PNCA Continuing Education

The story of their lives

In Visual Storytelling on June 10, 2010 at 1:00 am

In general I don’t really like autobiographical comics. I have nothing against the idea, and I greatly enjoy the work of cartoonists like Alex Robinson (Box Office Poison) and Jaime Hernandez (Love and Rockets) who, like the best contemporary novelists, draw on their personal experiences to lend their fiction an air of authenticity.

Most cartoonists doing straight autobiography in comics move through two distinct phases with their work. First it’s post-college angst, with comics about the seemingly universal experience of living in dumpy apartments, working miserable jobs, and going to parties and bars, with particular attention paid to romantic failure. Next, assuming the cartoonist has some success with the first phase, comes an endless series of comics about the experience of going to comic book conventions, which makes sense as this is one of the few times a dedicated cartoonist gets away from the drawing table. This rarely makes for interesting reading, even if you get all the in-jokes and pop culture references, and the frequent mean-spirited humor directed at convention-goers strikes me as not only petty, but biting the hand that feeds as well.

There are always exceptions, however, and there are a few cartoonists doing autobiographical stuff whose work makes me eat my words.

Portland’s Top Shelf Productions recently published Alec: the Years Have Pants, a mammoth collection of From Hell artist Eddie Campbell’s autobiographical work from the last 30 years. Campbell manages to do exactly what I was just complaining about, but in a way that makes me love him for it. Through his thinly disguised alter ego of Alec MacGarry he writes about days working at a factory, nights at the pub, and all the awkward social interactions in between with a wry sense of irony and self-awareness. His chapter on the comics industry is a fascinating insider’s look at a formative moment in comics history, and his bemused bafflement over the From Hell film and other unanticipated signs of success in his career is absolutely charming.

Later chapters  are more focused on his domestic life as a married father of three, but even those are highly entertaining and free from the self-absorption that plagues most people’s amusing stories about their kids. One tale in particular, about a father-son day out that finishes (for reasons I won’t spoil for you) with father, son and friends spending several hours in jail, with the mother not finding out until several weeks later, conveys the carefully controlled chaos of family life that most anyone should be able to relate to, or at least enjoy.

In his Little Nothings series, France’s Lewis Trondheim examines the minutiae of daily life in a series of one and two page comics that build on one another to give you an intimate picture of his existence. He chooses to present himself as hopelessly neurotic, yet he obviously has a sense of humor about it – his agonizing decision over whether to save an old day planner to sell on eBay in 10 years, for example, or his joy at not getting his cell phone charger and Nintendo DS cables tangled together as he packs for a trip.

The real treat in the Little Nothings books, though, is the cartooning, simple and effortless as only an experienced master of the form like Trondheim can make it look.

So what is it about these two that succeeds where most others fail? Both are absolute masters of their craft, for a start, and have honed that craft on many other comics besides just their autobiographical work. Most importantly, though, I think both have an ability to make comics about ordinary life with a sparkle of personality that clearly shows how much they enjoy it.

– Jefferson Powers

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