Drawing-board confessional: 22 unflattering moments from autobiographical comics
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1. Robert Crumb: taking advantage of a drunken date (The Complete Crumb Comics Vol. 17)
As the godfather of repellant autobiographical comics, R. Crumb has never been shy about portraying himself in less-than-flattering ways, or about admitting to misdeeds: He's filled in readers on nearly every wrinkle of his rampant misanthropy and preference for bizarre, demeaning sex acts. In the 1988 story "Memories Are Made Of This," Crumb recalls an evening in 1976 when he worked overtime to soften up a woman who was his exact physical ideal (tall, thick legs, big butt), and finally succeeded when she drank enough wine to be practically incoherent. Then he had his way with her, sticking his hand in her mouth, pressing her head to the ground, and mounting her from behind like a cowboy on a bronco.
2. Tom Beland: suffering through impotence with his dream woman (True Story, Swear To God: Archives Vol. 1)
Of course, not all unflattering sequences are necessarily because the writer did something wrong. In his ongoing series True Story, Swear To God, Tom Beland chronicles his surprising, spontaneous relationship with Lily, a Puerto Rican radio personality he happened to meet at a bus stop at Disneyworld. Their story is mostly achingly sweet, with bursts of temper or conflict over which Beland hesitates to assign blame. He's less forgiving about the intermittent impotence that makes him fear Lily will believe he isn't attracted to her. Considering how thoroughly they bowled each other off their feet, that fear is enough to turn him into a fetal, miserable, self-pitying ball.
3. James Kochalka: raging at his wife over nothing (American Elf Volume 1)
Comics funster and self-proclaimed rock superstar James Kochalka also routinely ends up as a self-pitying ball in the early years of his daily online comic diary American Elf, though generally with far less reason. In recent years, Kochalka's strips have mostly been more light-hearted illustrations of moments with his family, especially his older son, Eli. But the first two years were rockier, as Kochalka's irrational temper sometimes led him into abrupt, furious screaming matches with his wife, Amy. For every strip where they fight (or cry afterward), there's five more where they banter playfully, toy with each other's bodies, or find mild moments of beauty and humor in the world, but Kochalka doesn't flinch at portraying his own ugliness, whether he's making one of his frequent excretion jokes or freaking out because Amy won't give in to his random impulse to stick his finger in her ear.
4. Ivan Brunetti: exploring ingrown misanthropy (Schizo)
When it comes to self-hatred in autobio comics, Ivan Brunetti pretty much blows the curve for everyone. It's hard picking a single panel of his metaphysically misanthropic rant-comic, Schizo, that's somehow worse than all the rest: Just close your eyes, open a page at random, and point. Brunetti wallows in every suicidal tendency and sexual perversion imaginable, as if to prove his loathing of the human race by example—and he wields bodily fluids like Pollock did paints. His most disturbing and repellant panels, though, are the ones in which he cranks it down a notch and simply bangs his head against his own cracked self-image.
5. Julie Doucet: nose-picking (Dirty Plotte)
It's tough to separate fact from fiction in Dirty Plotte, Julie Doucet's hallucinatory comic book. Stories often begin with a sequence of completely plausible autobiography before rocketing into the outer reaches of Doucet's bruised, sweltering psyche. Case in point: Her story "At Night When I Go To Bed," in which Doucet nonchalantly details her nocturnal nose-picking habits. It's far from the most disgusting thing Doucet has drawn herself doing—she graphically fantasizes about growing to Godzilla size and drowning her city in menstrual blood, and her gleeful castrations are the stuff of nightmares—but it's the most casually believable.
