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.

“Death Plays A Mean Harmonica” — And Steve Lafler Crafts A Really Nice Comic

Oaxaca is an interesting, dare I say even magical place — a unique intersection of indigenous traditions, modern-day Mexican culture, and American expat bon vivant-ism that’s been added to the mix thanks to its large gringo transplant community. On any given night, anything can happen, and the air is pregnant with festivity, possibility, and even a dash intrigue.

Or so I’m told, at any rate — largely by my parents, who became part of that aforementioned gringo transplant community when they retired down there nearly two years ago. I’d dearly love to visit, but the pandemic has made that wish an impossibility for the time being, although hopefully not for too much longer. Until then, though, I’ve got their emails and photos — and the comics of EX-expat Steve Lafler, who returns to the place he once called home (or, in a pinch, a home away from home) for his latest self-published graphic novel, Death Plays A Mean Harmonica.

Okay, yes, it would be a lie to say this book isn’t first and foremost an involving and inviting ensemble-cast character drama, rife with narrative tributaries that coalesce in ways pleasingly unexpected if perhaps just a hair shy of downright surprising, but as much as it may be “about” newly-arrived transplants Gertie and Rex and their head-first dive into the social milieu of this little slice of Bohemia way south of the border, it’s very nearly as concerned with said slice of Bohemia way south of the border — specifically, its unspecifics : the pace of life, the atmosphere, the overall “vibe” that so many people looking for a fresh start in one way or another are first drawn to and then happy to immerse themselves in.

To that end, the book has an admirable sense of nonchalance to it — as mentioned, Lafler’s crafted a multi-faceted narrative here, but he’s not in any particular rush to force story “beats” upon readers, trusting more in both his storytelling ability and his no-doubt-sharp recollections of all things Oaxaca to weave a kind of low-key spell that’s all the more immersive for its leisurely qualities. Yes, there’s “connective tissue” aplenty that binds the fates of Gertie, Rex, a Zapotec vampire named Eduardo (who’s more into chicken than human blood), taxi-driving sentient fungus El Rey Pelon, free-spirited Caroline and, yes, Death himself — but there’s time and space (specifically, 140-plus pages of it) to sort all that out. If you’re not prepared to relax and enjoy the ride, though, you’ll be missing out on what can only be called a singularly and authentically Oaxacan reading experience, one that’s at least as concerned with the journeys of its characters, both natural and supernatural, as it is their various and sundry destinations.

This overall mellow-but-purposeful tone to the proceedings also makes its presence felt in Lafler’s smooth, fluid, entirely unforced art, an agreeable mix of semi-elegant brushwork, classical “just exaggerated enough” cartoonish-ness, subtle shading and texturing, and richly expressive facial expressions and body language. Even absent the crackerjack dialogue that’s always been Lafler’s stock in trade, these pages would be a joy to just look at and luxuriate in, each one a prime example of an experienced hand utterly confident in his own craft — and for damn good reason. It’s pitch-perfect, a veritable clinic on how to draw the eye into scenes where most of the drama comes by way of interpersonal communication rather than dull fisticuffs, chases on foot or by car, etc. When you look at Lafler’s characters talking, you instantly want to know what they’re talking about.

What it all adds up to is a comic done with equal parts passion and professionalism about a fascinating bunch of people (and other life forms) living in a fascinating place and getting up to fascinating things, together and separately. It made me want to get myself down to Oaxaca even more than I already dis going in, and I think it’s safe to say it will have that effect on most every reader — even folks who don’t have family down there.

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Death Plays A Mean Harmonica is available for $13.00 from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/collections/comic-books/products/death-plays-a-mean-harmonica

Review wrist check – on a freezing cold day like today, all a person can really do is dream about warmer weather, and what better way to do that than by looking down at your wrist and seeing the favorite summertime pairing of a Squale “1521” classic blue dial model riding a BluShark marlin NATO strap from their “AlphaShark” collection? Hell, this would be perfect for Oaxaca!

The Good — And Bad — Old Days : Steve Lafler’s “1956 : Sweet Sweet Little Ramona”

Heralding itself as the first chapter in a multi-part saga, Steve Lafler’s slender new book 1956 : Sweet Sweet Little Ramona — self-published under the cartoonist’s own venerable Cat-Head Comics imprint — is, at first glance, the retail world’s answer to Mad Men (and I say that fairly confidently in spite of being someone who’s never seen probably more than a few minutes of Mad Men — and in passing, at that), but if there’s one thing Lafler’s proven over his long career, it’s that he knows how to subvert expectations even while working within fairly well-defined genre confines. Sure, this being but an opening salvo and all it’s impossible to say whether the same will prove to be true here in the long run, but in the early going? All signs sure seem to point in that direction.

So, yeah, it’s 1956, and a gaggle of department store buyers are on the prowl in New York City, specifically The Village, engaging in a night of at least attempted debauchery at the jazz clubs before hitting the garment district in the morning. Lafler knows his old-school retail, introducing us to a cast of characters that fit that world to the proverbial “T,” and their various workplace intrigues and time-honored methods of blowing off steam on the company’s dime are fun to read about, especially charged as they are with authentic period lingo and wise-cracking dialogue. But, you guessed it, there’s something more going on here —

Enter Ramon in his male presentation, followed in due course by Ramona in her female one. A Texas transplant desperately trying to avoid a return home by plying their trade in the world’s oldest profession, precisely how they fit into the larger story remains to be seen — although it’s assumed they’ll find themselves at the heart of it one way or another. I mean, you don’t get the book named after you for nothing. Lafler’s created an instantly-memorable character here, that’s for sure: not a down-and-out victim of circumstance, but definitely at the mercy of it to a degree; not a hopeless addict, but someone who won’t say no to a line or a bump; not a streetwalker, but someone who isn’t keeping their occupation (or even both sides of their identity) a secret — and, most crucially, not a stereotype, but a well-rounded, complex, intelligent-but-fallible human being. You’ll want to know more about them, trust me.

Other various subplots hew a bit closer to standard 1950s deconstruction, such as the decision the boss-man needs to make about whether or not to put a woman in charge of one of his product lines, but even then Lafler’s sheer storytelling skills are enough to make it all interesting. He’s playing a long game here, and there are a lot of pieces on the board, but he moves them with a kind of precise fluidity that looks effortless enough on its face, but likely requires some pretty detailed advance plotting. He almost certainly knows where he’s going with all of this, but we don’t — and that’s the key to reeling us in once we’re on the line.

The really remarkable thing, though, is that despite some of this book’s admittedly lurid subject matter (our boys from the buying office do not behave themselves), there’s an elegance to it all, even a romanticism. A lot of that is down to Lafler’s admittedly gorgeous and smooth line, his attention to detail seldom wavering — but part of it’s also down to the narrative tone he adopts, most evident in the layer of mystery he shrouds his lead character with and the rich atmosphere he positively soaks the jazz world in. Yeah, the ’50s sucked for anyone other than straight, white, cisgender, hetero guys, but even still — this book sure makes them seem like they’d be an interesting destination to stop off at for a night in your time machine.

Fortunately, this is just our first visit back there, and we couldn’t ask for a better guide. I’m ready for more, Lafler, right after I finish this dry martini — ah, what the hell, I’ll bring it with.

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1956 : Sweet Sweet Little Ramona is available for $9.95 from J. T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/collections/comic-books/products/1956-book-one-sweet-sweet-little-ramona

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 indeed if you’d take a moment to check it out by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse