Beauty In Decay : Ian Sundahl’s “The Social Discipline Reader”

We’ve all been there — the end of the road. The last stop on the train ride. The bottom of the barrel. How we pick ourselves up again and move forward — that’s up to each of us, I guess. If we even manage to do it at all.

For some folks, however, there’s no way out. What once looked like rock bottom becomes their new reality. Changing things is either impossible, or no longer an attractive option. I humbly submit that, based on the characters whose existences he delineates in his recently-published Domino Books collection The Social Discipline Reader, that cartoonist Ian Sundahl knows these people, and their circumstances, very well indeed.

Which isn’t to say that Sundahl’s work wallows in, or in any way even exploits, the misery or hardships or unfortunate situations of others. Quite the contrary, in fact : he not only respects the motel dwellers, the drifters, the deviants, the deadbeats — he somehow manages to isolate a kernel of absolute uniqueness and individuality within each of them, to hone it on it with laser-like accuracy, and to accentuate the essential character of its inherent truth in a way that is so smooth and naturalistic as to seem downright effortless, even though this sort of instinct is hard-arrived-at and even more difficult to express in a manner that celebrates the humanity of the (voluntarily or otherwise) dispossessed and disenfranchised.

A lot of this bleak magnificence is communicated, of course, by means of Sundahl’s theoretically “scratchy” artwork, which is so fundamentally solid in its structure, its style, and its overall aesthetic that it seems, in a very real sense, beyond reproach. His figure work is instantly compelling and his placement of characters within space cinematic in its execution and expressiveness. Each panel feels like a tight and intricately-composed frame, as thought-through as any shot Kubrick ever assembled, but with a “street-level,” documentary feel. How “real” these individual strips are is open to debate in the strictest sense of that word, but in a larger sense, the designation becomes irrelevant, even obsolete, because they all communicate truths about the human condition that are the very definition of non-fiction.

But please don’t think for a moment that Sundahl makes one particualr type of story his “bread and butter” — indeed, his subject matter occasionally veers into unconventional, even bordering on surreal, territory, but tonally, everything is of a piece, conveying a similar sensibility, intent, and point of view; a kind of pulp or grindhouse affect and effect blended in with the clinical precision and emotional realism previously mentioned to coalesce into caption boxes and imagery (dialogue being sparse to non-existent, visual and verbal narration essentially negating its necessity in most circumstances) that convey a kind of cool detachment, and near-unbearable intimacy, simultaneously. If this sounds like a heady mix of contradictions, all I can say is yeah, it should be — but in the hands of a cartoonist with a viewpoint this singular, and a sense of purpose this strong, it ends up as something near-intoxicating in its sublime effectiveness.

The Social Discipline Reader — culled from several years’ worth of self-published comics ‘zines to form a true “best-of” collection — is my first prolonged exposure to Sundahl’s striking work, but it’s a lead-pipe cinch that it won’t be the last. Its “low-fi” production values (simple black and white pages between equally color-absent covers) are perfect for the material, and in sum total it adds up to a comics reading experience absolutely unique unto itself. Five buck is an absolute steal for something you’re sure to re-visit again and again and genuinely value having as a part of your library, so order it up ASAP from our friends at Domino via this link :

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