Tagged: Memoirs

Good.: From the Amazon Jungle to Suburbia and Back by FLuX and David Good
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Good.: From the Amazon Jungle to Suburbia and Back by FLuX and David Good

First up, this is not non-fiction; there’s a disclaimer on the copyright page: “This book is a work of fiction inspired by actual events.” It does use the real names of all of the people involved, was written or co-written by the main character, and roughly follows the real history as far as I can determine from news stories and the description of David Good’s 2015 prose memoir The Way Around .

But there’s something constructed at the core of the graphic novel Good.: From the Amazon Jungle to Suburbia and Back  that led to that disclaimer. I don’t know all of the details. But it’s clear that this is not, at its core, true. And that’s a puzzling thing for a book positioned as a memoir.

David Good is the eldest of three children of American anthropologist Kenneth Good and the Yanomani woman Yarima. The elder Good took his first trip into the Amazon rainforest to live with the Yanomani in 1975, and spent much of the next twelve years there, learning the language and being accepted by a local tribe, said acceptance meaning he had to marry a local woman. “Woman” here means maybe 12 when they were married and possibly as old as 16 when the marriage was consummated.

Kenneth and Yarima then lived in New Jersey for a few years – the mid-80s, if I have the sequence right – where those three children were born, while Kenneth was working on his PhD. Yarima was left, while Kenneth worked long hours, in a suburban house with three pre-school children, in an alien culture where she didn’t speak the language well, while she still possibly wasn’t old enough to drink legally. The family returned to the Venezuelan rainforest roughly once a year for a long visit – I’m going to guess each summer, during the long break of the academic year, and possibly partially funded by an ongoing research grant of Kenneth’s – and, one year, for reasons and in a manner that seems to vary somewhat between retellings, Yarima refused to return to America, so Kenneth left her behind and took the children back north.

In Good., this is the dividing line: David Good was five years old when his mother faded back into the jungle instead of getting onto a small plane, and he didn’t see her again until he was an adult. But it’s not clear what Kenneth did, since the Yanomani were still the core of his academic work. Did Kenneth continue his fieldwork, visiting without his half-Yanomami children for the years in between? Did he visit a different Yanomani tribe – maybe the break-up of his marriage soured his relationship with this one?  Or did he just stop doing fieldwork after he got his PhD? None of that is clear in Good., which is the story of the child David rather than the adult Kenneth.

Meanwhile, Kenneth wrote his own book about his experiences, 1991’s Into the Heart . I haven’t seen a clear timeline of this whole thing, but that seems to be fairly soon after Yarima returned to the Yanomani. I’ve seen references to David being twenty-five in 2010, which would put his birth in 1984 or 1985, and make him five around 1989-90. Arguing for a slightly earlier timeline, the repeated “twelve years” of Kenneth’s fieldwork, starting in 1975, could imply the break was around 1987 or 1988. Finally, a 1991 book would have been written at least a year or two before. (I found a NYTimes review of Kenneth’s book, which implies its viewpoint is from before Yarima returned, and which provides more context to Yanomani life.)

That’s the general outline of the story, consistent across what I’ve seen across all three books and various articles. How much, and what parts, of this story as told in Good. are fictionalized, I don’t know. Good. doesn’t make that clear, or explain why it was fictionalized. I haven’t read Into the Heart or The Way Around, both of which were written with collaborators, as Good. was. I suspect that at least part of the fictionalization has to do with the “warlike” nature of the Yanomani people – the first major book about them, from the 1960s, was Yanomama: The Fierce People – and how that violence affected Good’s family, since I’ve also seen references to his mother having been gang-raped during one of Kenneth’s trips away from this tribal group. David Good’s vision of his mother’s people in Good. is entirely positive and sunny and happy: that’s a beautiful vision, and inspires his charitable and other work these days, but no people in the history of the world are perfectly peaceful and happy.

I’ve also neglected to mention David Good’s collaborator on Good., the gallery artist, cartoonist and illustrator who works as FLuX. (From the acknowledgements, I think his real name is John Malloy.) The book doesn’t make their roles clear: the PDF I read has FLuX listed first in the author credit, while covers online have the reverse order. I don’t know if Good scripted the book, or if he met with FLuX to talk through his story and FLuX scripted it, or some more complicated process. Somehow, though, these two men made this fictionalized version of David Good’s story.

