Baltimore City Paper | Tim Kreider | July 19, 2006
Baltimore City Paper Spotlights I Never Liked You & Perfect Example!
If you’re reading City Paper, you probably already know about cartoonists like R. Crumb, Harvey Pekar, and Dan Clowes because you saw Crumb or American Splendor or Ghost World at the Charles; you may have heard of Alan Moore as the author or co-author of books adapted for the films From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the upcoming V for Vendetta. You may know the names Art Spiegelman (the Maus guy) or Chris Ware from their New Yorker covers. We won’t be talking about them here because 1) they’ve gotten enough publicity already, and 2) frankly, with the exception of Moore, none of them really floats my boat. Whether they like it or not, many of these artists are still too mired in the insular, self-referential subculture of comics (reacting against something doesn’t mean you’re free of it) to have much crossover appeal to mainstream readers. I want to recommend some books that you’ll like if you’re the kind of reader I described above—someone whose reading life is as integral to their personality and sanity as their dream lives or sex lives. This list takes something of a shotgun approach, partly because I don’t know you and your tastes, and also, I’m afraid, because there are so few truly good comics being drawn that any list of the best ones will unavoidably be eclectic. However, I can promise you that in none of these books will you see even one man in tights.
I Never Liked You (Drawn and Quarterly Publications, 1994) and Ed the Happy Clown (Vortex, 1989) by Chester Brown
I Never Liked You, about the author’s adolescence, is an understated and dispassionate recollection of his first bungled, hurtful flirtations with girls and his mother’s gradual dissolution into schizophrenia. It’s generally considered the best of the glut of autobiographical comics, which, like the memoir in mainstream literature, is currently suffering from an oversupply of quantity and an emergency-level shortage of quality. Me, though, I prefer Ed the Happy Clown, collecting stories that appeared in Brown’s comic Yummy Fur in the ‘80s. The plot, such as it is, follows the increasingly bizarre and humiliating misadventures of Ed, a hapless innocent, involving vampires, vampire hunters, pygmies, Frankenstein’s monster, cattle-mutilating aliens, and angels, culminating in the head of an alternate-universe Ronald Reagan being transplanted onto the end of Ed’s penis via a transdimensional waste-disposal duct. There is a strain of something distinctly unfunny underlying all this absurdity, a cruel morality that was reinforced by the straightforward, unironic adaptations of the gospels that originally backed every episode of Ed in Yummy Fur. Government scientists turn out to be hysterical homophobes with concealed handguns; the brutal, porcine police wear domino masks; doctors smoke cigarettes over their surgeries and beat patients with pipes in bare cinder-block rooms in hospitals that look like Central American prisons. Even divine justice turns out to be as arbitrary, unfair, and indifferent as any MVA bureaucrat.
Perfect Example (Highwater Books, 2000) and Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man (La Mano, 2005) by John Porcellino
Punk rock was a revelation to the young John Porcellino, showing him that anyone could make art without formal education or technical virtuosity. However, unlike many people who have taken this lesson to heart, Porcellino is a born artist, someone whose nerve endings seem more sensitive to both the pain and the mystery at the center of this existence. Anyone who was ever moved to tears by “the loveliest saddest landscape in the world” as drawn by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince will understand the quiet power of Porcellino’s deceptively childlike drawings. Perfect Example is one of the best novels ever written about adolescence—yes, up there with The Catcher in the Rye. I hesitate to describe it as a story about a depressed teenager, because I know this sounds like the last thing in the world you’d want to read. Even though it clearly evokes what it was like to grow up in suburban Illinois circa 1985, it also, unlike most bildungsromans, transcends those incidentals and grapples with ageless problems that adults still have to contend with: figuring out how to be a person in the world, how to love and let yourself be loved by others. A second collection, Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man, is a more episodic chronicle of Porcellino’s days as an exterminator that documents his growing reverence for the natural world. It includes some passages that make the hairs rise on your arms and the air around you seem to stand still; like Denis Johnson’s stories in Jesus’ Son, whose subjects are often mundane or tawdry, they always point beyond themselves to something ineffable.
Doubtlessly connoisseurs of comics will despise this list for its prejudices and omissions. Fuck them. These are people who think Craig Thompson’s Blankets is a good graphic novel because it was well drawn and very, very long. Really good graphic novels are still too few, but superb new work is being written and drawn all the time. I’m still waiting for the second volume of Jason Lutes’ complex and ambitious historical novel Berlin, and I’m told the new book Epileptic, by one David B., is extremely good.
It’s not yet clear where comics are in their history—whether the current spate of serious, literary comics is just the autumnal blaze of an obsolete medium in its decadence, or the spazzy, pretentious, and gorgeous adolescence of a new, unexplored art form. The difference may depend on the ambitions and talents of a handful of individual creators—and on the adventurousness, curiosity, and discernment of you, the reader.