Globe and Mail Interviews

The Globe and Mail    |    The Globe and Mail    |    February 18, 2011

Among diehard comics fans, news of a book by Montreal’s Julie Doucet is cause for celebration. There’s only one problem: Se hasn’t really produced any comics in more than a decade.

The creator of the influential series Dirty Plotte, Doucet famously renounced comics in 2000 to explore collage, printmaking and poetry. But her resolve has done little to deter her ardent admirers (which include Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly) from trying to persuade to come back to the party.

The results of these courtships have been intriguing and even beautiful (2007’s 365 Days: A Diary being a standout), but have lacked the exuberant qualities that fuelled such seminal comics as the autobiographical opus My New York Diary.

So what should one make of My New New York Diary, a collaboration between Doucet and Michel Gondry, the mercurial filmmaker behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Green Hornet?

The brainchild of Gondry (who admits to sweet-talking the reluctant artist into taking part), My New New York Diary is an attempt to revisit Doucet’s most enduring work, and the result is as fascinating as it is frustrating.

The book features Doucet’s distinctive black-and-white illustrations, which track her misadventures in New York with the impish, impulsive filmmaker. If she has a brave face, she surely had it on when she sat down to draw this book.

Under her pen, Gondry comes off like a slacker Stanley Kubrick: Ambitious and manipulative, he is willing to do anything to achieve his vision, even if it includes lying to his “star.” Over the course of 100 pages, Gondry feeds her burned pancakes, drags her to a strip club to sketch and leaves her to buy her own groceries and restock the beer fridge.

Gondry doesn’t fare much better in his 18-minute film, which features filmed footage of Julie interacting with her drawings. Though not terribly inventive, the film is sure to be a rush for any Doucet fan, as it does an excellent job of bringing her inimitable style to animated life (wait for the dream sequence featuring her original drawings). As captivating as it is, one can’t help but sympathize with Doucet, who seems ill at ease with the entire project. At one point in the film, she calls Gondry “a bastard” for persuading her to take part.

As a sort-of sequel to a more accomplished work, My New New York Diary falls far short of its title’s promise. In the end, this project ends up revealing more about the gregarious, high-profile Gondry than it does about Doucet.

A seismic shift has taken place in the field of comics since Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library made its debut more than 17 years ago. But Acme is still with us; a sturdy, reliable stage for one of the world’s most innovative and thought-provoking cartoonists to show his stuff. Though he has earned his greatest acclaim thanks to graphic novels such as Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, he has always seemed most at home as an artist in the pages of Acme.

And for the landmark 20th issue of his flagship title, Ware refuses to disappoint, with a cradle-to-grave story of a hapless financial-services executive faced with a crumbling personal life, several crises of faith and a financial meltdown. The result is one of the best comics of 2010.

The story really begins with the cover, designed to like an old photo album or scrapbook, replete with embroidered blue fabric and an embossed gold “LINT.” That would be Jordan Lint, to whom we are introduced on the inside pages as an infant trying to make some sense of the world. Jordan retains much of the same facial expression and general disposition over the next 70 or so pages, as he frantically pursues – then falls under the wheels of – the American Dream. Like countless millions who have come before him, he is ever striving, yet, in the end, barely surviving.

In mining contemporary events – the ongoing financial turmoil in the United States – this feels like one of Ware’s riskiest stories. But it’s unspooled with such finesse and humanity that you can’t help but empathize with his philandering, felonious and ill-fated “hero.”

Of course, there are bravura moments as well. The pages featuring an excerpt from an autobiographical graphic novel by Lint’s son are unexpected and effective, while the final half-dozen pages that project us – and a feeble Lint – 10 years into the future are as complex and heartbreaking as any comic I’ve read recently.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Chris Ware is good friends with Canadian cartoonist Seth. They are both masters of their craft who share a nostalgic, deeply introspective world view. So it seems fitting that the landmark 20th issue of Palookaville, Seth’s long-running comic series, would hit the shelves at approximately the same time as Ware’s Acme Novelty Library. But somehow Seth’s latest seems like more of a milestone.

That’s probably because it also marks his departure from the familiar “floppy” format (i.e., traditional stapled comics) of the previous 19 issues, in favour of a more substantial – and more marketable – hardcover format. Like many lifelong comics fans, Seth harbours a strong emotional bond with the disposable four-colour comic books of his youth.

But the demands of retailers who require comics that are easily “shelfable” have rendered traditional comics extinct, save for a few holdouts. As Seth explains in the introduction of his handsome new Palookaville, he didn’t come to this decision easily, but did so with “no regrets.”

I don’t believe him for a minute.

Melancholy has always been an active ingredient of Seth’s best work, but with this issue he has doubled the recipe. From the apologia-as-introduction to the downhearted autobiographical strip at the back, Palookaville #20 is profoundly elegiac. On one page he reprints, in miniature, all 19 covers of his comic to date; as if they were old high-school buddies. In less able hands, this would be overwhelming, but Seth balances it all off by including a range of material, from a portfolio of his Dominion City art project to excerpts from his sketchbook.

But the main draw here is the latest instalment of his long-brewing graphic novel Clyde Fans. Set in the 1970s, this chapter switches from the delusional life of Simon Matchcard to the dilemma of Abraham Matchcard, the president of his family’s financially racked fan company. Faced with a strike by his workers and falling fortunes, Abraham sits in his office and contemplates the inevitable, as his mind wanders to hate-filled reminiscences of his largely absent father. Rendered in muted blues and blacks, it’s a stark tale of the dark side of capitalism.

As farewells go, Palookaville #20 is as bittersweet and beautiful as they come. If this is what the future holds for Seth – and for comics – I just might be persuaded to say goodbye to comic books as well.

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