Owing to my previous positions as lead critic at the comics website SOLRAD and board member of its parent entity, Fieldmouse Press, I wasn’t comfortable with the notion of reviewing Matt MacFarland’s comics before, given they frequently run on said site, but now that I’m a purely “solo act” again, I have no ethical reservations when it comes to opining on his work, and so I was happy to receive a copy of his latest 48-page mini, More Seasons Of Gary (Zines & Things, 2021) and give it a thorough going-over. Admittedly, I’d already seen some of this stuff, but that’s okay — reading them one strip at a time online is an entirely different experience to reading a print collection of them, and in this case that distinction works to MacFarland’s advantage because this is material that is best consumed in its entirety rather than piecemeal.
Strict formalist work tends to be that way, I think, and in MacFarland’s case in particular his adherence to a classic four-panel grid is absolutely unwavering — he’s clearly quite comfortable with the pacing inherent to such a format and well-versed in its unique storytelling properties and capabilities, so credit’s due him for knowing both what he wants to do and how to best go about achieving it. Finding your footing is a taller order than it sounds on paper, and MacFarland’s not only found his, he’s also committed himself to it. Sub-dividing his strips according to the seasons of the year, as the title of this comic implies, represents a further layer of logical and artistic stratification that, again, he wrings maximum efficacy from, and this also holds the key to why reading these strips in collected form, one after the other, is the way to go — there’s an narrative fluidity that’s part and parcel of MacFarland’s overall framework that’s lost when you’re absorbing his material in scattershot, one-at-a-time fashion.
Anyway, MacFarland’s now-late father, Gary, is the subject of these strips — or, more specifically, the artist’s relationship with his father is — and in that respect he’s not doing anything “new” per se, but so what? The list of cartoonists who have mined their own past, and that of their family, for their best and most resonant material is a long and distinguished one. Efficacy is of primary concern here, as well as overall sequential narrative literacy, and on both of those scores this comic stands as an excellent representative example of graphic memoir done right. Autobio as a de facto “genre” is well past the point where it’s gonna “blow your mind” or whatever, so it’s just as well MacFarland isn’t concerned with trying to do so : his concerns lie far closer to home, as well they should, and there’s a real sense that what he wants to do here is to utilize memory as a tool for achieving a better understanding of both who his father was and what, at the end of the day, the guy meant to him.
Tonally, it’s fair to say MacFarland adds a dash of humor to most of these strips, but it tends to be exceptionally dry and sometimes even borders on the dark — but that’s also the case for many of the reminiscences contained herein, particularly those directly related to his dad’s struggles with the bottle and his parents’ divorce. If this is all starting to sound a bit “warts and all,” well, that’s because it is, but it’s in no way reductive or overly-simplified on the one hand, nor awash in cloying sentimentality on the other. The picture of Gary that emerges is complex, multi-faceted, and at times overtly contradictory, but that’s the case with almost anyone — at least anyone remotely interesting — and the degree to which MacFarland resists the “easy out” of character and emotional uniformity here is admirable. It’s no small task to look at oneself or one’s parents honestly and without flinching — I know I’d never wanna do it — but admitting no one is even close to perfect is only step one in this journey. Finding peace with those imperfections is considerably more difficult than merely accepting them, after all, and while it would be a reach to say some sort of catharsis is achieved by this comic’s end, that’s mostly Hollywood bullshit anyway : all most of us can hope for when it comes to saying goodbye to a loved one is a sense that the things that can come full circle have done so, and that those that can’t are okay remaining forever incomplete. Such is life — and death — and MacFarland’s skill with regard to narrative authenticity really comes though in his book’s final pages, when he’s absolutely counting on it most.
“I dunno, man, sounds kinda heavy” is a fair enough reaction to have at this point, particularly if you’re reading this while high (hey, I know my audience), but it’s not just or only heavy — it’s no stretch at all to say that these strips run the same emotional gamut that life itself tends to, and in certain key instances, while the seasonal demarcation always prevails, strict chronology is temporarily shelved in favor of thematic and tonal linkages between events and occurrences. That probably sounds more confusing than it actually is — assuming it even sounds confusing at all — but it strikes me that this is pretty well in line with how our minds tend to operate : more often than not, we mentally organize things based on how they made us feel or what was going on rather than when they happened, and in that respect, not to get too grandiose or anything, we free ourselves from time’s unyielding (and, according to most quantum theorists at any rate, largely illusory) linear trajectory. This comic works in much the same way our actual memories work, and you need only consult your own memory for proof of that which I speak.
All that being said, as a matter of pure practicality there may be no trickier task in today’s comics landscape than producing a work of memoir or autobio that well and truly stands out from the crowd. MacFarland, however, has managed to do precisely that with this one — and I seriously doubt I’d have said that if I hadn’t read these strips in succession, collected between two covers. I highly encourage you to experience them the same way, even — maybe especially — if you’ve already read some, most, or all of them in serialized form online.
More Seasons Of Gary is available for $7.00 from the Zines & Things website at https://zinesandthings.com/shop/msog
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