Tag Archives: Relationships

Review: ‘How I Tried to Be a Good Person’ by Ulli Lust

How I Tried to Be a Good Person by Ulli Lust

Autobiographical work is one of the most intriguing subjects and it is no wonder that it attracts creators of all art forms. Of course, auto-bio is a natural focal point for cartoonists and one of the best at this is cartoonist auteur Ulli Lust. Her new graphic novel, How I Tried to Be a Good Person, published by Fantagraphics Books, is what one could call an unflinching look at “the dark side of gender politics” or what used to be called, plain and simple, “abusive relationships.” It’s quite a challenge to take a chunk of one’s life and turn it into something else. Not too long ago, I viewed the Off-Broadway production of Accidentally Brave, a retelling by actor and playwright Maddie Corman of her discovery of her husband’s possession of child pornography, his subsequent arrest, and its aftermath. Can such an experience add up to something to put on stage? Well, sure, it’s called a confessional monologue and those rise and fall according to the limits of the genre. In a similar fashion, that’s what going on within the pages of auto-bio comics. And a lot is going well with this auto-bio graphic novel set in 1980s Vienna.

Georg and Kim size each other up.

How I Tried to Be a Good Person is 368 pages and in the tradition of more expansive graphic novels like Craig Thompson’s Blankets, which is 592 pages or Eddie Campbell’s Alec and Bacchus collection, which is a total of 1750 pages. Also, keep in mind, this new book is a continuation of Lust’s 460-page punk travelogue, Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life. Why so many pages when a graphic novel is usually 100 to 200 pages long? Well, many reasons. Essentially, it is a way to truly get lost in the material. While the comics medium is inextricably linked to the art of brevity, it is just as closely linked to flights of fancy and stream of consciousness  writing. With that in mind, it is understandable how comics can rise to the level of the literary arts. Comics has the capacity to be as long or as short as the narrative demands. Comics is as much a literary art form as a visual art form. Lust’s previous graphic memoir has gone on to earn a Revelation Award at the 2011 Angouleme Festival as well as a 2013 LA Times Book Prize. Ulli Lust’s contributions to the comics medium are writ large with both of her graphic memoirs.

A happy time with Georg.

The core of the narrative to Lust’s new book is the abusive relationship that Ulli enters into with Kim, a refugee from Nigeria. Throughout the relationship, there are signs that Kim is not emotionally equipped to handle the polyamorous arrangement that Ulli has in mind. During the course of this book, the reader joins Ulli on what steadily becomes a perilous journey. Ulli Lust writes and draws her way toward making sense of events while leaving plenty of room for readers to reach their own conclusions. In some ways, the book brings to mind some of the most notable emotionally-wrought films focusing on sex, like Last Tango in Paris, from 1972, which has held up remarkably well. Lust offers up to the reader numerous pages of unbridled sexual pleasure between her and Kim. Undoubtedly, Kim and Ulli are good together in bed. At one point, Ulli even states that she wishes she could just have the good parts of her affair with Kim.

A complicated relationship.

The love triangle that Ulli finds herself in begins with a May/December relationship she started up with Georg, an older man who offered a lively bohemian spirit and intelligent albeit world-weary conversation. It is Georg who, in hindsight, wrongheadedly suggests that Ulli take another lover if that should help keep their relationship fresh. Ulli is 22 and Georg is 40. Ulli takes Georg up on his offer and, in no time, she becomes involved with Kim, a young man she meets at a club. Georg and Ulli are white. Kim is black. Race does not seem to be an issue at first but it’s not long before Kim repeatedly voices his unease with the racial dynamics at play as he sees them. He is convinced that he is only a racial treat for Ulli despite her denials. At many points along the way, Ulli has to make one choice after another, many of which only drag her further into the toxic relationship she has entered into with Kim. This is quite a compelling work that encourages the reader to perhaps have even more courage than the main character seems to have at times. It is definitely an absorbing work that will spark a great deal of discussion and lifts that discussion through the power of the comics medium’s unique synthesis of word and image.

How I Tried to Be a Good Person is a 368-page trade paperback, published by Fantagraphics Books.

Editor’s Note: If you happen to be in Seattle, go see Ulli Lust at the Hot Off the Press Book Fair on July 13th  or at Goethe Pop Up Seattle on July 15h.

And, if you’re in Portland, go see Ulli Lust at Floating World Comics on July 17th.

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Filed under Comics, Fantagraphics, Fantagraphics Books, Graphic Novel Reviews

Book Review: THE WIDOWER’S NOTEBOOK by Jonathan Santlofer

THE WIDOWER’S NOTEBOOK

Jonathan Santlofer is a successful artist and novelist. I had the privilege of hearing him read recently as he shared the stage with two other distinguished writers, Neal Thompson and Wendy C. Ortiz, at a panel on memoir writing at Hugo House in Seattle. Later, in person, I asked Mr. Santlofer if he ever considered doing a graphic novel, given his facility with words and images, and he said he’d love to do it! He’s on my radar right now. His book, The Widower’s Notebook, is quite a page-turner. I went to the Tin Table for a late dinner and couldn’t put it down. The waitress even said I could stay as long as I wanted. After making some time for the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings, I kept reading the next day and finished in another sitting. What I got from this book is a riveting narrative covering a heart-wrenching time in the author’s life.