I think the fictionalization is to frame it. Most of Good. is told in alternating chapters: the longer ones focus on David, are presented in black and white and heavily narrated in his own voice, telling his story from childhood. In between are color-saturated, wordless short vignettes of Yarima’s life, from her own birth, presenting an idealized vision of a paradisiacal life in the rainforest among a wonderful, loving people. (Until she moves to New Jersey with Kenneth, for a darker interlude that ends with her return to paradise.) As an adult, after a tumultuous adolescence, David seeks out his mother – the narrative doesn’t emphasize this, but it’s notable that it’s another anthropologist, not his father, who helps him get into the jungle and find his mother’s nomadic people – and that heals him and makes everything better. The book ends with a sequence marrying the two art styles, with David’s narration boxes overlaid on the sunny, bright colors of the Yarima sections.

It’s an uplifting story, a lovely one marred only slightly by that lurking question of how fake it is. It’s probably mostly true. And David Good has dedicated his life to good works since then, pursing a PhD based on the Yanomani microbiome and starting a foundation in their name.

I just want Yarima’s real story. This one is clearly fictionalized so far as to be a fantasy. It sounds like Into the Heart also had long sequences ostensibly from her POV that, I suspect, were equally “true.” What I really want to read is what she really thought, what her life was actually like – including the violence of the Yanomani culture that Kenneth Good seems to have made a career out of minimizing (and, to be clear, it also sounds like researchers before him leaned heavily into the “noble savage” myth, going much too far in mythologizing and centralizing that violence). That would take an independent viewpoint – not a man related to her – and will probably never happen.

Good. is fine as far as it goes, and David Good’s story is genuinely inspiring. I don’t fault him or his collaborator for not understanding his mother, a woman from a completely different culture who he knew only as a very young child. But it’s important to be clear on what Good. is and isn’t: it’s a cleaned-up, fictionalized version of this story, from David Good’s viewpoint, presenting him as the hero and savior. That is a plausible reading of the story, admittedly: and much better than plausible if you happen to be David Good. But the Yarima sections of this book are just too cartoony, too kumbaya, to be believable, even if you don’t already know that her people are famous in anthropological circles as “the violent people.”

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

A Matter of Life by Jeffrey Brown
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A Matter of Life by Jeffrey Brown

Jeffrey Brown is a prolific, interesting cartoonist (and teacher of cartooning), yet another creator that sits in my head in the category “I need to keep up with their work” until I realize the last book of his I read was in 2015 .

I have reasons, or excuses, for that. The most reasonable one is that Brown has been mostly making comics for middle-graders for the past decade-plus – a couple of Star Wars series, Incredible Change-Bots, and their follow-ups – and that I did read a few of those but lost track of them eventually. A lot of cartoonists are mostly making books for middle-schoolers these days: middle-schoolers not only buy books, but actually love them, and there’s a whole ecosystem of school visits and book fairs and whatnot to provide income and marketing opportunities and fan contact for those creators.

I found A Matter of Life randomly recently, and read it quickly. It was published in 2013 and – if I’m reading Brown’s Wikipedia bibliography correctly – was his most recent book actually aimed at an adult audience. So I might not be as far behind as I thought I was.

This is a memoir comic, like a lot of Brown’s work for adults, in the style of Clumsy and the rest of his Aughts work. I’ve read that he does these stories in sketchbooks – I’m not sure if he just works them out there, and then re-draws them “officially,” or if the sketchbook pages are the final work. But Brown’s stories in this mode do come off as less polished – or maybe I mean “processed” – than the usual modern memoir comic, a collection of short chapters about moments or ideas rather than a long single story with a point of view and an overarching message.

Brown’s autobio work is more about exploration than presentation – this book’s subtitle is “An Autobiographical Meditation on Fatherhood and Faith,” which covers the ground solidly – he isn’t presenting a GN that says “here’s this story of my life.” Brown instead has a cluster of thoughts and moments, little stories and bigger ones, that circle around something important and interesting. In this case, it’s thoughts about the relationships of fathers and sons, primarily Brown to his own minister father and to his then-young son.

The faith piece is less explicit – to tell a story about what you believe, you really need to explain those beliefs, by speaking directly to the reader or something similar. But Brown doesn’t work that way, so other than a short intro, this instead is a collection of moments – some when he was younger, and believed in a traditional flavor of Christianity as much as he did believe (however much that was; Brown, again, keeps it vague) and some when he was older and no longer believed. Brown unfortunately does fall back on the usual “It doesn’t mean I don’t believe in something bigger than myself” vague statement that means exactly nothing – I mean, so do I, because Mt. Everest is bigger than I am and I believe in it, but it’s not helpful in defining any specific belief in the supernatural underpinnings of the universe. There’s no one in the world who only thinks things smaller than them exist.

Brown’s style, I think, works best on interpersonal, daily-life questions. His initial fame came from books about his love life, and what works best in this book are the father-son interactions, in both directions. To really get at what his father believed, and how his relationship with his father shifted after he stopped believing, Brown would have needed to work in a different, more explicit style – to define things rather than just show them.

