey

As a comedic writer, Nick Maandag follows a kind of logic that defies standard expectations of what a comic narrative should be like. In his new book, Harvey Knight's Odyssey, he's downright perverse about taking readers down blind alleys, subverting expectations, telling shaggy dog stories, and otherwise refusing to end his stories on anything resembling a conventional punchline. For Maandag, the humor is found in that repeated defiance of reader expectations that follows its own torturous logic. It reduces personal narratives to banalities at best and deluded acts of violence at worse. He is absolutely ruthless with regard to the concept of the quotidian, slice-of-life story, satirizing it like a wrecking ball. He's even meaner when it comes to the cruel pointlessness of religion and work culture, even if the satire doesn't seem to be his main objective. Maandag engages in vicious absurdity for its own sake, escalating absurd premises beyond a reader's comfort level until they go so far off the rails that they deliberately abandon the story's original idea and frequently reason itself. 

Maandag starts small in "The Plunge," the first of three stories in the book. It starts with a simple premise: Nick Maandag, in his office job, decides to start using a French press to work in order to make coffee instead of getting it from Tim Horton's. He's hesitant for a moment, for fear of being seen as pretentious, but then he reasons: why would anyone care or notice? Maandag takes that premise and takes it in an unexpected direction. In dialogue that is bone-dry and deliberately, maddeningly banal, his coffee-making goes in a different direction. His curious coworkers watch him go through the steps of using a French press and are fascinated by it, as he goes through a little narrative. Soon, his coffee-making becomes a ritual, as onlookers are excited for "the plunge," when he pushes the press down. Maandag even starts to become more elaborate in his narrative. The whole thing takes on a life of its own, until the entire office comes to watch. It ends on a newcomer saying, "That's it?", but the whole point of the story is not that this is interesting, but that so many people in this desperately soul-crushing environment gain the slightest bit of solace from a community experience that celebrates a moment of pleasure. It also attains a cult-like status (one co-worker says "We're always accepting new members"), even if the object of this cult is unbelievably trivial. 

Maandag runs with that idea in the title story. It starts with a crazy premise--a cult called the Church of the Holy Radiance--and goes in directions that utterly deflate the dogmatic qualities of the religion and reduce it to simple human greed and other base emotions. The religion believes that certain creatures are beings of light and others are beings of darkness, and humans are somewhere in-between. The Church aims to increase the light in humans (through obeying doctrines but also tanning beds), but this creates evil shadow beings that Church members now have a legal right to murder. There's an excruciating sequence where there's a lecture on which insects are dark and which are light that's every bit as arbitrary as any religious dogma. However, the titular Harvey Knight conspires against the cult's leader, steals his tanning bed, and eventually murders him. Harvey also hires a new assistant to do "experiments" that include skinning the old leader and turning that skin into a prop for a musical that includes maggots doing a can-can dance. The story and its characters get distracted and bored by their own narratives, forgetting to run their church or go to their own play. The ending is more of the same in terms of non-sequiturs, as a distracted and possibly addled Harvey decides to go explore the sewers. The "Odyssey" here rambles and makes no sense; it's like the antithesis of a Joseph Campbell Hero's Journey. Maandag's plain and simple line accentuates this, as he draws absurd things (Harvey's misshapen head is an inherently funny drawing) in a nonchalant fashion. 

The final story, "Full Day," is a recapitulation of both of the first two stories in the book. It's an "Odyssey" of its own, only it's far removed from the absurd premise of the "Harvey Knight" entry and more in line with the first story. It's a "day in the life" wherein Maandag goes through a series of extremely silly and annoying obstacles. A sweeping machine that only clears sidewalks in the daytime deliberately sucks up his hat because he's walking too slowly. An elevator closes on him repeatedly. A lecture from the boss on work-as-family is an obvious pretext to start firing people. Maandag faces a dumb and arbitrary performance review metric and gets increasingly in the weeds with it as the company sends someone to evaluate him in the middle of the task; Maandag gets in trouble for using folders wastefully. In the middle of the evaluation, he's asked to evaluate the evaluator in the most mind-numbingly awful survey ever. Maandag's failure to complete a task leads to a shaggy dog story of dead ends, pointless conversations, kidnapping, and abject failure. A homeless woman flashing him on the train leads to him being pulled into a complaint of being harassed, ending with a grief counselor chasing him to give him condolences.. The day is a pointless one: nothing is learned, nothing is gained, and all of it is a waste of time. 

It's a waste of time for everyone but the reader, that is, as Maandag's deadpan humor and drawings are a perfect conflation of ennui, absurdity, and total meaninglessness. This one doesn't quite have the more visceral belly laughs of his other recent work, but it's also fair to see that this book is much more conceptual in nature than his past comics. There's no hope or meaning to be found here, and that gleeful nihilism and total subversion of narrative expectations can be a gut punch at times. Maandag knows it too, and just when you think there's going to be a moment of character growth, Maandag short-circuits it with something absurd happening or that character (literally) choosing violence.