Mr. Santlofer has an uncanny observational style: you believe you’re with him. His writing is vivid and carries you along even when he’s writing about not feeling up to doing anything at all. It’s the mark of not only a good writer but an excellent writer to allow you into a life without you being aware of any of the effort involved. This is a story of a most significant loss, the death of one’s life partner. Santlofer achieves a level of the sublime by simply being in the moment. He does with his writing what he does with his drawings: evoke a sense of the hyperreal. You are really there with the author as he finds his wife, Joy, dying before his eyes, the subsequent rush to the hospital, and the frenetic tripping through memories.

We follow along as Santlofer reflects upon a grand life beginning with a young bohemian couple, just married, in Brooklyn, circa 1967. We progress in a stream of consciousness fashion from the birth of Dorie, his beloved daughter, to the recent death of Joy to the building up of a new life. The act of drawing helps with the act of mourning–drawings work when words seem to fail or seem to be not enough. There’s a touch of magic to art-making and it seems most explicit when examining an intimate and intricately crafted drawing. The excerpt below speaks to this process:

“I am able to draw my wife because drawing is abstract, because you can’t really draw something until you stop identifying it. You can’t think: this is an eye, or a nose, or lips, or you will not be able to draw them; an eye, a nose, lips are all the same, simply marks on a page.

Drawing has made it possible for me to stay close to Joy when she in no longer here. It is a way to create a picture of her without feeling weird or maudlin. I am not sitting in a dark room crying over a photo of my dead wife; I am at my drawing table, working.

Grief is chaotic; art is order. Ironic, as most people think art is all about feeling and emotion, when in fact the artist needs to be ordered and conscious to create art that will, in turn, stir feelings and emotion in others.”

A drawing is a complicated thing.

Santlofer’s book is about dying and about living. It is as much about mourning as it is about relationships, family, and the creative process. Indeed, art can save your life and Santlofer’s book eloquently and passionately speaks to perseverance and purpose.

The Widower’s Notebook is a 272-page paperback with illustrations, published by Penguin Random House.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Death, Death and Dying, Hugo House, Jonathan Santlofer, Memoir, New York City, Penguin Random House, Seattle, writers, writing

Review: ‘Chinatown Bus’ by M. Jacob Alvarez

Page from “Chinatown Bus”

Look in the About section to his website and M. Jacob Alvarez says of himself: “M. Jacob Alvarez is a cartoonist, comedian, and chemical engineer (seriously dude, silly drawings and conspiracy theory jokes don’t pay many bills…)” How true! Well, being a chemical engineer is an astonishingly good place to be if you want to create a graphic novel. Less to worry about or more room to worry about other things–since there’s always something. How about if you’re young and vulnerable? That is exactly the subject matter Alvarez tackles in his new graphic novel, “Chinatown Bus.” It is a heart-felt exploration of hipsterdom–and Alvarez’s irreverence serves him well here.

There’s a certain time in your life when you will not only tolerate, but even revel, in drinking cheap beer from a Solo plastic cup, sold to you at a premium price since you’re in a chic nightclub (which ain’t so chic). There you are under a low ceiling packed in a little sweatbox with a bunch of other scenesters pretending to like a really bad band. So intense! The aim of Alvarez’s 84-page graphic novel is not so much to satirize. More like to bear witness. While not an autobio comic, Alvarez admits in his forward to being very familiar with the struggles of his young characters.

“Chinatown Bus” by M. Jacob Alvarez

Alvarez has a wonderfully energetic and cartoony style that is accessible and inspires empathy with his characters. Lyn is a guy from Philly taking the Chinatown Bus to New York City. He is in a long distance relationship and is sort of feeling stuck. All it takes is a text miscommunication from Kelly, his girlfriend, and Lyn is ready to call it quits. To his credit, Lyn is certain that Kelly has just dumped him. There is a cute passenger he’s been eying and so he decides to confide in her. Jane, flattered to have Lyn open up to her, invites him to hang out with her.

Panel from “Chinatown Bus”

It turns out that Kelly did not really dump Lyn, at least not outright. Alvarez really enjoys setting things up and then lighting the fuse. A fine example is once all three of these characters meet. Jane ends up knocking Kelly out cold. Lyn explodes and unleashes his fury upon Jane. He chastises her. Turn the page and Jane is full-on outraged for being called a drama queen. Three more pages, and we see Lyn’s steady descent, completely alone and deflated.

Page from “Chinatown Bus”

Any reader will enjoy a gritty urban tale about young people trying to find themselves. These characters definitely have their flaws and are prone to hide behind caustic remarks but Alvarez presents it all with a human touch that will resonate with the reader. This is a great example of a cartoonist’s debut graphic novel. Alvarez has successfully followed through on a specific theme and vision.

“Chinatown Bus” is available at multiple comics shops including Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and Columbus, Ohio. For more details, visit M. Jacob Alvarez right here.

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Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, M. Jacob Alvarez, New York City

DVD Review: FOREV, starring Noël Wells

Noël Wells and Matt Mider in "Forev"

Noël Wells and Matt Mider in “Forev”

The whole idea behind the film, “Forev,” is wasted youth, or youth wasting away and just waiting to be rolled over and swept away. That’s pretty much how the characters in this movie often feel like. Not always, but it’s a tendency. When you’re right in the thick of being young, you can feel quite lost and that can bring on some loopy choices. Why not marry your next door neighbor since he’s just as lonely as you are and he seems pretty cool? Life has brought Sophie (played by Noël Wells) to this conclusion. And, oddly enough, her neighbor, Pete (played by Matt Mider) is into it.

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