So this is more about fatherhood than faith, and more about realizing that in-betweenness – that you are both a father and a son – and having new appreciation for both roles. That’s plenty for one book, actually, and Brown, as always in this style, tells his story in an organic and grounded way, full of specific moments and thoughts.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Feeding Ghosts by Tessa Hulls

Feeding Ghosts by Tessa Hulls

We are all haunted by history, one way or another. For some, it’s personal; for others, it’s public. After the 20th century we had, for all too many it’s both, intertwined.

Tessa Hulls is in her thirties, the second child of two first-generation immigrants to the US, brought up in a tiny Northern California town where she and her brother were  the only people at all like them. Her mother Rose is mixed-race, born in tumultuous 1950 Shanghai to a Swiss diplomat who had already run back home before the birth and a Chinese journalist, Sun Yi, who thought she could weather any storm.

Hulls tells the story of all three women, over the last hundred years, in Feeding Ghosts , a magnificent, impressive first graphic novel all about the ways Tessa and Rose, and Sun Yi before them, are haunted by history.

Hulls is the one telling the story, and that frames it all: she has those core American concerns of “who am I?” and “where did I come from?” Making it more complicated, she’s here exploring her Chinese identity as the daughter of two generations of Chinese women who had children with European men, and as someone raised in America entirely in the English language.

One more thing: one very big thing. Sun Yi was moderately famous: she escaped China for Hong Kong in the late 1950s, when Rose was a child, and wrote a scandalous memoir of her life under the Communist upheavals of the previous decade. She got her daughter, Rose, accepted into a very highly regarded boarding school in Hong Kong, despite not really having the money to pay for it. And then she mentally collapsed. Sun Yi spent the next two decades in and out of mental hospitals and was eventually cared for by her daughter in America starting in 1977, when Rose was 27. Rose spent her teen years in that boarding school, alternately worrying about her mother’s care and being molded to be part of an internationalist elite. And then Rose fled to America, first for college, then for a brief nomadic freedom that her daughter would eventually emulate.

Let me pull that all together: Tessa Hulls, whom a lot of Americans would cruelly call “one-quarter Chinese,” grew up in a town with no other Chinese people. Just a mother, quirky and specific and tightly controlled, the kind of mother who has Rules for everything that are rarely said explicitly, never explained, seemingly arbitrary, and core to her concept of the world. And a grandmother, trapped in her own head, scribbling every day as if she was eternally re-writing that famous memoir, and speaking only the smallest bits of broken English. That mother and grandmother spoke a different language together – I think mostly the dialect of Shanghai – which they never taught Tessa. “Chinese” was that language, that mysterious past, the symbol for all that was hidden and frightening and different for Hulls growing up.

Hulls has a lot to get through in Feeding Ghosts: a lot of family history and related world history, a lot of nuance and cultural detail that she learned as she was researching her family’s past. She tells it all mostly in sequence, after a brief prologue, but “Tessa Hulls” is present throughout, our narrator and filter, the voice telling us how she learned the story almost as much as she tells the story itself. This is a story unearthed and told, not something pretending to be purely dry and factual. It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s primarily about Tessa’s journey, how she decided to figure out this tangled knot of her family history, to do it with her mother as much as possible, to reconcile the two of them and try to come to a place here they could better meet and understand each other.

Hull’s pages are organic, specific, inky. She uses swirling white outlines on a black background as a visual element regularly – the pull of all of those ghosts, if you want to be reductive – to open and close chapters, and more subtly in the backgrounds of fraught moments.

One of the hallmarks of a great big book is that it leaves you wanting to know more. I was enthralled by the stories of young Sun Yi and Rose, and how Tessa learned what they did and what it meant. (The latter is the more important thing, in an ancient, rule-bound, formalistic society like China – maybe even more so in a time of such transition and upheaval as the early Communist years.) But I felt that she was less forthcoming about her own youth. This is very much a story of these three women, but I wondered about other figures: Hulls’s father is almost entirely absent, signposted as a British man with a thicker accent than Rose and seen only a handful of times. And Tessa’s brother, just one year older, growing up in this same house and environment, is even less present – did he feel any of these pressures? Or was this so much a matrilineal thing, tied into those cultural assumptions of what men and women do, that he was able to “be American” in ways more closed to Tessa?

But that’s not the story Hulls is telling. And every story casts shadows: the story that-is dimly showing flickers of other stories that could have been, or might yet be. The brightest, most brilliant stories cast the clearest shadows – that may be why I wonder so much about Hull’s father and brother; they’re dark, mysterious shadows just outside the circle of these three women, brilliantly illuminated and seen in depth.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

In Waves by A.J. Dungo

In Waves by A.J. Dungo

A.J. Dungo obscures the central theme of his first graphic novel for a long time. The cover copy only hints at it. I have to assume that’s all on purpose. And, to be a fair reviewer, I feel like I should do the same.

