An Atypical Wreck : Steven Arnold’s “Perry Midlife”

Speaking as someone who’s been there, done that, and is still doing it, trust me when I say that the existential dread that comes with aging is as serious as a fucking heart attack. Certainly, it has to qualify as a “first world problem” — there are any number of countries in the process of being ground under economically, militarily, or both where simply living to see another day is reason enough to be grateful regardless of how many ticks of the calendar one has endured — but that doesn’t mean those of us who have the privilege of even being able to worry about such things aren’t terrified by our own mortality once we hit the point where logic dictates we likely have more yesterdays than we do tomorrows.

Steven Arnold — or, as he credits himself in the work we’re here to look at, S.R. Arnold — gets it. He knows the slow-burn sense of impending doom that the middle-aged person feels is equal parts well-placed and ridiculous, justifiable and self-indulgent, and in the handsomely-formatted pages of the magazine-sized Perry Midlife (the sixth release from his Philly-based H.O.T. Press Comics imprint, and as far as I know his first “solo” work, in that it was done without the assistance of writing partner Michael Kamison), he regales us with the tale of a typically hapless underachiever having anything but a typical time of things — even if, again, this is a decidedly typical set-up on its face.

Anyway, how much of what’s happening on the lavishly-colored pages here is “real” or not is beside the point, I suppose, what’s of greater import is the overall relatability of both our titular Perry and his befuddled mindset, and Arnold absolutely nails that. Admittedly, there’s a bit of “high weirdness for its own sake” on offer here — check out our man’s doctor, pictured above, for instance — but if you can’t wrap your head around the concept of a perpetually-annoying fake ornithological species called a cowbird, what can I say? This ain’t the comic for you — but it’s only yourself that you’ll be depriving.

Okay, fair enough, “depriving of what?” is the natural enough follow-up question here, and the answer is a complicated one. Of enjoyment? To a degree, absolutely — I mean, this is a funny comic. But it’s not necessarily an easy one to enjoy, depending on one’s internal wiring. Mine is hopelessly skewed, so I did have a fair amount of fun with this, but there are times when Arnold’s personal flights of fancy can fairly be said to blunt the impact of otherwise-strong narrative “beats” and where he gets the delicate real/surreal balance he’s playing with throughout just a bit wrong — these instances are notable, though, which is as good an indicator as any that most of the time, at any rate, he’s getting things exactly right.

It helps, of course, that Arnold is such a great fucking cartoonist — his compositions are crisp and imaginative, his figure drawing is technically near-flawless, and his layouts run the gamut from standard-issue to pretty damn far-out with gusto and aplomb. He’s not afraid to challenge himself either conceptually or concretely, and the results speak for themselves : the guy is in full command of some fairly considerable creative powers, and stands out as one of the bright lights in what is arguably America’s most vibrant local cartooning scene. You pass on his stuff at your peril.

What’s not to like, then? Well, not much, if we’re being totally honest here — and we always are. Tonally, Arnold might be struggling to break free from the Clowes/Ware paradigm, at least to an extent, but his outlook and approach are unique unto himself, even if his overall set of concerns here isn’t. I’m anxious to see where he goes next, absolutely — but for purposes of this review, I’ve gotta say I’m quite impressed with where he is right here and right now.

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Perry Midlife is available for $12.00 from the H.O.T. Press Comics website at https://hotpresscomics.bigcartel.com/product/perry-midlife

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 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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