Serious Comics

Sometimes, you may have noticed, I say what’s on my mind, without considering first that my mind is often full of dumb things. For some time I’ve gone off on how disinterested I am in indie, autobiographical comics. I may have said some things rashly.

Not all things. I do reiterate that if you’re an indie creator who wants to sell me his tale of woe and rejection at being an outcast geek and not finding love, well, try it again with robots and penguins and then I might be interested. Like all genres, there’s a lot of junk out there, and overwrought autobiographical comics are particularly full of junk. (And, side note, music. What is up with some of these musicians lately? I never thought I would hear someone so whiny and pathetic he makes Morrissey sound like Ministry, but KEXP is crawling with such things!) The McSweeney’s Volume 13 anthology was fat-packed with neurotic creators all putting the exact same pathetic lives on display. Perhaps someone with a weblog shouldn’t be cracking on narcissism, though. What was the question again?

Oh, right. Well there are two entities I seem to have tarred with that brush that I now know, thanks to the Springfield Public Library, I was wrong about. Unfortunately, neither of these is a surprise to anyone else, so I’m not enlightening here so much as confessing.

The first is Paul Hornschemeier’s Mother, Come Home. This was getting rave reviews about the time I finally checked out Craig Thompson’s Blankets, which was getting similar rave reviews. But my coolness towards the latter (I didn’t dislike it, just don’t know why everyone is having fits over it.) tainted my reasoning about the former. I assumed it was of the same ilk, and I now know I was quite wrong.

Mother, Come Home is a notable book for many reasons. First and foremost is the story. This is a truly mature book about a young boy coming to terms with his mother’s death and with his father’s inability to come to terms with it. The thing that struck me about the story is that I don’t know if it’s “true” in any sense of the word, based on actual real-life events and I don’t want to know. It doesn’t have to be true, and I hope it isn’t, because more writers need to be looking less to their own lives and more towards telling quality stories. The “autobiography” here is a non-issue. It’s simply an adult story of loss and grief told in a graphic form.

The comparison to Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan are unavoidable. Both artists use a similar style of highly-detailed trivialities in their artwork, expressing human faces with a few expertly-chosen lines and inanimate object with more. Both stories describe abysses of longing and loneliness. And both, I would argue, couldn’t be told as conventional prose novels.

Prose, at least for me, is noisy. Even when nothing is going on, when the characters are, for example, lost in the desert with no hope in sight, words continue to barrage the reader. In these books, however, where silence and emptiness are an integral part of the story, the barren, wordless panels help shape it.

It also goes without saying that the subject matter…the loss of the mother and the effect on the two survivors, is expertly handled. Mother, Come Home, is a study in grief and acceptance, with the realization that “acceptance” does not always mean positive things. It doesn’t deserve to be placed in the same category as so many of the other autobiographical or even pseudo-autobiographical works out there. It’s something else.

The other book I got was American Splendor by Harvey Pekar. This is the anthology from 1991, which is all the library had on the shelf. I’ve seen and enjoyed the movie and was sort of interested in checking out the actual books, but again, I was leery of how much I wanted to read not only an autobiographical book, but one in which the author was purposely making it so.

Once again, I was wrong. While we certainly do get bizarre glances at Pekar’s life, with the trivialities and neuroses that encompass it, we also get his observations of others, which are quite interesting and astute. Pekar presents this false persona of some Everyman schmuck, just trying to get by, but he has knowledge, interests, and passions that go beyond simple day-in-the-life anecdotes. Unlike some of the other autobio works I’ve sampled, there’s no need for him to stretch to encompass others into the solipsistic narrative, because Pekar is interested in other people. At the points when he seems to be at his most obnoxious, on the Letterman show, he’s actually trying to steer the conversation away from him, towards a topic which affects far more people, and is frustrated by his inability to do so. Instead of hitting small targets and pretending to hit big ones, Pekar does the exact opposite. It’s no wonder he’s managed to attract such a wide range of talent to his cause, and I’m now eagerly looking forward to getting more.

(Pekar also appeals to me in another way. He states straight out that the reason he’s in his “crummy, dead-end job” is because he makes enough to support himself and values his time more. Preach on, brother! )

My avoidance of autobio comics on general principle, while overzealous in these two cases, still holds. In general, I’m not interested in movies, books, or TV shows in which the human spirit triumphs, hearts are broken and mended, and parents are ultimately appreciated. I admit I like things a bit more slam-pow than that, in most cases. There’s a fine line between “character-study” and “navel-gazing” and I’ve been on the wrong side of that line more than a few times (having once been a teenager and all.) I also think it’s a shame that if a story comes along in which real people interact in real situations with real results, and no zombies, aliens, secret agents, or superheroes wander in at any point, we assume the result is “autobiographical,” as though comics writers are incapable of the imaginative leaps required to create a main character that isn’t themselves. No one assumes Joyce Carol Oates actually went through every experience described in her fiction. That is, after all, why it’s called “fiction.”

Of course, it’s no secret to anyone that a large portion of any particular genre of material isn’t very good, even stuff people proclaim is amazing. In fact Sturgeon’s Law blah blah blah Dave’s Corollary to Sturgeon’s Law blah blah blah. And I made a mistake in dismissing these two works out of hand. Not that I assumed people were wrong about them and they weren’t good, just that they didn’t seem like something that would appeal to me. They did and do, and if that encourages someone just as skeptical to pick them up, all the better. I got no problem being wrong and finding good reads as a result.

Addendum: the Pekar anthology ends with this thought, which really turned my head around: “Q: How can Democracy function in a nation full of people who believe that their lives and their neighbors’ lives are insignificant? A: In such a situation Democracy functions imperfectly at best.”

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3 Responses to Serious Comics

  1. Mrs. Mancer says:

    If you were wrong about autobio comics (and, I might add, manga before that), mighy you not also be wrong about what you call “tea-cozy” movies? hmmm? might you?

    I’m just saying.

  2. Dave says:

    The answer is NO.

  3. jdonelson_nyc says:

    “Prose, at least for me, is noisy. Even when nothing is going on, when the characters are, for example, lost in the desert with no hope in sight, words continue to barrage the reader. In these books, however, where silence and emptiness are an integral part of the story, the barren, wordless panels help shape it.”

    Good one. I couldn’t have said it better myself.