I just knew something was up.
When word hit that November Garcia had found a publishing “home” for Malarkey #4, the latest issue of her ongoing comics ‘zine, and that said publisher, Birdcage Bottom Books, was putting it out in full color, I got the feeling that she was through knocking on the door and was ready to fully announce her presence as a cartooning force to be reckoned with. It’s something that’s been building for some time, of course — we certainly don’t hear the Julia Wertz comparisons much anymore, do we? — yet it’s also worth considering that indie comics history is littered with any number of artists who were plenty skilled at the art of revealing, and sometimes even reveling in, their own neuroses, but who had the stereotypical “pretty good run” for a few years and then moved on to pastures that were hopefully greener, but were more likely graphic arts-related office gigs.
No offense to anyone toiling away in said field, of course — hell, Garcia herself is numbered among them — but when it came time to “up” their metaphorical game or walk away, a lot of people found that proverbial “next step” to be too large a one for them to make. I’m happy to report that’s hardly the case here, if you hadn’t guessed as much already, and that if you’ve been hoping to see a near-quantum-leap forward from the Philippines’ most intriguing cartooning export, that moment has indeed arrived.
How, then, does she manage such a feat while keeping her work firmly planted in the autobio camp? By going deeper and not just relating quirky, relatable “warts and all” tales from her life, but taking a frank look at the “secret origins” of who she is and how she came to be this way. And the root cause of her already-well-documented love/hate relationship with her her own decision-making and the results that it engenders is one that’s always ripe for exploration and exploitation — Catholic guilt.
Oh, sure, it’s not like it’s the animus for all the strips in this book — one could even argue that only one of the stories is “about” it specifically — but even when it isn’t, it often is, and not since Justin Green has its pernicious-if-ultimately-navigable influence been presented with such frankness, sincerity, and humor in the comics medium. If you’re keeping score at home, then, what I’m saying in no uncertain terms is that Malarkey #4 isn’t just good, it’s historically good — and it damn well needs to be if I’m saying it can hold its own with the likes of Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary.
This is, I suppose, the point at which I should re-assure you all that I’m not over-stating things and that I haven’t lost my mind. We get plenty of more non-chalant “a day in the life of —” stuff in this comic, as well, but it’s informed with a new sense of depth and resonance that makes Garcia’s foibles more understandable, her small triumphs and tragedies more sympathetic. We “get her” in a way we didn’t before, and she emerges from the spotlight she’s shone on herself a more compelling figure than ever. Funny what a little self-examination can do.
Everything from present-day mother/daughter relations to clumsy teenage make-out sessions on the couch, veins mined by Garcia plenty of times in the past, is suffused with another layer now, and the end result is stories that would have elicited a “that was cute” reaction previously are now are met with one of “hey, that really rings true” — and I think that’s the case even if you’re not, or never were, Catholic. Some of that is down to the “audience-friendly” nature of Garcia’s art style, sure, but more of the credit should be laid at the feet of her increasingly-confident narrative skills, which are now firing on ally cylinders and avoiding the pitfalls of both self-pity and self-aggrandizement with equal ease.
One of the best strips in this uniformly strong collection tells of the early-career rejection letter Garcia received from Fantagraphics. I think if she submitted her work to them again now, she’d likely receive a much different response.
Malarkey #4 is available for $8 from Birdcage Bottom Books at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/products/malarkey-4
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