6. Jim Woodring: mocking the handicapped, The Book of Jim
Although he's a capable, though somewhat bizarre, narrative storyteller, Jim Woodring includes in his Book of Jim collection only what he calls "Jimless Jim": unedited, unexpurgated transcriptions of dreams and waking nightmares of just the sort that got him started on his uniquely disturbing comics career in the first place. Unsurprisingly for a man whose psychotherapist dropped him as a patient after seeing his work, Jim keeps an autojournal filled with incriminating, upsetting imagery: Jim torturing a petty criminal in order to unleash the man's soul; Jim accidentally decapitating his cat after mistaking it for a rattlesnake. But none of his stories is more self-loathing than "Invisible Hinge," where, given a YMCA pass by a departed friend, Jim gets drunk on cheap whiskey and visits the communal pool. Once there, he spots a tanned, athletic figure, and immediately condemns him as a cheap phony who deserves to get beaten down by life—until the man emerges from the pool and turns out to be an amputee. Jim's reaction—and the reaction of the liquor curdling in his stomach—is unpleasant at best
7. David Chelsea: taking out his sexual frustrations on the world (David Chelsea In Love)
David Chelsea's early autobiographical graphic novel David Chelsea In Love is full of minor bad behavior, mostly related to sex—he seems to have little else on his mind most of the time, and while he fusses over the many loves of his unfaithful on-again/off-again girlfriend Millie, he doesn't hesitate to hop into the sack with any warm and willing woman himself. He also doesn't hesitate to pressure less-willing women, at one point groping and kissing a friend who's just said "No!" and pushed him away, then fuming at her for not giving in. He's alternately self-pitying and aggressive throughout his confessionally intimate book, though Millie—a mercurial, temperamental, self-serving flower-child flake with seriously bizarre expectations about commitment—comes off far worse. Still, he's at his least likeable when she leaves him sexually frustrated, and he compensates by joyously mocking and confronting beggars and proselytizers on the streets of New York, as if trying to drive them out of his city with the sheer force of his assholiness.
8. Jeffrey Brown: having trouble reaching orgasm with his first lover (Unlikely)
Jeffrey Brown's series of scratchy cartoon memoirs portray the awkwardness of young love in meticulous, painful detail. In Unlikely, Brown recalls the woman with whom he lost his virginity: a flighty former cokehead with a long sexual history, trying to turn over a new leaf. Date after date ends with Brown making tentative advances and the girl rebuffing him, promising that when she's finally ready to have sex again, it'll be mind-blowing. But when the moment finally arrives, she has an orgasm before Brown does, then doesn't want to continue, leaving Brown to sit up in bed, watching her sleep all night. The intimacy problems persist, prompting a cycle of passive-aggressive behavior that ends with a break-up as unsatisfying as their sex life.
9. Joe Matt: confessing his pornography addiction—sort of—to his girlfriend (Peep Show!)
Joe Matt first rose to prominence in the alt-comix world with a series of charming one-page diary strips in which he confessed his miserliness and sexual hang-ups in a cutesy style that made him look like just another well-meaning, screwed-up Catholic kid. Over the years, Matt's style has changed along with his degree of openness. He's told stories about getting a handjob from a prostitute in a Times Square porno theater, and has documented how his longest, most stable relationship ended as a result of his selfishness and inability to stop consuming porn. (He also blackened his girlfriend's eye during one argument, though as drawn by Matt, that was partly self-defense.) In his most recent book, Spent (a short collection that took almost eight years to complete), Matt shows himself living in relative squalor, hardly doing any work because he's spending his days duping his favorite sex scenes onto a meticulously cross-indexed collection of videotapes, and masturbating as often as he can. That's a long way from Matt's first strip about pornography, back in 1988, when he drew himself as a casual and regretful user, who tells his girlfriend about his porn collection, watches one of his tapes with her, then says, "I don't know what I ever saw in these things, but the mystique's finally gone." Oh, Joe. Poor, poor Joe.