But know that In Waves  is a true story, that it’s about something major and important in Dungo’s life – I hate to say “that happened to him,” for reasons that would only be clear to people who’ve read the book – and that is related to but very distinct from what In Waves says it is about. I might say a little more, at the very end here, if I can do it without spoiling.

In Waves says it’s about surfing. And it is: it’s a four-hundred page graphic novel that largely traces the history of the sport, from pre-contact Hawaii through the greats of the early twentieth century.  It’s informed and interesting, a cultural history rather than the story of a sport’s winners and rules and contests. But that’s just one-half of the book; as the minimal back-cover copy puts it, the other half of In Waves consists of Dungo’s “personal narrative of love, loss, and the solace of surfing.”

Dungo came late to surfing, personally, despite – as far as I can see – growing up in Sothern California, somewhere near the beach. His girlfriend, Kristen, loved to surf, as did many other members of her family, so that’s how Dungo got into it. That half of the book is the personal part, the part I’m going to avoid talking in detail about. It is a narrative of loss, in the end – Dungo constructs the story so the loss happens about mid-way through the book, but it’s clear from early on that this will not be an entirely happy story.

Dungo tells those two stories on crisp light pages – the present-day storyline in a green-blue, a couple of shades lighter than the cover, and the past in a similarly light amber. He gives them both lots of pages, plenty of room to tell the story, to have small moments in both timeframes. The modern story is more personal, more immediate than the historical one, as of course it has to be. The historical story is mostly background or explanation: what this all means, the deeper history or significance, and maybe what Dungo researched and learned about to process that loss. But the core of In Waves is his story, as it should be.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib

I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib

Identity is important in American life – the “what are you” question that probably can be asked politely, but rarely is. We’re a nation that needs to put people into specific boxes, to celebrate or denigrate based on what your parents and ancestors were and did – or, more reductively, what you look like.

I’m sure similar things happen in other nations. But it’s so central to American life, especially if you’re not the default. As it happens, I am the default: male, Northeastern, very WASPy, and now middle-aged. But even people like me can see how it works if we pay attention.

So the result is: many, possibly most immigrant memoirs by first- or second-generation Americans boil down to: this is who I am, this is where I came from, this is what’s important to me and my family, and this is why that matters. Those are the questions they keep hearing, so they answer them. Those are the things that are assumed to be central to an American identity: what’s on the left side of the “something-American” hyphen?

Malaka Gharib grew up in a diverse city – Cerrittos, California, mostly in the ’90s – and still had to deal with that question more than most of her peers, because her family wasn’t one thing, like most of her schoolmates. (There’s a page here where she shows a schematic of her highschool, with every group – Koreans, Taiwanese, Filipino, Pakistani, Portuguese, Mexican – in their clusters, and her all alone in the middle.)

The back cover of I Was Their American Dream , Gharib’s debut graphic novel from 2019, is a very slightly different version of a page from the book asking that very question, in that blunt American way: “Malaka, what are you?” (And note, of course, it’s always what, like a thing, and not who, like a person.) The book is her answer.

The short answer is that her mother was Filipino and her father was Egyptian; they met in California, fell in love, married, and had this one daughter before divorcing. Gharib tells that story here: that’s the start of every American story, explaining who your people are. But Gharib has two kinds of people: the Filipinos and the Egyptians. She lives mostly with the extended family of her mother, but spends summers with her father in Egypt.

They’re both part of her identity. She’s different, special, unique. Which is not known for being a comfortable thing for a teenager.

American Dream tells that story – how she grew up, discovered she wasn’t typical, and how that worked out for her through school and college and early adult life. (She was around thirty when she drew this book.) The voice is the adult Gharib looking back: this is a book that could be read by younger readers, but not one specifically pitched to them.

Gharib had a second memoir, the more tightly focused It Won’t Always Be Like This , a few years later. That book is more thoughtful and specific, but American Dream is bigger – this would be the one to start with, I think. And Gharib has a mostly breezy tone and an appealingly loose art style throughout – she may be grappling with some serious themes, but not in a heavy-handed way. She seems to have had a happy childhood, and is celebrating that – comics memoirs so often come out of the opposite impulse that it’s important to mention that. This is the story of a happy childhood, in large part because it was quirky and specific and filled with interesting, loving people from two different cultures.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

As a Cartoonist by Noah Van Sciver

As a Cartoonist by Noah Van Sciver

I used to personalize far too much when I read, to reflexively attribute ideas or thoughts in a book to the author. To blame the author, some times, for how I reacted to the book, or just hold them responsible for how I, or anyone, responded to a book. [1]

I got better; I got older and (I hope) smarter.

