Soon folks will be making their lists of the Top Graphic Novels of 2011 and Life With Mr. Dangerous by Paul Hornschemeier will be on many of them. I gotta say, I don’t think it deserves to be.
The basic plot is one that pretty much guarantees it’ll get “must-read” recommendations: disaffected twenty-something overcomes mundane dreariness of life to find hope with love. It’ll get credit for having a female protagonist. It will get (deserved) praise for Hornschemeier’s striking artwork. I don’t think anyone will describe what it actually is: hipster fairy tale.
Our protagonist, Amy, is stuck in a dead-end job. She seems to have few friends, she’s breaking up with her awful boyfriend (the latest in an apparent stream of such), and her mother drives her crazy. Her only joys in life are her cat, a long-distance friend named Michael, and a television cartoon called “Life With Mr. Dangerous” that she’s supposedly obsessed with. Make no mistake: Amy is a miserable person. But hey, we’ve all been there.
We go through various episodes in her life: her mom gives her a childish pink unicorn sweater for her birthday. She hooks up with guys only to push them away from her. She chews out an unruly customer at work. She mopes around and talks to Michael and her cat and watches the cartoon on TV.
Who is Michael? No idea. He’s not one of the ex-boyfriends. He’s someone she knows who now lives across the country and is willing to listen to her agonize about the minutiae of her day. She is clearly in love with him and this is part of what’s prevented her from having any other kind of real relationship. What is the appeal of “Life With Mr. Dangerous”? No idea. We see bits of the show and Amy tries to explain it to someone, but her obsession with the show doesn’t translate over. Despite her constantly watching it and having all sorts of tchotchkes based on it, she describes one episode as “kinda boring” and another one (which is rerun throughout the book) it turns out she’s never even watched through to the end.
So far we’re not far from a lot of indie comics here. The sad truth about a lot of indie comics, even darlings of the graphic novel world, is that stories which get high praise would simply be shrugged at if they were prose stories. Asterios Polyp, from a couple years ago, was talked about as though it were a missing Faulkner novel when in fact it was more like John Updike run through a copy machine about seventy times. Chris Ware, still grinding out tales of middle-aged despair is turning heads with Lint, yet another iteration of his “Where did my stale Midwestern life go wrong?” plot. When indie comics creators aren’t gazing at their own navels, their preferred navels usually belong to Unpleasant White People Stuck in Ruts, and LWMD is not an exception here.
It’s the end, though, where things swerve away from diluted mediocre novel plot and instead take the exit at sophomore year Creative Writing class. I’m going to spoil the ending for you, sorry. I’ll give you a moment to go elsewhere.
So Michael sends Amy this package with postcards in it and the postcards are supposedly pictures taken of her and her cat having adventures and it’s something that would make a person with a heart less shriveled and petrified than my own go, “Oh, that is so sweet!” Obviously he is mooning over her just as much as she has with him. He invites her to come out to see him but she can’t! How on earth can she leave her crummy job? Oh wait! Remember the unruly customer she told off? She gets in just enough trouble for it at work that they agree — nay, encourage! — her to take some of her vacation days off, to think about what she’s done. Just as they would in real life! And so she is now free to go see Michael! And she wears the pink unicorn sweater! The comic ends with her getting to be with the guy she’s sabotaged all her other potential relationships to be with, who it turns out is just as crazy about her, and they can go eat ice cream and watch cartoons and wear childish clothing ironically and who knows, maybe she can get a job out there adding Mr. Dangerous quotes in Helvetica to pictures of clouds and uploading them to Tumblr and then they can be together forever!
What is Amy’s character arc? She goes from not flying out to go see Michael to flying out to go see Michael. She goes from hating the unicorn sweater to wearing the unicorn sweater. She goes from not having ever seen the end of that one Mr. Dangerous episode to seeing the end of it. It’s hard to see any of this as forward momentum and not wallpapering the rut. Yet it’s clear this is a happy, cheerful ending. After 110 pages of unrelenting misery, the box of postcards from Michael spurs her to action, but the action is to simply embrace the childish stuff she sought solace in which, fortunately, really CAN save her! The fantasy prince really does exist and lucky for you, Amy, he finds your morose miserable ass fascinating as well! (And has been equally unable to say anything for some time, apparently.) You don’t need to grow up because there really is someone out there who appreciates the same cartoons you do.
It’s eye-rolling, juvenile stuff, and after I finished, my reaction was, “That’s really the story you intended to tell?” There are some really good comics out there that are about actual people. Maybe I’m just too sour and jaded, but I don’t think this is one of them.