Posts Tagged ‘autobio’

Regrets: We Can Fix It! and Seconds

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

Is there such a thing as an early life crisis? The mid-life crisis, with its restless hookups and material status symbols, is well-trod territory, but it’s the effect of sitting stunned in the car wreckage of a life, wondering just what happened that led to this moment. Is there a point in life just before the crash, when you can see the oncoming car or mailbox, and it’s not yet too late to swerve out of the way–but it will be if you don’t take control right now?

Both Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds and Jess Fink’s We Can Fix It! occupy themselves with that moment. Both were written in their respective author’s early thirties, and concern protagonists of roughly the same age. It’s the age (which I share, being 33 years old as I write this) where you no longer quite feel that anything is possible, but the remaining field of potential isn’t yet suffocating. A co-editor of mine, also about my age, quit recently, and I can understand why; seeing the oncoming car, he decided to make a hard swerve.

Both Seconds and We Can Fix It! employ fantastic devices in mostly mundane settings. Seconds has its magic mushrooms, and We Can Fix It! has its time machine, and both function to the same end: to facilitate the protagonist’s desire to alter the past and live their “mistakes” differently. Naturally, this gives rise to problems in both stories, though the different nature of the obstacles is worth examining.

Seconds is a work of fiction which involves Katie, its heroine, finding a cache of magic mushrooms and instructions on how to use them to undo mistakes. The instructions double as rules: the bearer is meant to get only one mulligan, and it has to be something that occurred on the premises where the do-over kit is found. Naturally, Katie ignores one rule first and then the other–and then a third, totally unwritten rule–leading to disaster. Given the chance to rewrite her life, as her ex/boyfriend/husband Max says, she “started trying to make things better, and now […] can’t stop until things are perfect.”

Katie runs into trouble not just because she breaks the rules, but because the perfection she reaches for using the mushrooms is unattainable. The more mistakes in her relationship with Max she undoes, the further away her goal of owning her own restaurant seems to slip; her two dreams are revealed to be rooted in mutually exclusive choices. Katie has the power, at least for a while, to change whatever she wants, but no retroactive change can truly grant her desire. It isn’t until all her meddling is itself undone that she’s able to move forward in the life she built and forge it into what she wants it to be from there.

Unlike Seconds, We Can Fix It! is a loose autobiography; the time machine angle is more of a framing devices for the vignettes Fink presents of her past. The major stumbling block for Fink isn’t that she changes too much, but that she’s frustrated by her inability to change anything at all. Every time she zaps back to the past, her younger selves are either too confused or too headstrong to listen to any of her supposedly sage advice.

Although what Fink learns is that she can’t change the past, rather than Katie’s lesson that she shouldn’t, they both arrive at roughly the same place: an appreciation of their personal history. After some commiseration with her future self on where her plans went wrong, the last third of Fink’s “time travel memoir” has her revisiting the good times in her early life to prove to herself it’s not all as bad as she remembered. And either way, she finishes the story by returning to her caring spouse and fulfilling career, proving that even a rocky start doesn’t necessarily lead to a tragic end.

Not that Fink’s story is over, or Katie’s either. The terrible fear as we start to feel ourselves settling into a role, seeing the rest of our lives yawning ahead, that it’s all about to go wrong makes us anxious to look to the past to see how it might have been avoided, or how it might still be. In the grip of that fear, we forget that the specter of the coming crisis might only be that and nothing more. If we can find the courage to pay it no heed and keep driving, there’s an even chance things will work themselves out on their own.

Minicomics: Susie Cagle

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Hello. It’s been nearly a year since I last blogged here; another APE has come and gone, and The Stack is now even bigger. So I’m going to revisit the concept and try to stick with it this time. Starting with a pair of minis by “reportage cartoonist” Susie Cagle, This Is What Concerns Me and I’m Here From The Government.

This Is What Concerns Me is a short sampling of one-page strips that I gather are compiled from her eponymous website. How you react to her taken-from-life vignettes will probably depend a lot on how much time you’ve spent in San Francisco, where Cagle lives and works. Subjects like hippie stench, vegan shopping, and random crazies on the street are probably more interesting if they’re new to you and not everyday facts of life.

