Friday, November 12, 2010
Easily the best new feature-length comic that's come out this year, “Drinking at the Movies” heralds something shocking for the modern world of comics – the return of that fully-distilled emotional nudity that made the latter-undergrounds and 90's alternatives so legendary. It was an element of many popular comics that was easy to make fun of, and by the late 90's it seemed like everyone had copied the structure of self-introspective books like “HATE”, certain amazing pieces in “Eightball” and “Peep Show”. However, without the manic neurosis of these books, the end result was simply a xeroxed sea of sad, tepid “woe is me” junk. In retrospect, it's as if the style died out for a newer wave, one of falsely-intellectual absurdity. People seemed afraid to bear their true feelings in the major output of comics this past decade, instead creating either acid-influenced nonsense so abstract it could avoid any serious scrutiny, or even worse comics that were basically supposed to be humorous simply because they weren't funny at all.
As with current mainstream film, television, and literature, indie comics seemed 95% terrified of being GENUINE. Having an unaltered, perhaps ugly slice of reality became unpopular – and it's a goddamn shame, too. Art's potential is often related to just how genuine it is. Peter Bagge's tale of Buddy Bradley (from Neat Stuff through to the recent HATE Annuals) is as classic and as wonderful a story as any piece of literature that America has yet produced, and Justin Green's “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary” (1970) is every bit as affecting as Salinger's “Catcher In the Rye”. It's the genuine aspect of these works that makes them excel; at their core they are ONLY truth mixed with twisted, vibrant story-telling. Even the most fantastic elements become believable because they're not presented like just facts on a piece of paper; the reader is made to believe they are some insane character's version of the absolute truth.
So, the comics-world probably wasn't ready for Julia Wertz – her truthful, self-deprecating adventures seem to begin with the fact that she feels far removed from anything resembling a “respected” 20-something cartoonist. One gets the sense she begins her projects by staring at a blank page, pen in hand, thinking for a few moments; then says aloud “fuck it” and draws what that voice in the back of her head is begging her to keep secret. The funny and endearing nature of Wertz's comics bring back floods of memories from works by artists like Joe Matt, Mary Fleener, Lynda Barry, and of course Diane Noomin (why isn't she the most famous cartoonist in the world, by the way?) as well as the previously mentioned Bagge and Green.
Like the most talented filmmakers and authors, the best comic artists realize their medium and exploit it appropriately. It's one of the stronger elements of Wertz's work here – the story, while technically being a 200 page narrative about moving to NYC, mal-adjusting into alcoholism and self-loathing, and then eventually overcoming some really huge, crippling fears (and not in some unbelievable, TV-movie style either); is peppered throughout with various different breaks in style, time, and most welcome of all, the narrative itself. Wertz will derail her tale without notice, and all of a sudden Sherlock and Watson are there, following around her escaped brain trying to figure out why cartoon Julia makes such poor choices. Time-travel/flashbacks, MAD-esque “pros and cons”, total fantasy; it's ALL possible here. This story, which is told as best as it could possibly be told, could only be told in comics form. In “Drinking at the Movies” there's even mention of “Fart Party” (Wertz's first two books are under this title) being turned into a TV show or movie. While the humor and basics of the story are applicable to other mediums, it would be impossible to duplicate the essence of “Drinking at the Movies” because it's so perfectly rooted in its awesome comic-ness. Visually, Wertz has established her own style that (wonderfully) seems to stem from 90's and 2000's alternative comics and TV cartoons. It houses the humor (and softens the pathos) in a way that makes all its elements seem inseparable, like Beavis and Butthead, South Park, or the Simpsons.
“Drinking At the Movies” is refreshing, it comes off almost as a semi-unconscious throwback to what many would call a hey-day of creativity in comics. But it's also vibrantly new. The nasty social-networking/ego-porn that saturates so many young people nowadays is neither absent nor preached about, it's present and not ignored, but never the focus. The time and place is very accurate (Brooklyn late 2000's), and the portrayals of the types within its population are all on point. For those who live in the areas she writes about and draws it's almost eerie. These comics will be a valuable time capsule of human ridiculousness in years to come. 50 years from now, formerly-very-cool grandparents will slam down a copy of "Drinking at the Movies" in front of their grandchildren and be able to say "I'M NOT LYING, SEE? BROOKLYN WAS ACTUALLY LIKE THIS!"