I wonder, if Dan Clowes knew that he’d be starting a decades-long “cottage industry” in comics with his “Art School Confidential” strip, if he’d take it all back?
Not that it was a bad strip, mind you — quite the opposite. It still makes me laugh to this day. But the art school memoir has grown and metastasized from that point into a beast that literally will not die, even if the critical and box office failure of Clowes and Terry Zwigoff’s film adaptation of the aforementioned story probably should have, by all rights, put it to rest. Okay, sure, it hasn’t been all bad : Matthew Thurber’s Artcomic, Joseph Remnant’s Cartoon Clouds, and Walter Scott’s Wendy series stand out as high-water marks, but on the shallow end we’ve got, well — everything else.
Welcome to everything else — or, at the least (and the most), a fairly standard representative example of everything else. Clio Isadora’s Sour Pickles (Avery Hill, 2021) is certainly okay enough for what it is, sure, but the problem I have with it is that it’s not appreciably different or distinctive as far as art school memoirs go apart from the fact that her authorial stand-in protagonist, Pickles (hence the title) and her friend/fellow classmate, Radish (noticing a pattern here?) temporarily become speed freaks in order to power their way through finals. Which is one of the older tricks in the book for students cramming their way to the finish line, admittedly, but hasn’t been explored, to my knowledge, on the comics page before — and, to be honest, Isadora’s frenetic art style, which might best be described as a kind of “Peow Studio aesthetic on crank plus an intentionally garish color scheme,” works well for the instances when Pickles and Radish are wired as fuck, and really brings a reader inside their racing minds. Unfortunately, however, that’s only part of the book.
It honestly doesn’t take long for Isadora’s admittedly interesting art to begin to grate, especially when her adherence to it negates the emotional impact of certain scenes like a “friend of a friend” funeral and a decidedly anticlimactic graduation, but I do have to admit I admire her determination to present everything in a uniform visual language, as well as the confidence it takes to stick to those guns, even if I’m not convinced doing so was necessarily the greatest idea. Art is all about bold choices — or should be — but Isadora’s cartooning style for this book is one of those double-edged swords in that works really well in terms of communicating certain things, but falls flat when it comes to communicating others. I could see warming up to it more upon a second reading as being a distinct possibility, but my next task here, as fate would have it, is to let you know precisely why said hypothetical second reading probably isn’t in the offing.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before : Pickles is the only hard-working student in an arts program overflowing with spoiled trust-fund kids. Her instructors are hopelessly out of touch with their students. Her parents can’t relate to her, nor she to them. Life after graduation looks to be fraught with uncertainty. Her love life’s DOA. Why, it’s like she’s always stuck in second gear. It just hasn’t been her day, her week, her month, or even her year. And while I’m not saying this book is anywhere near as vapid as any given episode of Friends, that’s partly down to the simple fact that, let’s face it, nothing can be. I don’t think Isadora’s a cartoonist without ambition, or without the ability to see that ambition through to a reasonably compelling finished product (I haven’t seen her Is It Vague In Other Dimensions? ‘zine, but it comes highly recommended by people whose opinions I generally trust), but thematically she’s playing it really safe here : “write and draw what you know” is solid advice and all, but should come with the caveat “if you have something new to add to the conversation.” Isadora herself may, but unfortunately this comic does not.
On the plus side of the ledger, Isadora’s dialogue is sharp, clear, and natural, even if no one’s really saying anything we haven’t read before, and her sense of comic timing is spot-on : this story is frequently quite funny. But one can’t help but feel she’s going for a crowd-pleaser with this project rather than pushing her talents to their utmost. There’s enough here to ensure that I’ll be keeping an eye out for her next book in the hopes that she’ll do just that, but not quite enough that I can recommend this one.
Sour Pickles is available from Avery Hill Publishing at https://averyhillpublishing.bigcartel.com/product/pre-order-sour-pickles-by-clio-isadora
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