Cagle’s actual storytelling is more interesting than her choice of stories to tell here. The one- and two-page material at the front of the book is all right, but she’s at her best when she gives herself space to let a story breathe. The two-and-a-half “Security” strips in the 13-page book showcase her skill for evocative recreations of San Francisco’s distinct environs, all sloped sidewalks, tall brick buildings, and unassuming walk-by shops. She uses a much looser style in these strips than in I’m Here From the Government, but it’s still effective at capturing her own unease and irritation, as well as the creepiness of the characters she encounters.

If you only read one of the two, however, I’m Here From The Government is the one to go for. This is the one where Cagle lives up to her title and provides some intriguing cartoon reportage on what it’s like to be a census taker. (Or Enumerator, to use the official term. See, it’s educational!)

Pretty much the only thing I knew about enumerators prior to reading this was hearing stories of paranoid fringe lunatics attacking them during the 2010 census, wholly convinced that they were agents of the New World Order keeping tabs on them for some future mass roundup into indoctrination camps. Cagle worked in the rather more liberal San Francisco, so if you’re hoping for tense tales of confrontations with belligerent responders, you won’t find them here. (Though there are hints of danger evident in the safety training seminar the enumerators receive, with advice such as “Wear comfortable walking shoes. These may come in handy should there be a need to run.”)

These stories are more procedural; half the book is devoted to the training sessions before Cagle takes a step onto the streets to poll people. What’s most impressive about these sections is how much went into the preparation before Cagle drew a single line. It’s clear from the specific details given at every step, from reproductions of the actual test questions Cagle answered to get the job to a dizzying array of jargon and acronyms peppering the dialogue, that Cagle took thorough notes during the process for later use. (One of the chapters is even titled “Verbatim.”)

Once the enumerators are out in the field, the tone bounces around between comedic (the enumerators joking around about “Census Regionals”), informative (did you know government writing utensils are made by Skilcraft, a manufacturer created to employ blind workers? I didn’t!), and uncomfortable (“Operation TNSOL,” a night spent cataloguing the homeless in park spaces, makes effective use of garbled dialogue balloons to convey Cagle’s fear and shame).

The line in these stories is thicker and more solid than the scratchiness of This Is What Concerns Me, which goes a long way toward improving its readability. Cagle’s gift for faces and expressions is put to even better use here with the expanded cast–the enormous mouth and huge-pupiled stare on Cagle’s CL makes her even more memorable as a character, especially in contrast with her thin-lipped, perpetually-silent assistant.

IF SUSIE CAGLE EXHIBITS AT NEXT YEAR’S APE I WILL: Pick up more of her long-form/reportage comics and skip the collections of one-offs.

Rica ‘tte Kanji!?

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Here’s a little something in honor of National Coming Out Day: Rica ‘tte Kanji!?, an autobiographical comic about the unique challenges of coming out as a lesbian in Japan.

As Rica Takashima, the book’s artist, says right at the start, “I grew up out in the country. So, I’ve never met an actual lesbian.” Or at least, not that she was aware of. It’s a truism that since about 10% of the population is gay, most people have more LGBT friends than they realize. But whereas the U.S. at least has something like National Coming Out Day, the Japanese maxim “the nail that sticks up gets pounded down” reigns supreme, and Japan’s gay population in non-metropolitan areas remains invisible. One gets the sense that if Rica hadn’t moved to Tokyo to enter junior college, thereby gaining access to the GLBT-centric Nichoume district of Shinjuku, she might have gone her whole life without meeting another actual lesbian: “It’s the same for everyone in the beginning,” confirms Miho upon hearing the above line.

That general sense of desperation amongst the Tokyo lesbian community informs a lot of the book’s events. After making a quiet debut at one of the Nichoume clubs, Rica is taken to a women-only event at a larger club; there, as is standard for girls new to the scene, she gets an avalanche of passes by girls who don’t often see new faces in the crowd. Miho, one of the first girls Rica meets and the one who becomes her girlfriend over the course of the book, laments early on that she hasn’t found a girlfriend in the six months she’s been in the Nichoume scene, with the implied reason that the pickings are that slim. The only real challenge to their love comes when Rica briefly develops a crush on Kaoru, who turns out not to be a lesbian at all but a preoperative transsexual also active in Nichoume. (“You didn’t realize?” asks Kaoru to a bewildered Rica when the secret is revealed. “I thought you were just a fag hag.”)

