Life Is A Quietly Desperate Business : E.A. Bethea’s “Francis Bacon”

Okay, so, to get it out of the way first, if you’re wondering which of the two notable Francis Bacons that E.A. Bethea’s newest comic (her second with Domino Books), Francis Bacon, is purportedly “about,” it’s the 20th century British painter, but if you know Bethea’s work you’ll know that oftentimes where or who or what she starts with is simply a springboard, an “entry point” into a long, multi-faceted rumination on subjects various and sundry that always and ultimately bear some sort of tangential connection to the one that she was focused on at the outset, but those connections are uniformly of a highly personal, at times even intuitive, nature, so really — when you open this up, expect to be taken on a trip to places, physical and otherwise, that are far afield from what the title would lead you to believe you were in for.

Which isn’t to say that Bethea gives Bacon short shrift here, far from it — his art, his life, and his obsessions all serve as breadcrumb trails in a vast labyrinth of speculations, reminiscences, observations, and delineations that coalesce into a kind of sentimental journey through Bethea’s own emotional and experiential history, the de facto map she’s constructing for us being one where what things mean to her assume privilege and precedence over what they may actually be. In other words, it’s Bacon’s story in part, but it’s Bethea’s comic in whole.

And hey, why shouldn’t it be? She’s the one who made it, after all. But to call it a work of straight memoir would be to sell it short — rather, this is a tapestry : of memories, of influences, of pop culture touchstones, of places and people known. The old cliche goes that life is about the journey, and maybe it is, but Bethea’s never been afraid to hit the pause button and reflect on what she’s both gained and lost along the way. The flotsam and jetsam of an existence are neither to her — everything means something, everything’s part of something bigger, everything is what it is but is also imbued with so much more than it could ever realize.

Thematically, then, this latest work is very much in keeping with Bethea’s artistic ouevre, but it represents a longer-form and more thorough-going exploration of the themes to which she so frequently returns, namely the transient and impermanent nature of both things and people, the weight and import of memory, the ripple effects of ostensibly small events, and the fragility of this project we call human existence. There’s an undeniable delicacy to her illustrations and her prose, it’s true, but frequently they both hit like a ton of bricks, so you’ll often find yourself lingering for long periods over a choice word or image that resonate with you precisely because of how expertly she’s able to communicate how they resonated with her. All of this matters, maybe especially the little things.

And yet — there is just enough by way of subtle whimsicality in Bethea’s tone to keep this from becoming, as the kids say, a “downer.” Many memories explored here are tinged with a certain amount of regret, both implicit and explicit, but the overall through-line is one that is tonally balanced, magic and loss figuring equally into the equation. Where you’re going matters, sure, but so does how you get there, and in that respect, you literally couldn’t ask for a better guide.
Count me, then, mightily impressed by this comic — as I always am with regard to this particular cartoonist. In fact, it’s no stretch to say it may be Bethea’s most well-realized work to date, the comic she’s been building toward, one piece and one memory at a time, for many years now. Don’t be surprised to find it very near, or even at, the top of many a “best-of” list come year’s end.

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Francis Bacon is available for $8.00 from the Domino Books website at http://dominobooks.org/francisbacon.html

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative indeed if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

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