Posted by: Abhay Khosla on October 9, 2008
THE ALCOHOLIC by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel; Published by DC-Vertigo, $19.99.
I’d like to talk about the book design, for a moment. We’re a couple years after the point where smart, contemporary design is still surprising, but—but, still, great googly-moogly, the book design for THE ALCOHOLIC is glossy.
Sepia-tinted author photos. A liberal use of Futura. The pages of the comic are book-ended by dark brown paper of a heavier stock. Taking off the slipcase reveals a carving of a bottle, with the book’s title for the bottle’s label. Every other odd page combines into a map to Bluebeard’s Treasure. Bluebeard’s Treasure is friendship.
And the pull-quotes: a couple are from fanboy-world luminaries like Brian Vaughan and Neil Gaiman, but there’s also Sarah Silverman, Anthony Swofford, Bret Easton Ellis, John Hodgman, Kirkus Reviews, Jerry Stahl, Thomas Beller. Readers, be assured: whoever wrote this book is friends with celebrities! What could a more important thing in America to know than that?
And the back cover text: THE ALCOHOLIC is hilarious yet heartbreaking. Dean Haspiel’s art is gritty yet poignant. My balls are wrinkly yet succulent.
So: so, shit in my shoes, if this isn’t the damn hippest-looking comic. In April of this year, Vertigo announced its intentions to significantly increase its focus on original graphic novels. THE ALCOHOLIC’s book design, for me, is a little window into the future, or a possible future at least. A name author from the world of books; a slick modern design; celebrity endorsements assuring the reader that the author is socially well-connected; stylish fonts; back cover text promising poignance. Poignance!
I was looking forward to and ultimately bought THE ALCOHOLIC because I’d heard of Ames, because I’d heard of his last novel, Wake Up Sir. I knew that it had been well received. But… well received by who? I’m not really sure. By the World of Books. I don’t know who that is, though; I’m not exactly in Michiko Kakutani’s rolodex. There’s a very strange argument that sprung up on the comics part of the internet in the last couple of days (that I don’t particularly understand to be honest) about avoiding nameless, faceless “mediocre” comics. But: very little seems to have been said as to how one goes about doing that exactly. How do you know what to buy? At $10-20 a trade, what’s a safe bet? Who can you trust? How much will packaging and popularity and buzz from unknown people matter? Risks abound in the future.
I took comfort in the “SUGGESTED FOR MATURE READERS” hiding in the small print on the book’s back corner. It’s comforting to know that comics have a past, and the past left fingerprints. I especially like how it satisfies only the letter of some vestigial corporate policy, but not in any way, that policy’s spirit.
I guess point #2 should be that the book itself is decent. I think it’s alright.
In its particular way, at least. Of the book’s 136 pages, about 125 pages feature Ames’s first person narration in caption boxes, multiple caption boxes that dominate page after page. Of those remaining 11 pages, 3 feature the narrator addressing the reader directly in expository monologues overstuffing word balloons, instead.
It’s an illustrated personal essay with a comic book in the margins. If your dream comic can be understood without ever looking at the words, look elsewhere. Ames’s story isn’t particularly surprising or unique; some might find the book “boring” as a result, that dull, perennial insult for memoir comics (or pseudo-memoirs). But I found the book enjoyable enough for other reasons—- the details Ames selected, the timing of events, the choice of digressions, the book’s particular sense of humor, the clever framing sequence. If it’s an essay, I thought it was an okay essay.
Dean Haspiel’s contribution in making this essay work visually can’t be understated, though. The book whiplashes between comedy and drama; the main character goes from pathetic to sympathetic to loathsome in the space of panels—- without Haspiel being able to handle that variety, and provide some visual moments of interest along the way, it’s hard to imagine THE ALCOHOLIC having worked as a comic. I’d use the phrase “steady hand on the tiller” here but I don’t have a fucking clue what a tiller is. Maybe I don’t want a steady hand on a tiller; maybe, I want a hand that caresses the tiller gently, bringing it gradually but sensually to climax. I don’t really know, my friends.
Also: I don’t know how to describe Haspiel’s style here. This isn’t the unrestrained Haspiel of the BILLY DOGMA comics; any of DOGMA’s enthusiasm for Kirby, bold shapes, immediacy—none of that is particularly noticeable in THE ALCOHOLIC (nor does it seem to have been requested, I suppose). I suppose the emphasis here is more for clarity, for an easy transition for the audience from Ames’s novels to comics. More visually inclined readers are urged to consider FEAR, MY DEAR instead.
With Haspiel, I think again we see a little hint of the future. Haspiel working with Mr. Ames, Jim Rugg working with Ms. Castellucci, Farel Dalrymple working with Mr. Lethem; at some point, the reward for cartoonists who successfully create a particular kind of independent comic became a gig chaperoning World of Books writers on comic book holiday. I guess I think that’s probably more of a good thing than a bad thing. As rewards go, this seems like a good one. But I guess what I find interesting is… when I grew up, comic book artists were the super-stars of comics. And writers were just… well, you know, writers.
With THE ALCOHOLIC, consider again the evidence presented by the book design.
It’s not for lack of space. No: he’s just the artist.
THE ALCOHOLIC is a portrait of a man who has a substance abuse problem and his struggles with addiction, from his teen years to the days after 9/11. The narrator is sort-of obnoxiously named Jonathan A., I guess to titillate stupid people that some unknowable portion of the book is based upon the real life of Mr. Ames. Why would anyone fucking care? But after all, I suppose we live in an age of completely fictional autobiographies; tawdry voyeurism became worthwhile to authors and important to reading audiences– oh, well.