One quirk of that growing-older change is that, as I seemingly have less and less time to read, I’m willing to give writers more and more chances, to assume it’s a book that’s not working for me rather than the author. And I try to be more generous to creators, to assume positive intent, to get away from that young-huffy pose of outrage that’s so energizing to so many of us read-everything types for so long.

So I keep coming back to creators that don’t quite work for me, especially if I see things I like in them. I just read a Katie Skelly book a couple of weeks ago, for example, liking it better than I did her past stuff. And I’m here again with another Noah Van Sciver book despite thinking Fante Bukowski  wasn’t really my kind of thing and finding Saint Cole  technically strong but something of a slog to read. [2]

That’s what brought me to As a Cartoonist , Van Sciver’s short book of mostly autobiographical comics from last year. It’s a thematically connected collection of comics, collecting work from what seems to be all phases of his career, from his first comic Blammo to a bunch of newer work. It’s not a single narrative, but it is organized, mostly, by chronology: the main spine of the book is Van Sciver’s professional life over the past decade. Van Sciver provides a list of original publications in the backmatter – have I mentioned recently that creators who make original publication clear are the very best people in the world? they are – and a number are listed as “never published,” which could mean they were new or could mean they just didn’t make it into anything else.

My guess is that Van Sciver was thinking about a book like this for a while – the autobio cartoonist is a clear type, and he seems to be in an indy-cartoonist world that includes a lot of autobio guys. And, as seen from some of the work here, he does have a confessional streak, or an urge to tell stories from his life, to tell his stories and express things that happened to him. But he’s not relentlessly confessional, like James Kochalka or even John Porcellino – the strips with Van Sciver as a character are focused and directed, all about his career and work. They’re not the kind of general “here’s what I was doing and thinking” daily-comics: it’s all about his aspirations and fears and life as someone trying to make these kinds of stories, in a world that mostly doesn’t value that.

His life As a Cartoonist, you might say. He did.

Mixed in with the focused autobio material are some jokier pieces from Blammo about “Notable and Tasteful 19th Century Cartoonist,” a now-forgotten and unnamed hack from a century ago, and some quirkier related pieces, like a page Van Sciver sold as a print, of him dancing under the title “How it feels to be a cartoonist.”

It’s not the kind of book that is a single thing; it coalescences and explores rather than explains, showing us some aspects of what’s been like to be Van Sciver over the past decade, some hints of his personal life and history. (His childhood is fascinating – he came from a big family that seems to have been on the edge of poverty for a long time; his mother separated from his father and their Mormon faith when he was young; it looks like they moved around a bunch, too – but I think he’s only told bits and pieces of that story, here and elsewhere.)

The title is arch and implies a certain distance, but Van Sciver is more of a warts-and-all cartoonist: he’s grappling here with what it means to be a professional in this field, how to handle various situations, how it feels to be “a cartoonist,” for good or bad, in mid-career, after the shiny newness has worn off and he’s just trying to do something else and keep his life and career going. He portrays himself as well-meaning but not always successful, self-doubting and conflicted, prone to be taken the wrong way and somewhat odd because of his unusual upbringing. He’s a specific, detailed person telling stories about interesting, particular things in his life – and making those stories just as long as they need to be.

It’s a strong collection, with more of a focus and connection than you might expect from the sources. Even the “earlier, funnier stuff” – as Van Sciver has fans repeatedly tell him they like best, in an echo of Woody Allen – works really well in context, both as comic relief and as parallax: a hundred years on, all cartoonists will be half-forgotten.

[1] My theory is that I did this because I started out in SF, the field that never saw a metaphor it didn’t turn into concrete. And I grew up at just the right time to be indoctrinated by a long string of Heinlein author stand-ins and form the assumption that was normal.

[2] One of the bits in this book also explained to title of Saint Cole to me, making me feel like a dunce. Van Sciver does mention most readers missed it, but it was a smart touch and it totally flew over my head.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Fortune & Glory by Brian Michael Bendis

Fortune & Glory by Brian Michael Bendis

I went through a Bendis kick, around the time a lot of the hip comics kids did, back in the mid-Aughts. I at first liked Powers, and then thought it ran at high speed away from everything that was originally good about it. I was mostly impressed by Alias. And I think I wandered away about the time he, inevitably, like every other new writer in comics, was fully subsumed into the Wednesday Crowd and started writing sharecropped superheroes all of the time.

{Spongebob Narrator Voice: Fifteen Years Later}

I just re-read Fortune & Glory , his least representative book. It was there in the app I used to find comics, since this spiffy new edition was just published in May, and I’m always up for nonfiction these days – the curse of the middle-aged man.