Given that Rica ‘tte Kanji!? offers a rare perspective into a little-represented corner of Japanese society, it’s a bit frustrating that Takashima doesn’t expand her scope beyond her tentative romance with Miho. For instance, her area of study at the junior college is early childhood education, but although she gets a job at a foster nursery toward the end of the book, we’re never told whether her employers know or care about her relationship.

This may be a byproduct of Takahashi’s explanation in an afterword that “Ten years ago there were very few manga with lesbian stories. Only depressing stories, about ‘forbidden love’ with a break-up in the end. […] I wanted to read a HAPPY story.” (This was in 2003, and it’s been nearly ten years since then without a lot having changed in the manga world, as far as I can tell.) In this light, it makes sense that providing information about the gay Japanese lifestyle is outside the scope of Rica ‘tte Kanji!?, which serves instead as a sort of proto-It Gets Better for young Japanese lesbians. (Then again, there’s a distinct possibility that some of these issues do come up in the frustratingly large amount of untranslated text pieces inexplicably included in the English adaptation.)

Even apart from the window into Rica’s particular subculture, it’s a cute book that tells a sweet story with breezily naive cartooning perfectly suited to its subject matter. It may not provide all the answers one might hope from someone with Rica’s perspective, but what she does reveal, both about herself and about her newfound social circles, is worth the read.

Alternative Press Expo 2010

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

And so The Stack grows.

For the fifth or sixth year now, I went to the Alternative Press Expo at the Concourse in San Francisco. This year, it was a little special because it fell on my 30th birthday, and I have to say: any kind of life where I can spend my 30th birthday at a comics convention is a pretty good one in my book.

The thing that impresses me most, every time I go, is how many people got out there, made some comics, and are there at APE letting their work speak for them. Even the hackiest, most cheaply photocopied minis took effort and courage to get down on paper and on the show floor. I’ve made tentative steps, once, toward producing my own comic, but going to APE always gets me motivated to give it another stab. (No pun intended.) Will I have something to show by APE 2011, or will I be there solely in a consumer capacity once again? We’ll see.

Not that going there just to buy stuff is a bad time. I buy comics at APE the way some people buy hurricane supplies–gotta stock up, because it could be a long time before you have another opportunity. The full list of my haul, as well as photos of the books and some snapshots of the con itself, are after the jump.


Pyongyang: A Journey In North Korea

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

North Korea didn’t get its reputation as the bogeyman of international policy just because it’s a militarized nation with institutionalized anti-West ideologies led by a half-crazed dictator. It did so by being all of those things and keeping itself almost completely unknowable. With the citizenry prevented from having any contact with the outside world and the few foreigners allowed within its borders from having any contact with the citizenry, North Korea’s reclusiveness just added to the fear.

Which is why books like Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang are so important. There have been glimpses into North Korea before, such as the Vice Guide to North Korea, but they tend to try a bit too hard to be scandalous exposes rather than simple inquiries into what life in the country is like.

What makes Delisle’s account different is that he wasn’t there to observe horror stories and report them back to an audience eager to hear tales of oppression and paranoia. He was there to do his job, which happened to take him to the North Korean animation studio SEK just as it had previously taken him to studios in China and Vietnam. He was there for two months, giving him plenty of time to settle in and have a good look around the place. Or as good a look as any foreigner is allowed to have around Pyongyang, at any rate.

But the particulars of the two-stop subway, the empty highways, and the omnipresent guides can be found in nearly any account of the city. Pyongyang shines in its recurring characters, the party officials and fellow expatriates and how they reveal themselves over the course of Delisle’s stay.

On the DPRK side, there’s Comrade Sin (sometimes mockingly called Captain Sin), Delisle’s chaperone around the city, and an unnamed translator who later replaces him. Sin is for the most part implacable and unnerving; he’s got a military background and insists that everyone Delisle sees doing manual labor is “volunteering.” In one of the book’s creepiest exchanges, he calmly explains that a former star animator in the studio isn’t on any of the current production teams, didn’t transfer studios, or go abroad, but remains silent on Delisle’s obvious follow-up question: “He didn’t just disappear, did he?”

