“Hobo Mom” : Restless Heart, Listless Read

And so the first (arguably) “major” release of 2019 in the “alternative” comics world is upon us — never mind that Charles Forsman and Max de Radigues’ Hobo Mom is actually about five years old and is just now being released in an English-language version, publisher Fantagraphics Books is understandably, given the pedigree of its creators (Forsman’s notable critical and commercial successes including The End Of The Fucking World and I Am Not Okay With This, while de Radigues, who hails from Belgium, is probably best known on this side of the pond for Bastard), giving it the “For Your Consideration” full-court press, but hold on just a second : its physical dimensions alone clearly mark this as something of an “also-ran” project, seeing as it clocks in at a mere 62 pages, and a significant chunk of those are wordless.

How much storytelling is really going on here, then? The short answer to that is “not enough to warrant the book’s $14.99 cover price,” but the more considered response is probably something along the lines of “more than you’d probably think given its page count and laconic pacing.” Both, as it happens, are true.

Certainly Forsman and de Radigues take their time and focus on “the little things” pretty thoroughly here, and for all intents and purposes this book plays out in much the same manner as something three, even four times its length would, which is an interesting tack to take in a short-form narrative, but it also betrays a distinctly understated sort of arrogance — if you’ve only got so much space and take your sweet time getting where you’re going, it stands to reason that once you arrive at your destination, you’re going to have to make up for lost time in a hurry. That is, assuming you have something to say with your comic in the first place.

Truth be told, though, I’m not entirely sold on the idea that Forsman and de Radigues do. There’s no harm in a couple of friends wanting to collaborate, of course, and these two cartoonists are certainly simpatico in terms of employing similar “clean-line” drawing styles and deliberately stripped-down narrative techniques, so determining who, precisely, did what here is a pretty daunting, and ultimately pointless, task, so seamless is the end result of their efforts — but a vanity project is still a vanity project, and this bears far too many of the hallmarks of precisely one of those.

Which doesn’t preclude it having some things going in its favor, of course : all three principal characters — titular “Hobo Mom” Natasha, estranged daughter Sissy, and vaguely resentful ex Tom — are drawn in broad but mostly appealing strokes, if not appreciably fleshed out in any significant way; the calculated absence of specific details affords the opportunity to immerse readers in the flavor and character of their lives; the numerous splash pages offset with smaller, single inset panels are an effective, immersive, and reasonably innovative way to key in on the emotions of individual players within the framework of larger, more expansive scenes, or vice-versa.

Trouble is, the story itself is a middling affair that flirts with being completely insubstantial or, even worse, pointless.

Years back, Natasha bailed on her family for reasons never expounded upon, and now she rides the rails, rather unconvincingly disguised as a man in order to cut off sexual assaults from her fellow hobos at the pass. When one wises up to her charade and does, in fact, try to rape her, a violent altercation ensues that sees her come out the victor, but opt to take a break from the nomadic life and see how the child he abandoned (who’s now probably 6 or 7 years old) is doing. It’s quickly established that she’s fine, her locksmith father is doing a perfectly good job of raising her on his own, but gosh, he’s such a swell guy that he allows Natasha to stick around anyway, and after a little while (truncated time frames are a huge problem here) his bitterness fades and he decides that maybe they could all give the whole “family thing” another go.

Cue the predictable, and suddenly rushed, third act : Natasha begins to feel hemmed in, heavy-handed “every object in the house feels like a small part of an insidiously comfortable trap” imagery clobbering the point home, Tom feels her growing distant, and one day after school he takes Sissy out for a hamburger to allow his once-again-former lover/wife enough time to do what he knows she’s itching to — head for the exit. Only this time he understands. It’s just who she is. It doesn’t mean she loves him, or their daughter, any less.

I’m sorry, but I call bullshit on that. Real love means sacrifice — willing sacrifice. You give up parts of yourself — most notably, yeah, some of your freedom — because you know someone needs you, and you want to provide for their needs. The idea that there isn’t something seriously lacking in the conscience of someone who would run out on their own kid not once, but twice (or, alternately, at least some sort of deep-seated pain or fear that they would do well to address), is as laughably absurd as the notion that it’s going to be a woman who does this when, statistically, it’s almost always guys who are guilty of ditching out without so much as a note.