I see I didn’t actually review Fortune the first time I read it, back in 2007, so I might as well go into some of the details here. Bendis created this – he started off as a writer-artist, which might be forgotten, since he’s been just writing for a long time now – as a three-issue miniseries back in 1999. He’d done a few comics, mostly self-published, at that point – Goldfish, Jinx, Torso – all of which were dark mysteries and most of which I think were set in his native Cleveland. He was “hot” in the way it usually happens, though I doubt a self-publishing mystery series would pop now: his books were growing in popularity and getting media attention, so the bigger fish were starting to nose around.

In particular, Hollywood studios started reaching out, looking to option his books. Bendis had some loose contacts to actual Hollywood types, and was introduced to a newish producer here called David Spree, who became something of an advisor and also became “attached” to a couple of Bendis projects. Bendis also got a Hollywood agent, and started talking and taking meetings.

Fortune is the story of, basically, how those first three comics projects of his got him in the door to a whole bunch of places, got him a whole lot of meetings, and apparently led to a fair bit of money for options and writing the script for Goldfish…but did not, in the end, lead to any movies being made.

For Hollywood, though, that’s a massive success: Bendis got a new line of income, got taken seriously, and even pitched pretty strongly (with fellow comics writer Marc Andreyko, the idea that became the comic Torso) and successfully. The Torso movie, in particular, seems to have almost happened, though Bendis is vague about how it fell apart – my guess is that it was a “personality conflict,” probably not anywhere near him, and that the real story will only be told in memoirs thirty or so years down the line.

So this is a talking-heads book, heavy on the dialogue. I’m not sure if Bendis has been doing the Mamet-esque rat-tat-tat dialogue in his superhero books, but this is a real-world version of that, full of smiling tanned people lying to each other and Bendis’s cartoony avatar – that’s him on the cover – gamely making his way through the middle of a whole lot of bafflegab and bullshit and blatant lies.

Bendis was always a better writer than artist; I think he says that, in almost exactly those words, somewhere in this book. So it’s not surprising in retrospect that he turned in the drawing board to focus on the word processor. This is, I think, one of the last big projects he drew, and it’s fun and cartoony and full of energy – I don’t think a story this personal and “here’s what happened to me” would work as well drawn by someone else – so it was a suitable way to wind down that part of his career.

And the Hollywood stuff is entertaining, in the vein of a million other Hollywood stories from the past century or so: the names change, but the story is always the same.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Impossible People by Julia Wertz

Impossible People by Julia Wertz

It’s reductive and not quite true to say that this book is what Julia Wertz wanted Drinking at the Movies to be – but it’s a good enough place to start.

Drinking  was her first full-length graphic novel after two collections of Fart Party stories; at the time, I thought it was more of a collage that it didn’t quite turn into a single narrative, but was definitely bigger and more ambitious that her previous work. It was also – I shudder to realize – published in 2010, almost fifteen years ago.

Impossible People , Wertz’s big new 2023 book, is her first memoir since Museum of Mistakes  in 2018, which mostly collected older work. (In between was Tenements, Towers, and Trash , a book of New York cityscapes and related material.) It’s odd to realize that: I think of Wertz as such an immediate, confessional cartoonist, her work so direct and plain-spoken. But those stories were mostly about that late-Aughts period; she hadn’t made any books about her thirties yet.

That’s what Impossible People does. It picks up Wertz’s life from where we saw it, in those Fart Party and Museum of Mistakes strips, starting in 2009. (I was surprised to see her at the Pizza Island collective, and realize how long ago that was.) It doesn’t quite get up to the present day; this is the story of the back half of Wertz’s life in New York City, and so ends somewhere in the mid-Teens.

And, as the subtitle “A Completely Average Recovery Story” signposts, Impossible People is centrally about her alcoholism in a way she couldn’t quite wrestle down in Drinking. Again, not to be reductive, but that’s probably because she was still drinking when she made Drinking at the Movies. You can’t tell the story of your recovery until you start to recover.

Impossible People is a big book, full of spaces and people and thoughts and years of Wertz’s life. As with a lot of her work, it’s a lot more carefully constructed and smarter than her cartoony avatar tricks you into thinking. She has a great style for confessional memoir: this is real and raw, says that cartoon Wertz; see how simply I’m drawn, how directly I speak – you can trust I’m giving you the unfiltered truth.

No one makes a three-hundred page book of comics immediately, of course. But that tone, that stance gets inside the reader’s defenses quickly. It’s a relaxing style, one that looks looser and quicker than it actually is. (Pay attention to how detailed her backgrounds are, especially when she runs through all of the finds from her urban exploring – everything is placed just so, both in her actual life and in the comics panel.)

