Cartoonist E.A. Bethea has been doing what she does in the way that only she can do it for a couple of decades now, and her late-2017 Domino Books collection, Book Of Daze, is a publication that reflects the aesthetic values and ethos of the strips contained within it, to wit : it feels like a found object —specifically, one you might come across in a dusty corner of an abandoned house, or on the table of a waterfront dive bar, complete with dried beer bottle “rings” caked into the cover. How it got there, who was reading it — these are questions no one can answer. Rather like the nature of life itself.
Bethea’s drawing style is minimalist to the point of looking and feeling rushed, with key figures (up to and including the protagonists of most strips) frequently omitted from view in favor of presenting things from their perspective, yet far more evocative and personal for this (let’s be honest) gutsy choice, affording an intimate look into not just the thought processes of the characters themselves, but how they feel about things : where they’re at, what they’re doing, the circumstances that brought them there, physically and emotionally. Longing is a constant feature — for how things were, for what one was doing last time they were in a locale, yet simple and shallow nostalgia never enters into the equation, these stories (short as most are) primarily concerning themselves with something far deeper, far more universally-observed, but far less understood : a meditation on the nature and meaning of impermanence itself.
Which, in fairness, doesn’t mean that the book — appropriately presented on cheap newsprint that rubs off on your fingertips — isn’t without its lighter passages, even humor, but these are tinged with an understanding that even this moment is one that will be over with the instant it’s happened, never to be repeated again, and that this loss of time adds up, imperceptibly, the only proof that it — any “it” — ever existed a series of unreliable memories informed by one’s highly imperfect perceptive faculties.
And yet there is a perfect way to tell these tales, and Bethea has found, perhaps even stumbled into, it : whether she’s relating the story of a lovestruck young college woman in the 1940s, exploring her own memories of her impoverished former neighborhood in New Orleans, offering up a short-form biography of actress-turned-barmaid Veronica Lake, or pondering over the fate of a disappeared childhood friend, she focuses on the places and things that the people under her metaphorical microscope interacted with, came across, or called their own, the discarded detritus of lives presented as ultimately being of equal value to cherished objects, all of them part of a whole that you, the reader, are trusted enough to fill in the various, and intentional, “blanks” of. Bethea gives you enough information to get the general gist of things, sure, but so much of her strength as a storyteller lies in the fact she leaves many of the specifics up to you to intuit.
Varied subjects and subject matter aside, this is ultimately a remarkably cohesive ‘zine/comic, a feat that’s all the more remarkable for the fact that most of these strips have literally appeared “here and there” over the span of many years. It’s as if Bethea has always known more or less precisely what she wants to do, as well as how she wants to do it, from the beginning, and has simply been honing, refining, dare I say perfecting her technique ever since. These are the observations of a lifelong romantic, but one whose object of affection is human existence itself — with its foibles, its frailties, its finite nature seen not as flaws, but as the very things that make it worth living and loving; a lyrical expression, told in prose as precise as it is fluid, of the sad everyday magic that is found in times, places, and people forgotten; an appreciation of all things forlorn that loves them both for what they are and how they came to be that way. If you think there is no beauty to be found in desolation, 40 slim pages of panel-border-free, yet tightly-formatted, comics have the power to disabuse you of that notion once and for all.
Book Of Daze is something very far beyond simply “remarkable,” and it can — and absolutely should — be ordered for a paltry six bucks directly from its publisher, Domino Books, at http://dominobooks.org/bookofdaze.html