The Life Too Closely Examined
Or, the State of Autobiographical Comics
My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down
by David Heatley
Arcade of Cruelty
by Joseph Larkin
American Elf Book Three
by James Kochalka
(Top Shelf) $19.95.
Autobiographical comics haven't really progressed as an art form since the early-'90s heyday of Joe Matt, Chester Brown, and Seth. Everything produced since looks just like work produced by one of the three: overly confessional (we don't really need to know about your masturbation habits unless it's truly essential to the story), undramatic, and painstakingly thorough.
David Heatley's My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down is more of the same, but Heatley counts on "more" being the important word. The book is bigger in size than his autobiographical predecessors, and his noodly sketchbook artwork enables Heatley to cram in more panels per page than even Matt's claustrophobic layouts. And he's even more confessional: On one page, Heatley receives three blowjobs, three handjobs, and has sex twice, once ejaculating on his partner's ass. In another story, he literally lists every black person he's ever known, with embarrassing high-school yearbook–style personal notes reserved for special black people in his life:
Shout out to Winton! You were the most original, spontaneous, and inspiring person in the school, if not the whole town. I loved your drawings, clothes, glassy eyes, and stoned smile. You knew you were an artist before any of the rest of us knew we were. MUCH RESPECT!
Just when Heatley starts getting good—the chapter about the complicated relationship he shares with his odd, emotionally retarded father, previously published in the Chris Ware–edited McSweeney's Issue 13, is the best this book has to offer—he literally illustrates 130 years of his family tree in a 15-page comic that ends with the birth of his son. It's as deadening as any comic I've ever read and enough to turn me off from Heatley's navel-gazing for a good long time.
Joseph Larkin's Arcade of Cruelty is at least an attempt to do something different with the autobiographical comic format. Presented as an art book, Arcade collects Larkin's "artwork" from 1986 to the present, including lots of doodles he made in his high-school yearbooks. (One 1991 photo of two young girls has a caption that reads, "Friends forever"; Larkin crossed out "friends" and wrote in "whores." In the caption for this work of "art," the present-day Larkin writes, "One of these lovely ladies eventually had a baby or two out of wedlock, so it appears the caption was not incorrect." Um, haw?)
Some of Larkin's comics are funny: His parodies of cartoonists' reactions to 9/11 are very sharp (Jeffy of the Family Circus hugs his mom and says, "I hope you don't get killed by that Al Kada guy, mommy"). But many more segments of the book are completely useless, particularly the chapter "Excerpts from Joseph Larkin's Beat-Off Binders," which is a full-color reproduction of collages cut from bra catalogs, celebrity magazines, and other media (the Spice Girls and Melissa Joan Hart are well represented, as are real-life women dressed up like superheroes) that Larkin used for masturbation fodder. And the chapter featuring "Great Moments in Rape History" is the sort of thing that's funny to white guys who couch their racist humor under the banner of "political incorrectness." Ultimately, the book is just a mammoth, frat-boy overshare.
Unexpectedly, James Kochalka has redefined the autobiographical comic for this generation. Previously best known for his loud public arguments against artistic craft in comics, Kochalka's books veer indiscriminately from very good (Tiny Bubbles) to fluffy-snuggly crap (Peanutbutter & Jeremy's Best Book Ever!). But every day for a decade now, Kochalka has posted journal comics, usually four panels and always about two inches square, to his website americanelf.com. The third collection of these strips, American Elf Book Three, is out now from Top Shelf, and reading them in one or two lengthy sittings makes for fascinating stuff.
Sometimes the stories have punch lines, but often they're minor events in the life of a cartoonist and new dad who occasionally tours with a rock band or two. A week might be consumed with the search for a missing baseball cap, but it's still riveting and sincere. A three-panel strip called "All Around the Wood Pile" features Kochalka's son Eli walking around a pile of wood. In the last panel, the boy exclaims, "Hey, there's wood on this side, too!" It should be cloying, but due to Kochalka's earnestness and aging-punk-rocker inability to lie, it's just the right amount of cute, without a Precious Moments–style overload. It all feels like just the right amount of sharing, and Heatley and (especially) Larkin (who satirizes Kochalka's lightness in Arcade) should be taking notes instead of sketching their own stool for upcoming confessionals.