In the end, Impossible People is the story of Wertz’s relationships. At first, she had one overwhelming one: alcohol. I won’t tell the story of how she stopped drinking – that’s what Impossible People is for – but she did manage to stop, and then had to replace that with people. From that point, Impossible is mostly about her friendships – particularly fellow cartoonist Sarah Glidden and fellow recoveree Jennifer Phippen – but also her family, some attempts at dating, the wider circle of cartoonists, and just life in general.

It’s not a happy, uplifting book: that’s unlikely for a book about recovery to begin with, and Wertz isn’t going to turn sunny that quickly. (Or maybe ever: I hope to see the books grumpy old Julia Wertz does in her sixties; those will be a lot of fun.) But it’s a smart, thoughtful book – deeper than it appears, more sophisticated than the art would have you think, more insightful than you’d expect from someone known for something called The Fart Party.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

MBDL: My Badly Drawn Life by Gipi

MBDL: My Badly Drawn Life by Gipi

I don’t know if I’m missing cultural context or just goodwill for a well-known creator, but I was missing something when I read this book. It’s gotten a lot of praise, around the world, since it was originally published in Italy in 2007, so this could easily be a problem on my end. But this felt like a long, self-indulgent shaggy-dog story that – ironically – had some quite nice art along the way, but didn’t actually tell its story in a clear or coherent way.

Also, is the title really supposed to be MBDL , with “My Badly Drawn Life” as just the subtitle? That’s a level of self-indulgence well beyond the normal range. [1]

MBDL – I’ll use the abbreviation, since it does seem to be official – was a mid-career book by Gipi (Gianni Pacinotti), who seems to be most famous as a cartoonist for his previous project, Notes for a War Story. It was translated into English by Jamie Richards for publication last year, which implies (to me, at least) that it was seen as a more difficult book than War Story, which was translated more quickly.

(I don’t know if this is at all related, but Gipi seems to be one of those modern entrepreneurial/artistic types who are all over the place. Besides doing full-length BD books, he’s also made multiple films and a card game.)

OK, so MBDL is not the story of Gipi’s life. Or, rather, it’s a loose and discursive memoir that circles one aspect of his life, in a very wordy, heavily narrated, almost sketchbook style most of the time. To be blunt, it’s a Medical Problem Memoir, but it’s told in a very obfuscating way, maybe because the subject is embarrassing and maybe just because that’s the way Gipi works.

The medical problem…well, Gipi never talks about it in any medical detail, which is part of the problem. He also – admittedly, in his notes at the end – says that this book is only about the doctors that didn’t help him, who were “bad guys,” because he only cares about “bad guys.” (Cf.: one of the other threads of the book, in which Gipi mythologizes his teenage, or maybe young-adult group of ne’er-do-well friends, who do the usual young-man incredibly stupid things and manage not to die from any of it.)

What Gipi says on the first page is “I told him about this thing I have on my peen.” He also repeatedly refers to his ailment as something that turned him into a “sexual spastic, a Bobby Brown.”

And, I’m just, um, what?

He uses those same words over and over again. Never actually calls it a penis or cock or John Thomas, just “his peen,” like a snickering ten-year-old boy. Never says what the thing is – a lesion? an erectile dysfunction? some kind of fungus? a discoloration? the yawning mouth of hell? the head of Ronald Reagan ? Never explains – does he mean “sexual spastic” in that he avoids sex, because this thing is painful or off-putting or both? Or does it affect how he has sex?

And what the hell is “a Bobby Brown” in this context? My Prerogative Bobby Brown? I can’t even come up with options here; it’s just a huge “what the fuck does that mean?”

I spent all my time reading MBDL trying to figure out what the deal was with Gipi’s peen, which is annoying and frustrating, particularly once I realized he never would do anything but say those three things over and over again.

MBDL is a fairly long graphic novel – about a hundred and twenty dense pages, full of narration and words. Not of detail – Gipi uses the same words and ideas over and over again, about everything else as much as his peen. We see the crazy friends of his youth, over and over again. We see him talk to doctors, who are all useless at best.

And we slowly get more details about an event that happened when he was ten, at night in a room he shared with his eight-years-older sister. Somehow – we never learn why or how or even much of what – a “bad man,” “the man in the dark” came into that room and threatened them. It sounds like a stranger, an intruder, but even that isn’t clear. The Bad Man threatened to rape Gipi’s sister, but (I think) was unsuccessful.

Let me be blunt. MBDL is the story of how Gipi associated some kind of penis-related deformity he had in early adulthood with his trauma from being powerless to protect his sister from sexual violence when he was a child, and how that trauma apparently led him to consider all strange men as horrible monsters and yet not to ever question the sexist nonsense he and his close friends stewed in all day every day.

