Sunday, August 17, 2014

Four Recently Read Comics by Sam Alden, Gabrielle Bell and Peter Bagge

Robert Boyd

It Never Happened Again: Two Stories (Uncivilized Books, 2014) and Haunter (Study Group Comics, 2014) by Sam Alden. That these two books are by the same cartoonist is somewhat astonishing to me. Sam Alden is a 25-year-old cartoonist with exceptional drawing skills. He tailors his drawing to the story at hand--the two stories in It Never Happened Again are drawn in pencil and Alden leaves out a good deal of extraneous detail, particularly in "Hawaii 1997," where he uses minimal means to effectively convey both a sun-drenched beach and the same beach in the moonlight.

(Aside: historically, comics were drawn with pen and ink for technological reasons--it was easier to reproduce solid black marks and black outlines helped to "trap" color for hand-cut color separations. The use of ink was so necessary and ubiquitous that industrially produced comics had artisans whose job description was "inker"--they covered up the cartoonist's gray pencil drawings with crisp, easy-to-reproduce ink lines. Modern reproduction technology has rendered this practice obsolete, but aesthetic inertia keeps it going.)

Sam Alden, It Never Happened Again, "Hawaii 1997" pp 38-39, 2014

"Hawaii 1997" is set on a Hawaiian vacation and seems possibly autobiographical. The main character "Sam" is a little boy, fascinated by an older girl in a bikini (to the amusement of his parents), who sneaks out onto the beach at night and encounters a little girl. That's about it, but it is unexpectedly moving. James Joyce wrote that the moment of an epiphany in a story was when "the soul of the commonest object … seems to us radiant, and may be manifested through any chance, word or gesture." Alden finds this in "Hawaii 1997." The only false note is the little girl's closing line--it's very apt but feels too sophisticated and worldly for a little girl to say.

Sam Alden, It Never Happened Again, "Anime" pp 132-133, 2014

The second story, "Anime," follows a young woman, Janet, whose love of anime becomes a self-destructive obsession. The story shows an obsession with something trivial can become a substitute for living one's life--something that many of us who have ever been fans know about--but also how such an obsession can give one a sense of accomplishment and intangible joy. This story impressed me all the more because unlike "Hawaii 1997," it wasn't obviously autobiographical. Without knowing anything about Alden's life it's impossible for me to say how much Janet is based on himself. But creating a convincing character of the opposite sex indicates to me that an artist or writer is stretching.

Sam Alden, Haunter, pp. 13-14

After the realistic stories in It Never Happened Again, the strange fantasy story (more of an episode than a full-fledged story) in Haunter is unexpected. Not just the subject matter, but also the delicate pen-and-onk drawing combined with the intensely colored watercolors give it a completely different look from It Never Happened Again. What the two books have in common is that the art feels wonderfully hand-made. Alden in no way tries to disguise his hand. The only straight lines in Haunter are the carefully made panel borders. Significantly, they aren't drawn--they appear to have been made by taping off the panels.

The protagonist in this wordless story is apparently a subsistence hunter, dressed in rags and carrying a bow. Pursuing her prey, a javelina-like animal, she stumbles across what appears to be a ruined and abandoned temple. Curiosity killed the cat--the hunter leaves off her hunt to check it out. She finds in it a large idol holding a chest, in which she finds some relics--a cell phone, a pistol, an alarm clock. She seems to not recognize them--her time must be long after the collapse of our industrial civilization. It's a good device, having a character in a seemingly primitive society stumble across an unexpected relic of our time. Gene Wolf used it memorably in The Shadow of the Torturer, and everyone remembers the climax of the Planet of the Apes, when Charlton Heston finds the partially buried remains of the Statue of Liberty.

Sam Alden, Haunter, page 45

Alden might have been thinking of that movie when he drew Haunter. His hunter wakes a demon guardian of the temple. The demon, with her blue-green skin and spiky crown, looks like a malevolent version of the Statue of Liberty, who far from welcoming tired poor wretched refuse would prefer to kill them. The entire comic is a chase and a dual between the hunter and the demon. The hunter lives in a future fantasy world, the outlines of which are barely hinted at. That kind of information is not important to the story at hand, but if Alden were to create more stories set in this world, I'd be interested in reading them. As it is, the gorgeous artwork and propulsive action in Haunter make it a pleasure to read.

