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10.01.04 - 3:44 p.m.

Slapdash Review Korner

with your host, Amar

special comics edition!

Here is a question I’ve been thinking about lately, often while stroking my chin and frowning concernedly: why are there so many semi-autobiographical indie comics featuring pasty-faced, virginal comic artists as protagonists? When you think of other art forms—painting, music, writing, paper-mache—you don’t instantly assume the artist is a dateless dork. Sure there are emo bands and lonely writers and desperate painters, but they merely occupy a small part of a large continuum. Why is this not the case with comics?

Am I wrong about this? I could be. Certainly Lynda Barry, Roz Chast, Art Spigelman and los Hernadez Bros. are exceptions, and I’m sure there are more. But all the comics I’ve picked up lately fit this mold. I don’t know, maybe it stems from the association comics have with juvenilia and super-hero fantasies—a fading association, but one that still persists in social imagination. Or maybe it’s more a reflection on me and my tastes then it is the comic world at large. Perhaps I am drawn to comics about losers, for reasons not worth exploring, or focusing on, or ever mentioning again, after this sentence. Full stop.

In any case, here are some graphic novels I've enjoyed in the past few months. No points for guessing the common theme. You can click on the links below to read extended excerpts (or, in the case of Same Difference, the whole thing).


Most of the artists featured in the recent McSweeneys comics issue were familiar names to me, but Jeffrey Brown was a pleasant discovery. He contributed a series of sketches focused on his temporary obsession with this girl who likes him but isn't interested in a relationship. Jeff is definitely wimpy; his character is the sort of guy who might benefit from an intervention in which his friends took turns slapping him and shouting "stop moping! you're not 16 anymore!" But I've been known to mope myself, so I could relate. The drawings were crude, but they managed to convey a lot of emotion, especially in faces and eyes.

The plot of Unlikely is readily apparent when you consider the book’s full title, listed on the back: Unlikely (Or: How I Lost My Virginity.) It’s an autobiographical tale unstinting in its candor. While the story is nothing remarkable—boy meets girl, good times ensue, bad times ensue— the appeal of Brown’s book is in how he captures the mundane little moments that comprise everybody’s relationships, but rarely get depicted. Instead of a story arc, what you get is a bunch of one or two page sketches—they’re playing Trivial Pursuit, sitting in a coffee shop, watching a movie at home, smoking weed. It's much like the McSweeneys piece, except book length, and here Brown is even more clingy and fragile. Hey, cut him some slack, he's a comics artist!

In addition to the story, Unlikely's art is also well-done. Brown draws with scratchy lines that look like they were dashed out on a diner napkin, but as he put in in an interview:

"I can actually draw a lot better and it’s by choice I draw in that cartoony and crude fashion... I think the simplest means of expression are often the most effective... when I was in the middle of my MFA at School of the Art Institute here in Chicago, I was in the painting and drawing department and I was kind of trying to reject a lot of things. I wanted to draw comics like I did when I was a kid. So I tried to forget everything about rendering to react against a lot of things at art school. I wanted to create something completely human and honest to try to have a purity of expression."

Box Office Poison

Alex Robinson’s heavy debut features a distinctively expressive drawing style that isn’t as raw as Brown, but still looks rough around the edges. Box Office Poison is sort of like Friends without faux-hipness. It follows the adventures of Sherman, a mousey book store clerk, as he ends one relationship, moves into the city with a history teacher and comic artist, and starts another relationship with Dorothy, a semi-alcoholic magazine editor. His virginal best friend Ed is also a comic artist, who winds up with an unexpected chance to right a historical wrong and get rich in the process. Their stories are woven together expertly, and it's really hard to put this book down once you start reading it.

Box Office Poison has a lot of sex in it. "You can't go wrong with sex," that's my motto. Everybody who's human finds it interesting, and we all have a bit of voyeur in us-- not for just the act itself but also the rituals surrounding it. Most Hollywood depictions of sex tend to be stylized, brief and ridiculous (e.g. the classic "man with bedsheets pulled up to his waist, woman with bedsheets pulled up to her breasts" trope), and one thing I like about both Unlikely and Box Office Poison is that the sex is these books is more like how people really behave. There's a refreshing honesty to them, and it provides the thrill of connection, of recognition of something we share. In books without pictures, my mental images of the characters are always vague; reading about sex in a traditional book is therefore a very different thing than reading about it in a graphic novel. Actually this is a strength of graphic novels in general; they set the visual stage with a maximum of efficiency, leaving you free to focus on dialog and story. I always find descriptions to be the most skim-able sections of a novel, so it's nice to dispense with them altogether.

One last thing I liked about B.O.P. was the frequent use of one page layouts in which different characters from the story answer a question such as "when was the last time you stayed up all night?" or "what's the worst feature of your body?" There are some good meta-tricks in there, like how the book opens-- each of the main characters in the novel introduces themselves with a mysterious statement that foreshadows things to come, e.g. "I'm Dorothy and I'm not the bad guy," or "I'm Stephen and you see more of me naked than you'd like."

Same Difference

Derek Kirk Kim is one of those 21st century mavericks using the internet to disseminate their work. It raises an interesting question—should you buy his book when you can read the whole thing online, as I did? I guess you should preview his stuff and if you like it, support him by buying some of his other comics. While you’re at it, support ME by sending me ten dollah. Address available on request.

Same Difference is the tale of two geeky friends who are sitting in a café one day when one of them—Simon—sees a blind girl he used to date. He dodges her, due to some past unpleasantness. Meanwhile his friend Nancy has been responding to love letters sent by a mysterious stranger to the former occupant of Nancy’s house… and Nancy’s pretending to be the former occupant! They end up going on a quest to find the guy writing these insipid lover letters, and just happen to bump into Simon’s ex-girlfriend…

Kim’s drawing style is cleaner and crisper than Robinson and Brown. His characters are also more verbose; their conversations are circuitous and whimsical, touching on topics such as “who eats the shit of the fly?” The tone is lighter than the other two books-- there are some poignant moments, but overall it's a lot more humorous. And, in a refreshing change of pace from the aforementioned tomes’ white-boy-ishness, the main characters of Same Difference are Korean-American. This translates to not only bits of Korean dialog mixed in, but also lunch at pho restaurants and encounters with clueless former high school classmates who think Chinese, Japanese and Korean are all the same. The comic isn't really "about" racial issues, but I liked how it was just naturally part of the book's world without being construed as exotic or particularly noteworthy.

Although this last book also features a comics artist as one of the main characters, my scrupulous journalistic integrity compels me to admit that he isn't a virgin. However, there is a virginal secondary character, so I think I can still include this book under the big umbrella I put up earlier.

“Vuhjuns—ah luv em.” -- that scummy kid from Kids

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