Jonathan Ames & Dean Haspiel, The Alcoholic (Vertigo 2008)
Disclaimer: I was not given this book by a publisher, nor is this blog entry a viral effusion in the hope that Vertigo will send me lots of freebies, though I wouldn’t be offended to be told that this review os not a review.*
J M Coetzee’s hero is called John Coetzee; Jonathan Ames’s is Jonathan A. Both books, then, are presented as some kind of autobiography. In both, wiggle room is created, and the narrative saved from indulgent self-loathing, by the interposition of point(s) of view other than the author’s. In place of Coetzee’s multiple unreliable narrators, interviewees as well as fictional biographer, Ames has the graphic art of Dean Haspiel. It’s possible to imagine Ames’s story of his alcoholism being told for laughs, or with that creepy kind of apologeticness that leaves out the taking of responsibility, or in a way that invites hypocritical prurience, or as a hollow redemptive tale. Jonathan A is a writer, and at one stage he has an audience convulsed with laughter by an essay about his own fecal incontinence. But the pared down narration here, accompanied by Haspiel’s ruthlessly austere black and white art, gives us nothing to laugh at. There are sex scenes, and plenty of naked breasts, but there’s none of the adolescent eroticism of, say, Frank Miller, or for that matter Woody Allen. The hero makes excuses (he’s ‘allergic’ to alcohol, his well-meaning parents were too trusting and then died in a terrible car crash, etc), but on the page they remain just that – excuses. The final moment of decision is as unresolved as that of Summertime. Again and again, the visual severity of the images holds us to a moral (not moralistic) way of seeing. They’re very different books, of course, but they do share this uncompromising self-scrutiny. I don’t think I could have borne the story of The Alcoholic presented as straight autobiography. As an uncomical comic (or graphic novel, if you need your sequential art to sound dignified), it’s a quick but powerful read.
*Given the frequency of my typos, I should note that that ‘os’ comes from the headline of Rosemary Sorenson’s article as it is online just now. By the time you go there it may have been corrected.