Man, I'm getting old. There are cartoonists like Sam Alden and Michael DeForge (age 27) doing astonishing work who are half my age. It's hard for a geezer like me to keep track of this new generation, but worth the effort.

Truth is Fragmentary: Travelogues & Diaries (Uncivilized Books, 2014) by Gabrielle Bell. Every now and then, Gabrielle Bell will be short of cash and will go on her blog and sell some original art. Last year, I bought three pages--a short self-contained story about getting lost in the woods with her boyfriend. These three pages are in her latest book, Truth is Fragmentary. I mention them because if I own original artwork by Bell, how can I be objective reviewing her work? That's for you, the reader, to decide.

Gabrielle Bell, Truth is Fragmentary p. 145

That said, Truth Is Fragmentary is not Bell's best book. It does give the reader a peek into the life of an established creator of art comics (which may be similar to the situation of a lot of contemporary artists), and that's valuable. It's a life of poverty punctuated with occasional all-expenses-paid trips to wonderful places (for comics festivals). Bell plays up her loneliness and isolation, but it doesn't completely work--she seems to have lots of friends as well as the aforementioned boyfriend. She portrays herself as continuously on the verge of a breakdown, but it's hard to know how much of that is real. She has shown a willingness to fictionalize her own life in the past and does so here, as with her presumably fictional narrator of her trip to Colombia. I mention this not to say that Bell is an untrustworthy source but rather to describe what she is doing, which is a semi-fictional memoir. Sometimes this approach works (as in 2010's "Manifestation," which can be found in an untitled version in her 2012 book The Voyeurs), but it seems only intermittently successful here.

Her accounts of her trips to comics festivals can get a bit tedious--the travails of travel, hanging out with festival friends (fellow artists), etc. This might have been why she invented the false narrator for her Colombian voyage. But occasionally you get pages like this:

Gabrielle Bell, Truth is Fragmentary p. 67

This is a prime example of comics about comics, which is a genre that verges on the masturbatory. But I found this episode quite moving. Dominique Goblet's concerns as an artist are similar to Bell's, and Bell is entranced by Goblet's articulation of them.  That sudden feeling of revelation can be quite powerful. Bell instantly becomes a needy fan.

Bell is an important artist, but Truth is Fragmentary finds her in a bit of a holding pattern. There are some great moments here, but it doesn't cohere in an interesting way. It is best enjoyed as a collection of fragments (truthful or not).

Buddy Buys A Dump (Fantagraphics, 2014) by Peter Bagge. Peter Bagge's character, Buddy Bradley, was introduced in a short-lived comics anthology, Comical Funnies, in 1982. Buddy and his family were revived in 1985 in Bagge's solo anthology, Neat Stuff. Buddy was a misfit high school student in these comics. From 1989 to 1998, Buddy starred in Hate, which featured his adventures as an aimless young man first in Seattle and later in New Jersey. These brilliant comics happened to hit at the same time grunge did, unexpectedly turning Bagge into an important chronicler of those times. He has always maintained that Buddy is a version of himself, but ten years younger. After Hate ended, Bagge kept Buddy alive with infrequent stories in the Hate Annual. Between 1998 and now, Bagge has published 11 of these stories (apparently the Hate Annual hasn't exactly managed to come out annually). For the most part, Bagge has left Buddy Bradley behind, concentrating on various graphic novels and pieces of comics journalism. (Again I must disclose that I own some original art by Peter Bagge.)

Peter Bagge, from "Lisa Leavenworth-Bradley Discovers Her Creative Outlet" (Buddy Buys a Dump p. 83), 2009

The stories in Buddy Buys a Dump compress Buddy Bradley's life drastically. Marriage, new jobs, home ownership, a child, even dealing with elderly parents: these issues get touched on in these often hilarious stories. But because he's only giving Buddy a few pages for each year of his life, Bagge can't delve very deeply into them. We reader have been permitted to dip into Buddy's life intermittently, as if reading a once-a-year catch-up letter from a distant relative. That's too bad--one of the things that made Neat Stuff and Hate so enjoyable was the level of detailed involvement we readers had with the cast. Buddy Buys a Dump has something of a drive-by character in comparison. This isn't to say it's bad--the stories are funny and entertaining, and what more could you want? But it isn't classic Bagge.

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