10. Marjane Satrapi: getting an innocent man arrested to save her own ass (Persepolis 2)
In her surprise-hit autobiographical book Persepolis, Iran-born writer-artist Marjane Satrapi mostly focuses her ire on the political changes in Iran that led to a relative being jailed and executed, and that brought women under an oppressive regime where wearing lipstick or being seen with a male companion other than a husband might result in a public beating from the guardians of moral order. But in Persepolis 2, once Satrapi escapes Iran and starts suffering through her teen years in a country far from home, she turns much of the focus on herself and her struggles with attitude problems and self-absorption. When a boyfriend cheats on her, she falls apart; eventually, she makes a sullen escape back to her family in Iran, where she mostly finds them comforting, but she itches under the loss of liberty. Caught away from home in makeup and with a male friend, she distracts her potential persecutors by inventing a charge against a stranger, and self-righteously abusing him as he's carted away to who knows what unpleasant fate. But the worst part comes when she later brags and laughs about her cleverness to her grandmother, who righteously, furiously reminds her of her family history and her responsibility to others.
11. Harvey Pekar: getting annoyed at an overly helpful co-worker (Ballantine's two-in-one collection of American Splendor and More American Splendor)
Harvey Pekar first started writing comic stories because his friend R. Crumb helped him see underground comics' potential to explore the petty triumphs and tragedies that make up the everyday. Though he's written about major life events like getting divorced and surviving cancer, Pekar has mostly trained his sights on minor annoyances and simple pleasures, crafting an autobiographical epic out of the movingly mundane. And he hasn't flinched from his own insecurities and anger issues. In "A Ride Home," he describes a tricky social situation that arises when a co-worker begins giving him a ride at the end of their shift at VA hospital. The problem? Nearly every time Pekar is ready to leave, his ride is going out of her way to help a patient—even when there are other staffers who could easily take over. One day Pekar gets fed up, throws a book to the ground and storms out of the hospital in the rain, only to be picked up down the road by his co-worker, who's completely unaware that her generosity was getting on his nerves.
12. Chester Brown: discovering possible racism through pornography addiction (The Playboy)
Unlike his friend Joe Matt, Brown has never depicted himself (or been depicted by any other cartoonist) as anything but quiet, pleasant, thoughtful, and kind. That's probably why his forays into autobiography have largely dealt with subjects a little more profound than the typical autobio navel-gazing, like his mother's schizophrenia, his own persistent shyness, and the unreliability of storytellers. In Brown's first major autobiographical work, The Playboy, he covers his on-again-off-again relationship with Playboy magazine, from adolescence to adulthood. As a boy, he'd buy an issue, bury it in the woods, dig it back up, burn it, then buy it again. As an adult, he continues to dispose of and re-buy the issues he remembers best from boyhood, and worries that his attraction to Playboy's fantasy women are preventing him from having normal romantic relationships with women. (That worry may be well-founded; for the past several years, Brown has reportedly been working on a book about his preference for prostitutes over girlfriends.) The Playboy vividly renders Brown's feelings of guilt and shame, by lingering over the trails of semen his masturbation sessions leave behind, and by showing his inability to get an erection when looking at an African-American model—which makes him wonder if he's secretly racist, as well as perverted.
13. Ariel Schrag: drunkenly experimenting sexually with a guy she doesn't even like (Definition)
Ariel Schrag started writing frank autobiographical comics in her early teen years, and her first books, Awkward and Definition, deal with common enough teen obsessions—sex, drugs, and music, sometimes combined. Her early work is unnuanced and doesn't have much of an outside perspective, which is part of what makes it so absorbing: She isn't looking back, analyzing, and regretting the way she used other people or made them uncomfortable, she's living the moment and reporting the raw pain of not really wanting or liking the boy she hangs out with, until a friend of hers takes an interest. Perhaps predictably, her confusion leads to a crux she doesn't really want, when she, her friend, and the boy, Leonard, get wildly drunk and decide to fool around. Well after this degrading experience, she selfishly tells Leonard that she doesn't like him "that way," but he shouldn't get involved with her friend and leave her out of things, either. This goes about as poorly as most ill-conceived teen flings.