Delisle wonders of Comrade Sin the same thing most people who learn the basic facts about life in North Korea do: “Do they really believe the bullshit that’s being forced down their throats?” As he points out–more often in narration than dialogue, since to casually discuss the truth with his guides could be a very bad idea–North Korea has serious problems and its neighbors, if and when things come crashing down, are not going to be sanguine about supporting a bunch of brainwashed, jobless refugees. Is there hope for these people?

Probably so. You can see it in the cracks and between the lines of Delisle’s story. The officials who let down their guards on the one outdoor afternoon they spend following a trip to the surreal Friendship Museum. The pure joy on Comrade Sin’s face as he receives a gift of Hennessy cognac. Even the fear, in places, is revealing. When Delisle lets a translator borrow a copy of 1984 he brought with him and later asks what he thought, the translator starts trembling and stammers that he doesn’t like science fiction. The slip in the carefully maintained doublethink shows that the translator, like everyone else, knows the score. Someday he may even be able to say so.

After all, as Delisle shows, the facade can’t last forever. Even during his two-month stay, there’s a revolving door cast of expatriates in the form of fellow animation vets, fashion designers, tech experts, and NGO workers coming to and from the country all the time, an inevitable factor in the country’s economy since it requires so much foreign aid and foreign investment to stay afloat. All that imported help comes at the price of further exposure to ordinary Western people, in stark contrast to the Museum of Imperialist Occupation or the propaganda films that comprise the sole programming in the country’s movie theaters.

The cracks are there, and they’ll widen, and it’s books like this that will drive the wedge. The propaganda films isn’t as scary as long as you know there’s one guy there willing to say he thinks they’re boring. The guides’ authority isn’t as absolute after they’ve laughed their heads off at a subversive joke you made. The country isn’t as alien once you know they’re waiting for the same thing we are.

American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

Harvey Pekar passed away a few weeks ago. But fortunately for us, he left half his life behind in ink.

There’s too much in this book to go into in detail, and what’s the point, really? Pekar obsessed about his work and its reception enough for any ten critics, and then duly recorded his neuroses about it in his comics. You can’t possibly think Pekar was more of an overlooked genius than Pekar did.

Suffice to say it’s still essential reading to show what’s possible with the medium. Though, in these books, what’s possible is not always what’s best: this volume, itself a collection of two collections, begins at the beginning, when Pekar was still essentially writing prose pieces that he could cajole friends into illustrating. The very first vignette, “The Harvey Pekar Name Story,” boasts R. Crumb art on a story that’s barely visual.

But as you keep reading–and you will, because even when he’s still grappling with the comic form, Pekar was a born storyteller–the script and the art start to complement each other better until you reach what I found to be one of the most striking single moments in the book.

“Guerilla Theatre: July ’74 – On the Corner,” illustrated by Greg Budgett and Gary Dumm, is an 18-page story that rambles and wanders, as all Pekar’s drawn-from-life stories do. The primary action concerns Pekar getting out of the house one evening and checking in with his friend the box office clerk, after which he meets up with two more friends in succession. The three of them leave the theater and eventually help one of the men move some furniture into his new apartment.

That takes up the last 17 pages of the story. The first page consists of Pekar watching the evening news, featuring reports on the Middle East and the House Judiciary Committee. And the reason I found this striking is because at no point during the next 17 pages–each one of which is basically an illustrated conversation–do either of these subjects come up again. Pekar neither thinks about them nor introduces them into the dialogue.

So why is this page in the comic?

After wondering about it, it seemed more like a quiet comment on the superficiality of the news. The topics Walter Cronkite discusses, despite their weightiness, have no bearing on the life of an average man in Cleveland, and he has no bearing on them.

It’s not that Pekar is ignorant or uncaring; there are plenty of stories in this volume that demonstrate his love for history and his awareness of world politics. But in the course of ordinary life, which is what Pekar primarily documents in his work, these things simply aren’t a factor. The evening news has transformed serious subjects into inconsequential trivia.

Now, maybe none of that was intended by Pekar, and maybe his actual reason for including the page was something entirely different. But that’s what you find yourself amazed by, again and again, in reading American Splendor. By presenting the ordinary reality without inflection, he makes us examine and draw new conclusions about things we’d other take for granted. That’s Pekar’s true gift to the world: the ability to see what would otherwise be invisible; the splendor present every day and everywhere.

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