See What The Buzz Is About : Steve Lafler’s “BugHouse” Book One

It’s always a treat when a staple of your reading youth (and in this case I use the term “youth” advisedly, as I was well into my twenties when the series in question originally saw print) becomes available again for a new generation to enjoy — or for members of your own generation who may have missed out on it the first time around to finally discover for themselves. There’s bound to be a bit of risk involved in re-visiting something you hold in high esteem, though, isn’t there? I mean, a person’s tastes and expectations change over time, there’s no doubt about that — or at least they damn well should — so what appealed to you at age 25 stands a very real chance of just not doing the job for your 40-something self. Above and beyond that, though, there’s also a very real possibility that changing times in a general sense can blunt the efficacy of a former favorite, rendering it quaint at best, archaic at worst, through no fault of its own. And then, ya know, something could simply be not as good as you remember it being.

All of which is to say that, even though I look back on Steve Lafler’s BugHouse (which I first followed in single-issue “floppies” put out by Lafler’s own Cat-Head Comics imprint in the 1990s and then as a trilogy of graphic novels published by Top Shelf in the 2000s) with a tremendous degree of fondness, nostalgia alone isn’t enough to earn his hot-off-the-presses new printing of BugHouse Book One — which, in true “return to roots” form, he’s self-published —a glowing review from my middle-aged iteration, hardened and perhaps even made overly-critical by years in the comic book review game as I now am. The book has still gotta earn its keep based on its merits alone.

Within a few pages, though, my worries about how well it would hold up well and truly dissipated. Sure, a rush of memories came flooding back as I re-acquainted myself with tenor sax-man (sorry, -insect) supreme Jimmy Watt and his supporting cast of loveable beatnik miscreants as they attempt to make the leap from the “Big Band” era into the newfangled world of jazz — and to resist temptations of both the narcotic and femme fatale variety as they navigate the emerging musical and cultural landscape — but this wasn’t simply a case of something being “every bit as good now as it was then.” No, friends, this comic is even better than I remembered it being.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that my appreciation for what Lafler has achieved here is even greater now than it was at the time. Simply put, this is downright sublime cartooning that would — hell, that does — rise well above the pack in any era. Like Jimmy Watt himself, Lafler is at his best when he is both firmly in control and improvising in equal measure, and while there is a very definite narrative trajectory to this story, it’s in no way hurried or forced along. Lafler knows which “beats” he wants to hit, and trusts in his ability to bring them out rather than make them happen, and that makes all the difference in the world. He sets the tempo with strong, instantly-memorable characters, snappy dialogue, an absorbing premise, and flat-out virtuoso cartooning that puts you right inside the spaces (physical, mental, and emotional) his coterie of anthropomorphic insects are inhabiting, and from there, well — it’s pure comic book jazz.

Now, like any good jam session there are an awful lot of moving parts, but the beauty of the comics medium is that you can absorb each in your own time, so by all means — don’t be afraid to linger on the rich texturing and shading in any given panel, or the smooth flow of Lafler’s brush line. Take a moment to savor a particularly clever and well-timed line of dialogue. There’s a flow to this work, to be sure — one often as subtle as it is inexorable — but that doesn’t mean that you can’t and shouldn’t establish a rhythm of your own, as well. After all, a performer is nothing without an audience, and I defy anyone to sit through this performance without feeling the distinct urge to get up out of their seat and clap on any number of occasions.

A lot has changed since Lafler first put pen to paper and created what remains his magnum opus, but trust me when I say that it singles itself out as being utterly unique and special now just as it did then. This is a comic that transports you to a very singular and spectacularly-realized place and time and holds you fast to the point where you quite literally don’t want to leave. I felt absolutely privileged to pay a return visit to Lafler’s world, and envious of those who will be having the pleasure of experiencing it for the first time. Now more than ever, this stands out as one more the most purely enjoyable comics that I’ve ever read in my life.

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BugHouse Book One is available for $16.00 from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/collections/comic-books/products/bughouse-book-1

Review wrist check – I couldn’t be happier with my latest acquisition, the Stella “Felix,” in the dial color they call “Downtown Red,” riding Stella’s own factory-issue black leather strap with cream-colored stitching. Of all the timepieces in my collection, this is probably the one best suited to a night out at the jazz club.