14. Ed Brubaker: stealing from his kindly boss (A Complete Lowlife)
Before he became one of the most respected writers in mainstream comics, Ed Brubaker drew his own semi-autobiographical slice-of-life stories for the short-lived series Lowlife. Calling himself "Tommy," Brubaker recalled a misspent youth of drinking, drugs, sexual romps, rock 'n' roll, and petty crimes—some true, some exaggerated. Presuming that his story "Two Dicks" isn't one of the exaggerated stories, Brubaker claims to have habitually taken money from his amiable, pot-smoking boss at the bookstore where he worked in his early 20s. The thievery was so routine that Brubaker started getting angry when his boss hung around the office too long and prevented him from raiding the safe. Eventually, "Tommy" quits. When he returns to the bookstore months later, his boss admits that he knew about the thefts, but let Tommy get away with it because he felt sorry for him. As if the situation wasn't already pathetic enough.
15. Michael Dougan: making popcorn during a funeral-home visitation (I Can't Tell You Anything)
Before Michael Dougan all but disappeared from the comics scene, he'd been building a reputation as a special kind of storyteller, mixing memories of his East Texas upbringing with offbeat Americana equally beholden to Raymond Chandler and Raymond Carver. "Kentucky Fried Funeral" looks back at a summer Dougan spent working in a mortuary while a long-distance romance shriveled and died. It's a funny, heartbreaking story packed with little details of embarrassment and indignity. Case in point: The moment when Dougan starts making his usual snack-food dinner in the break room just before a family arrives to view their loved one. While they pay their respects, the smell of microwave popcorn fills the home, shattering the illusion that this is a place of quiet respect.
16. Joe Sacco: refusing to shake hands with Palestinian merchants (Palestine)
Over the years, Joe Sacco has increasingly removed himself from his acclaimed war-zone reportage, preferring to sketch himself in the corner of panels as a silent observer rather than a participant. But in his first (and still best) book, Palestine, Sacco is as much a part of the story as any of the Jews or Palestinians he breaks bread with in Israel. Sacco arrives with sympathy for both sides, and much of the book's tension involves the way he warms to certain points of view during his stay, and hardens to others. At the end of the first chapter, he befriends some children in The Valley Of Kidron, and is annoyed when they corner him and beg for money, not taking "no" for an answer. Back in Jerusalem, Sacco walks by shopkeepers who ask him to shake their hands, and when he steels himself and walks on by, one shouts, "See! He doesn't want peace!" The scene is Palestine at its best: encapsulating the conflict in the Middle East in one man's low-boil vexation.
17. John Porcellino: zipping past a fallen, feeble old lady (King-Cat Classix)
For almost 20 years, John Porcellino has scribbled dreams and anecdotes in his self-published King-Cat Comics And Stories, focusing on the relaxed interactions and subtle joys that make up a life. The one-pager "Old Lady" is about as harsh as Porcellino gets; in it, he draws himself driving past an elderly woman who has crumpled and fallen on the sidewalk. Although another elderly woman is already helping, Porcellino still feels so bad about doing nothing that he clenches his fists and accidentally honks his horn, thereby calling attention to what—in Porcellino-world—counts as a colossal failure of humanity.
18. Eddie Campbell: getting ranked out by his own daughter (The Fate Of The Artist)
Eddie Campbell's work has always contained mild self-deprecating elements, though they're generally more in the line of jovial piss-taking than the relentless bleakness of some of the other artists in this inventory. What's more, he always gave himself the luxury of hiding behind a surrogate: although he was clearly writing about himself, the main character of his Alec stories, Alec MacGarry, allowed him the distance of plausible deniability. The culmination of this approach was 2006's The Fate Of The Artist, in which Campbell dealt with his own self-perception as a failure—and a monstrous case of writer's block—by writing a story in which he simply vanishes, leaving a fictional detective to interview his abandoned friends and family while trying to put the pieces together. Even here, Campbell stands at arm's length from himself: He's "played" in the comic by an invented actor, and he only appears as "Eddie Campbell" in clever invocations of daily comic strips. Still, there's no misreading the intentions of a man who, in an extended fumetti sequence, allows his own daughter to ramble on for pages and pages about what an unfunny schmuck her dad was.