One of the things I’m most uneasy about is Gipi making this all about him. On the one hand, he’s the one telling it, and he’s clearly deeply wrapped up in his own head. But the core traumatic event is not about him. How did his sister react to this? Has she had medical problems? How did she get “the bad man” to leave? What actually happened?

I frankly don’t care that this made Gipi sad and that he later had “a thing on his peen.” I worry about the woman who was almost raped, especially since the “almost” is partially a guess.

On the positive side, it is not badly drawn. There’s a fictional thread, which I won’t spoil, that’s fully painted and looks amazing. I also would not call it badly written, though Gipi writes frustratingly and elliptically at all times. If I were God of Books, I would force it to be retitled My Badly Explained Penis.

Gipi is a fine cartoonist and observer: there are great pages and sequences here, and his work is engaging throughout. But there’s a massive lack at the center of the book that I could never get around, and I can’t really call it successful because of that.

[1] Answering my own question: the Italian original is LMVDM: La mia vita disegnata male, so, yes, this does seem to be very deliberate.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth by Zoe Thorogood

It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth by Zoe Thorogood

This is all true, as far as I know. Zoe Thorogood says this book is the story of six months in her life, as filtered through her own head. But everything everyone ever sees or knows is filtered through their heads, so that’s reality as best we know it, always.

It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth  is the name – I guess you’d call it a graphic novel, since it’s in comics format. Or maybe a comics memoir, or graphic non-fiction.

I suspect it’s vastly more carefully constructed and conceived than it seems to be: the best works of art always have a lot of prep-work and invisible details. Centre of the Earth says it’s the comics pages that Thorogood made during this stretch of time, to be a GN memoir, to chronicle an expected trip from her native England to the US for the first time.

She also says, up front, that she wants it to be a positive story, a particular kind of story – one of those “learn to live with yourself” stories, the kind with a quirky girl who gets better.

If this were a movie, the audience would leave the cinema feeling fine, maybe bordering on pleasant. But this isn’t a movie – and I’ve been considering stabbing myself in the neck with a sharp knife.

Her previous GN was that kind of story, fictional. It got good reviews. Thorogood sees the parallels. She doesn’t explicitly say why this new book is autobiographical, but Center of the Earth is all about art. She cares a lot about making art: drawing comics pages, telling stories, turning her own pain and confusion into something better and maybe, just maybe, getting one of those quirky-girl endings for herself along the way.

It’s not impossible, right? If you treat your life as a story, and tell that story really well, you can get the right ending, can’t you?

How Thorogood works through that is what happens in Center of the Earth. She doesn’t talk about any particular diagnosis – I get the sense that institutions have not done well by her, that whatever peace and balance she’s found has been hard-fought, and not aided by medication or therapy or diagnoses, even as a reader suspects any or all of those things, done right, would be hugely positive for her.

Call it depression, I guess, if you need a name to hang on it. Suicidal ideation at times. Thorogood draws it as a grinning tall devilish figure, mostly a dark silhouette with what looks like a frozen mask for a face. It’s there a lot of the time, lurking around the edges of a lot of these pages. That’s what it’s like: it’s always there, somewhere, sometimes more prominently than others. Whispering to her, saying unpleasant things she can’t unhear.

Thorogood draws herself many different ways: there’s a realistic version of herself, at her current age, that is more or less the “protagonist” of the book. But there are also younger Zoes, at several ages. There’s also a cartoony-headed version that takes over page-space for long stretches – I think the cartoon version is the maker of comics and the realistic one is the character in the story, since they interact with each other.

All of the versions of Thorogood interact with each other. At times it’s a little cluster of Zoes, though, as you might expect from someone this hermetic and lonely, they’re not much of a support group.

The pages circle those core concerns: living the story, telling the story, constructing the story. Living in the world, the way she wants or can, the way the world wants her to, the way maybe she can get to someday. Planning for that big trip, having it cancelled once, planning again, finally going.

I’m making this sound messy and complex, but it isn’t. It’s organic and straightforward and personal. It’s Zoe Thorogood’s story, told by all of the Zoe Thorogoods. It doesn’t quite go the way she wants it to, and that’s a large part of what Center of the Earth is about: what you want, what you get, what you make of it.

Her art is inventive and quick and supple, changing modes and styles within individual panels and mixing up levels of representation all the time. I’ve never seen her work before, but she has some serious art chops, and brings thought and skill and insight on every page to tell this story in the strongest, deepest way she can.

Centre of the Earth is masterful and moving; there’s a moment a few pages from the end that nearly made me tear up. I hope that all of the positive things are true and that all of the negative things are overstated; I wish Thorogood all of the happiness in the world and a long career making books just as surprising and magnificent as this one.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.