So, yeah, the reasons for this whole exercise? I’m seriously failing to see them. I mentioned earlier that there’s nothing wrong with two friends wanting to get together and “jam” on a comic book, but when the duo in question has no particular ambitions beyond that? Well, that’s a problem — maybe not a fatal one, as if this were packaged in a cheaply-priced, standard “floppy” format it might make for an interesting if deeply-flawed experiment that’s nevertheless worth, say, four or five bucks — but nothing on offer here warrants the hardcover treatment and commensurate hefty price tag. On a purely technical level, then, Hobo Mom has some things to recommend in its favor, but on the whole? You’d do well to hit the road and abandon it.

Eurocomics Spotlight : “Bastard”

Granted, we’re skirting the definition of “Eurocomics” a bit with this one given that Max de Radigues’ Bastard was originally serialized in mini-comics form by an American publisher (specifically Chuck Forsman’s Oily Comics), but de Rodigues hails from Belgium and brings a decided “outsider’s perspective” to a couple of classic slices of Americana, namely the sprawling landscape of the Southwest and the venerable “criminals on the run” take on the larger “road movie” genre, so forgive me stretching the category out a bit to —“but wait!,” I hear you say, “This isn’t a movie!”

Says you. And while you’re absolutely right on a purely technical level, in point of fact, this new graphic novel collection of de Rodigues’ complete story from Fantagraphics (several pages of which appear to have been either completely re-drawn, or substantially “tightened up” with new, thicker, more fluid inks) plays out with all the pacing and sensibility of a Terence Malick flick, and maybe even some of the same dream-like qualities Malick so often brings to his work. One could even make a strong argument that what de Radigues has created here is a complete set of storyboards for an as-yet-non-existent film.

The basics, then, even though they prove to be anything but : May and her pre-teen son, Eugene, share an amazingly resilient bond, the likes of which comics rarely sees, and they’re going to need it because they’re on the run after taking part in a daring series of 52 simultaneous robberies in the same small Arizona town. The various perpetrators are all looking to “lie low” until the heat dies down and the time comes to gather the survivors (not every robbery was as successful as some of the others) and divvy up the take before everyone presumably goes their separate ways for good, but that’s not so easy to do with a kid in tow and most of the cash from the various hauls in your possession, though, to say nothing of your fellow hoods coming after you in order to increase their share of the loot.

May is nothing if not resourceful, though, and as events play out Eugene is revealed to be doubly so, but it’s going to take a sprawling cast of characters including old friends who are anything but, new friends who actually are, Native American shamans and, yes, even family to get out of this one piece — assuming they do. But with de Radigues, trust me — you never want to assume anything.

The cartooning in this book seethes with a kind of no-frills immediacy that nevertheless has a keen eye for the nuances of its characters, so keep a sharp eye out for differences in facial expressions, posture, movement, etc. as well as the “big moments,” like a double-page spread of a — nah, that would be telling — that will knock your socks off. de Radigues has a slightly askew take on gunfights (again, I put it down to his being European and therefore culturally “deprived” of gun violence in any form apart from on the movie screen) that is fresh, dynamic, and invigorating for its absolute disconnection from reality; his desert landscapes, while simply rendered, are tinged at the outskirts with a kind of awe that, say, a native-born Southwesterner probably wouldn’t bother with, considering it all to simply be “old hat”; hell, even the most blase of locales, such as seedy motel rooms, are infused with just a hint of romanticism, as if the cartoonist considers them to be completely mundane, yet also slightly exotic at the same time. In short, for what appears to be a fairly “basic” style of illustration, there’s actually quite a bit of visual information to unpack and analyze in here.

As hinted at earlier, the story is also much more than it seems, as well, with surprises big and small liberally scattered throughout, but if Bastard has one flaw (and relax, it’s far from a fatal one), it’s that in his third act de Radigues abruptly shifts gears from his minimalist, economic dialogue to some heavy and clumsy info-dumping as he over-explains his last, most staggering plot twist. It doesn’t lessen the impact of said major revelation in the least, but it represents a curious stylistic mis-fire at the very end of a book that, frankly, has no others preceding it — so all in all, then, that adds up to a very strong endorsement for this utterly unique story that is equal parts gritty and warm, hard-edged and tender, violent and sublime.