19. Rick Veitch: dooming hundreds of innocent people (Rare Bit Fiends)
It's often said that nothing is more boring than someone describing their own dreams. Since dreams are, by definition, the most personal experiences imaginable, it's easy to understand why, in the hands of an incompetent storyteller, relating them can be excruciatingly dull. Worse still, where they aren't boring, they're embarrassing. But when Rick Veitch created a monthly comic to showcase his lifetime obsession with dream art, he never shied away from giving his nocturnal visions full voice, no matter how ugly. As a reward for geeky comics fans, Veitch's dreams are crammed with cameos by fellow artists; in one memorable story, he accompanies Dave Sim on a trip to a Japanese shopping mall (where the Cerebus author blows off a woman's head with an invisible baseball while Veitch looks on passively), then goes to work designing aircraft that first attack American soldiers, then fall to pieces, endangering all of the passengers, including his own son. (With perfect dream-logic, Veitch is punished for his misdeeds by having a cat chew up his herb garden.)
20. Chris Ware: becoming everything he hates (ACME Novelty Library)
Chris Ware isn't just one of the greatest comics artists alive, he's also one of the gloomiest. Even the indicia to his ACME Novelty Library series are depressing. But for a long time, he shied away from directly depicting himself in his comics, preferring to use various stand-ins and false fronts—until the "Young Rusty Brown" arc that began in issue #16. Even here, the character "Chris Ware" isn't exactly Chris Ware, but the contemporary artist and the high-school art teacher of the 1970s share the same name, the same appearance, and the same self-loathing attitude. The Chris Ware on the page exhibits traits repulsive to the sensibility of the real-life Chris Ware: He's a condescending prick and a third-rate artist who talks down to the other teachers while getting high with moronic adolescents. He scrawls self-flattering graffiti in the girls' bathroom, sneaks furtive and lustful peeks at the female students, and worst of all, rambles on pretentiously about the transformative joy of art—while alternately whining and cursing at a girlfriend he's cheated on.
21. Lewis Trondheim: gleefully tormenting people who share his anxieties (Little Nothings: The Curse Of The Umbrella)
Much like James Kochalka, acclaimed French comics writer Lewis Trondheim has produced a highly entertaining, hypnotically simple diary strip chronicling his day-to-day thoughts and activities, often in self-abnegating ways. The Trondheim of Little Nothings is a funny, clever man, but he's also a fussy, anxious hypochondriac who freaks out over medical websites and minor changes in his own body, and is easily disgusted by the bodies of others. In context, his weird, wry sense of humor makes some sense; he's so easily upset that the idea of others getting upset for a change is actually a relief. But he seems to take far too much pleasure in provoking other people's anxieties. For instance, the strip where he pokes a stranger on the neck to make him think he's been touched by a disease-carrying mosquito is kind of cute on its own, but taken in context, after half a dozen strips in which Trondheim and everyone around him trade horror stories about the disease and obsessively spray themselves with increasingly serious poisons—while Trondheim predicts his own slow, agonizing death every time a red dot appears on his skin—his cavalier attitude toward other people's fears seems more sadistic and selfish than playful.
22. Art Spiegelman: turning his back on his wretched, suicidal mother (Maus)
Yet another godfather of autobiographical comics—and underground comics, and successful mainstream literary comics in general—is Art Spiegelman, whose groundbreaking, Pulitzer-winning graphic novel Maus helped usher graphic novels out of niche stores and into mainstream bookstores. There's so much inhumanity to man (or in this case, to anthropomorphized mice) in the Holocaust biography Maus that Spiegelman's not-always-flattering characterization of himself and his concentration-camp survivor dad may largely go unnoticed. But it's hard not to balk at Spiegelman's reproduction of his early comics story "Prisoner On The Hell Planet," in which he documents his mother's depression and suicide—and the way he rejected her when she "tightened the umbilical" by asking for affection. His closing howl of "You murdered me, mommy, and you left me here to take the rap!!!" is blood-chilling. Like so many unflattering autobiographical comics, it evokes simultaneous sympathy for his pain and revulsion at his self-pity.