If you’re a comics critic, the smart money is on not touching Alex Graham’s new self-published serialized “ongoing,” This Never Happened. Two issues in, it’s caused — and continues to cause — anything from ripples to seismic waves within the small-press community, depending on who you are and how close to Seattle you live.
I get it — I mean, shit, it’s a small scene, and some easily-recognizable figures within it are getting torched. Not with anything like the vengeful glee of Simon Hanselmann’s Truth Zone, but then, the folks on the receiving end of his barbs generally aren’t people he interacts with on a personal level frequently, much less former romantic partners. There’s a degree of distance between author and subject there, while Graham is offering no such safety. She’s putting you right inside her head, showing her lived experience, and — not to sound too cliched — “speaking her truth.”
Now, how much is the truth may (or may not) be an open question, and with the title itself Graham seems to be inviting such speculation, but —- ahh, fuck it, if I’m gonna put one foot in the minefield here, I may as well go for both. Good art is never safe. It never pulls its punches. And while all that’s easy to say, those words are empty unless and until we can say them, and have them be just as true, when the art in question casts people that we know, respect, and like in an unflattering light.
And I want to say, for the record, that the people Graham is “laying into” here are, in fact, people I know, respect, and like. I don’t want to trash any friendships with this review. But I also happen to think that, as self-performed exorcisms of personal demons go, This Never Happened is, at least so far, an awfully compelling one.
Graham’s protagonist in these comics is about as obvious an authorial stand-in as you’re likely to find, a comic rather than someone who makes comics being about the only distinction between herself and “her,” and if other people are concerned about how their own dopplegangers are going to come off in these pages they have every right to be, at least if the artist’s portrayal of her own damn self is anything to go by : neurotic in the extreme, barely clinging to the economic and societal margins, ostracized from her social milieu essentially by choice, painfully awkward, acutely depressed, and with a rather pronounced streak of body dysmorphia, the picture painted is of an individual with little to live for and, consequently, zero fucks left to give — for others, yes, but also for herself and her own well-being. Your heart could easily break for her even as you realize so much of the damage she’s done is entirely self-inflicted, and yet —
There’s no particular begging for sympathy going on here, at least as far as I can tell. If that were the case, then Graham would be portraying herself as a victim, and she pretty clearly is doing no such thing. Hell, the “rough draft” copy of issue one that I got even includes a postscript informing the handful of people who received it that she doesn’t want anyone to check in on her to make sure she’s okay because the comic makes it plain as day how she is doing and she has no particular burning desire to talk about it beyond what she’s put in there, thank you very much.
So — fair enough. Maybe it’s just down to the fact that I’m a longtime Ditko fan, but the idea of letting an artist’s work speak for itself and leaving it at that is old hat to me, and besides — there’s not much point offering help to someone who isn’t asking for it. Hell, she presents herself as being abrasive (intentionally and otherwise) so consistently throughout these two comics that she’s basically daring you to keep liking her : interjecting yourself into conversations you have no place in, cracking stupid, poorly-timed jokes, proselytizing for extreme positions such as mandatory sterilization for the stupid (and anyone else you don’t like), making consistently poor decisions — these aren’t exactly going to endear you to a reader no matter how much of a masochist they are.
Okay, sure, autobio comics have been fertile ground for the expression of extreme self-loathing since the days of Crumb, but even still this is a pretty relentless example of it, and comes to us entirely absent any sort of plea for understanding, much less a desire to cast the author’s flaws in even a nominally “endearing” light. There’s no “take it or leave it, this is who I am” happening here — more like “this is who I am, now just leave it.” In that respect then, yeah — this is one agonizingly difficult comic to read. Even so —
Let’s just give the benefit of the doubt and assume this negative self- presentation is entirely accurate. Would that mean that Graham deserves to be treated like shit? Because her depiction of a one-time paramour’s very shitty treatment of her is causing a lot of distress within the comics community, and in fairness is tinging this work with something of a “frontier justice” vibe about it. I’m concerned about how fair this may or may not be to the party in question, absolutely — and I’m even less comfortable with dragging in people who were only peripheral to their failed relationship — but I think we’re missing the forest for the trees a bit when we assume that score-settling is this comic’s raison d’etre. It’s definitely of a piece with the tone of the work as a whole, but it seems like provocation and confrontationalism are actually, dare I say it, getting the job done here as intended, and that even if you think Graham’s portrayal of the ugly side of this romance is complete one-sided bullshit, it still raises a very important question, namely : who gets their “Me Too Moment,” and who gets written off as a crazy, vengeful ex with an axe to grind?
If you’re uncomfortable with that query, then let’s double down by asking : who is it that makes this distinction between “legit abuse” and “sour grapes”? What criteria go into it? How is this consensus decision arrived at? And hey, while we’re at it — once “everyone” has agreed on something, what if they’re wrong?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, and it’s beyond the purview of this review to even tackle them in any appreciable way, but let’s face it — any comic that can get a reader to start considering them is doing something powerful and important. I wish people weren’t getting hurt along the way, no doubt about it — but equally, if the things in This Never Happened did, in fact, happen, then I wish Graham hadn’t gotten hurt so badly that making this comic seemed like the only method for addressing her pain. Which brings up another point, that being —
Is it? Would some other outlet be healthier? In issue one she has an entirely unproductive session with a therapist who turns out to be a figment of her imagination, and from that point on the idea that there’s no way out from any of this hangs over everything in true Sword of Damocles fashion. Graham’s art style has evolved to fit the overall tone of the work — thicker lines, darker shading, depressive body language, exaggerated “high” and “low” facial expressions depending on which manic state her ostensible “protagonist” is in — even visually, then, the idea that the shadows have arrived and are here to stay seems nearly inescapable. There’s a lot of “gallows humor” in both installments of the series, it’s true, but it’s not like it alleviates the proceedings in the least, it just paints the tragic absurdity of it all in stark relief. I’ve been getting a lot of laughs out of this comic, I admit — Graham has always been, and remains, a very funny cartoonist — but I feel suitably guilty pretty quickly after every chuckle, and I strongly suspect that may be the point. Yet I don’t know if that means this is a legitimately therapeutic exercise, or if I just need to see a therapist myself. Maybe both?
Still, when I look at this work in its admittedly partial totality (yeah, I know, that makes no fucking sense), I think I may see a bit of hope even if Graham herself doesn’t : after all, when you let go — when you completely untether yourself from what you think readers want, from what you damn well know your friends want, and yes, even from what you can pretty well figure critics will judge you on, you’re completely free. When you arrive at rock bottom, there really is nowhere to go but up. This Never Happened is doing damage, perhaps to its own author most of all, but its raw emotional honesty (we’ll leave its factual honesty as a matter for each reader to decide for themselves), stark self-awareness, and absolute lack of anything resembling pretense marks it as being something as utterly unique as it is problematic — a no-holds-barred piece of reportage from the very epicenter of a downward spiral as it’s happening. Alex Graham may owe some apologies after it’s over — and it’s possible some may be owed to her, as well —- but this bears all the hallmarks of a necessary act of creation, and letting the chips fall where they may and cleaning things up after the dust settles come part and parcel with such things.
Next up : let’s all try being kind to each other for a change. And to ourselves.
This Never Happened numbers one and two are tough items to come by so far, but I think Austin English will have them up for sale on his Domino Books distro site soon, so keep an eye out for it at http://dominobooks.org/
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