There’s not much of a shape to it. Are addiction memoirs generally known for their dramatic tension? Initially, the book adopts a framing sequence involving lengthy flashbacks, but it abandons that structure mid-way through, though “Jonathan A.” continues to incessantly narrate even past that point. But maybe substance abuse is enough of a shape; with substance abuse comes depravity, sex, sexual dysfunction, horny senior citizens, death, fist fights, vomit, puke, barf, shit, orgies, and chase sequences. Everything a good comic book needs.
The 9/11 portion was my least favorite part of the book. I think it’s supposed to reflect his shame over the petty grief that had driven him to drink in comparison to this greater horror; to humbly acknowledge the inconsequential nature of whether he drinks or doesn’t; or to add to the feeling of the last third of the book of things spiraling out of control both internally and externally.
But: I think there’s an inherent danger with fiction and 9/11 of … clichés not only become offensive because they’re clichés, but because they become… I don’t know, like, offensive because it’s grief porn? Jonathan A. spends the day with a young woman who has just lost her husband in the attack– she maybe has three or four lines in the book total, none memorable. Because who she is doesn’t matter; all the book seems to say is “I was reminded what really matters through her! I was there for her! I was the witness of her grief! I learned from her grief! I failed to learn from her grief! Me Me Me.” I think there’s a desperation to remember that day as the day Americans “came together”, and I wonder if that isn’t its own way to avoid experiencing grief or fear, to make it still about us, endlessly us.
To some limited extent, this is all to the book’s benefit, as the portrait the book paints of the main character is ultimately of a selfish and self-obsessed man-child. But… I guess it just makes me uncomfortable seeing it as a thing being used clumsily, even if that clumsiness can be justified or explained, regardless of reason or context.
It’s funny, though: while I was reading Ames’s depiction of 9/11, all I was thinking about was a different disaster. Like the good Mr. Hibbs, like many people in this country probably, I’ve been obsessing over financial news lately that I don’t half understand. It’s a lot of Bloomberg.Com. It’s a lot of “What does Nouriel Roubini have to say about that?” It’s a lot of Roubini and Mish’s Global Economic Trends and Federal Reserve conspiracy theories. It’s a lot of naked Tai Chi in front of an open window, to cheer up the poor people huddled outside. It’s a lot of writing and drawing Care Bear pornography– you know, Care Bears spraying one another with those rainbows that come out of their bellies, giggling. Care Bear Belly-Rainbow Bukkake? You know, for kids.
Time spent thinking about our economy, thinking about America, asking the big questions like “Is our way of life sustainable? Can you put off paying the piper indefinitely? What is it like when a country addicted to cheap oil and easy credit has to detox? Did any of those Care Bears have drawings of erect wangs on their bellies?” And here, we have THE ALCOHOLIC, a book very much about someone living a lifestyle that’s unsustainable, that won’t work out so hot in the long term, that probably won’t end well. It felt, I don’t know, timely.
I think one of the reasons I like the book was how Jonathan A. got more and more pathetic as he got older. Too Much is a pretty great strategy when you’re younger, but by the end, A.’s got a lousy haircut, wearing an ugly suit, he’s barely wiser, he’s all alone, and he’s as much a danger & pathetic disappointment to himself and others as ever, if not more so. I’m pretty fatalistic when I read the news, and my guess for the last, well, couple decades is things in this country are about to get really fantastically worse; so, I guess that ending struck a chord with me in more ways than one. We’re all going to end up in shambles, huh? See you in the shambles! We’ll share some toast.
But: the future, huh? Vertigo not just getting an author from ye’ old World of Books, but releasing a book in the hot genre du jour: the fake addiction memoir.
If the future is books aimed equally for bookstores, who are the people in bookstores, what values do they have, what kinds of books will people create for them, and how will we know which to buy? Oprah? Will Oprah get involved? Nicholas Sparks?
I’m confused as to how I feel about that entire genre of the addiction memoir, especially; it’s not a genre I’ve ever sought out before in a book. There’s something troubling about the genre but I don’t feel qualified to say what that is since I’m, you know, I’m not educated enough about the program or the twelve steps or any of it; I have concerns whether writing a book like THE ALCOHOLIC is a healthy or recommendable thing to do for someone struggling with that disease since there’s an inherent element of romanticizing the substance abuse portion that struck me as, I don’t know, risky. But I don’t know what the experts say on that topic. I guess I could say: if he’s subverting the genre in some way, I’m not well read in the genre enough to notice how; I couldn’t say how or if this addiction memoir is particularly noteworthy as compared to any of the many, many others. Do they all have wise old recovering addicts that are roommates in rehab? Or foxy lady rehab employees that the main character wants but ultimately can’t have? Because in my head, I guess I imagine they all might.
I guess the genre makes me especially queasy because – what do readers want out of this genre exactly? I don’t typically spend time in my daily life rooting for an addict to fall off the wagon, but if I’m reading an addiction memoir? Look, if I’m reading an addiction memoir, I know that if the addict falls off the wagon, then the Crazy Drug Madness Haha time can resume and I will benefit from that as a reader.
I rooted for Bubbles to stay off the heroin on The Wire, as much as I ever rooted for anything on a TV show to happen. But… you know: this book? There’s 30-ish pages where the main character stopped drinking and the story got boring, and to be honest, I started thinking how nice it’d be for that boring Jonathan A. boy to start drinking again.
That made me feel a little weird and more than a little fucking dirty.
And it took bathing in a lot of Care Bear rainbow ejaculate to feel clean again.