The key repeating motif of Dave Kiersh’s cartooning career is Peter Pan. At times, it’s an explicit reference, as in his most lyrical comic, Neverland, or on the cover of Insecure Fantasies. Throughout his work, however, there’s a relentless focus on wishing to never grow up. Unlike Peter Pan, his characters are stuck in adolescence. In story after story, Kiersh explores a different nuance of the ache of being a teen. His stories are less about characters than the character types that best exemplify those feelings of isolation, melodrama, and borderline narcissism that mark adolescence. At the same time, Kiersh loves to explore the ways in which teens combat angst, like driving around, hanging out in arcades and the other bland time-wasting pleasures of suburbia. Kiersh isn’t the least bit interested in verisimilitude; indeed, his characters sometimes talk as though they sprang from other kinds of fiction.
Kiersh has said he has an unironic interest in after-school specials, young adult fiction, and the like, and has harnessed the over-the-top nature of such media with his cartoony style, dense page layouts, and tight storytelling rhythms. Kiersh grew up in the ’80s and these comics have very ’80s settings, fashions, hairdos, cars, technology, etc. Some of Kiersh’s work runs along the lines of John Porcellino in that they’re clearly about his own personal feelings and experiences without the quotidian markers that comprise most autobiographical comics. Kiersh isn’t interested in tying his work to a particular time and place; instead, he deliberately obscures detail to give these personal, lyrical observations a more universal quality.
More recently, Kiersh has done straight-up fiction. He’s also lengthened his narratives, with Dirtbags, Mallchicks & Motorbikes being comprised of several long-form stories. Kiersh has had three books printed by small press publishers (A Last Cry For Help & Neverland by Bodega and Dave K. Greatest Hits by Heinz Wohlers Verlag), while Dirtbags won a Xeric grant. However, he’s still very much a minicomics guy, and the three zines examined here are reprints of older minicomics as well as all-new material. Kiersh has also started to experiment with color in his more recent work.
Quaaludes is a zine that collects some of Kiersh’s earliest minicomics, dating back to 1998. What’s remarkable about this early work is how fully formed Kiersh was from the very beginning in some respects. The awkward body language of his characters, the dense hatching and cross-hatching, his sense of lyricism with regard to how he balances narrative caption and image and even his lettering style are all there in these early stories. Of course, his line and figure-work are quite raw, often looking printed straight out of a sketchbook with no embellishment. In terms of theme, one important aspect of his work that was clearly established here was that his protagonists are not necessarily likable characters. They’re frequently creepy, obsessive losers, “dirtbags” as Kiersh himself might say. There’s no real reason why the reader should sympathize with them other than, as Kiersh seems to argue, every person has feelings. That’s best exemplified in the reprint of Quaaludes #7, where a stereotypical nerd has a crush on a goth girl who winds up sleeping with a testosterone-laden bully. Each character is pathetic and powerless in their own way, with the girl bearing the brunt of the bully’s own insecurities while the nerd chooses to watch helplessly.
Insecure Fantasies is a collection of his sketchier Dirtbag minicomics series. One can see Kiersh learning on the job here, as his figures are crude and his understanding of composition primitive at best. By the time #6 rolls around, however, Kiersh is in far greater command of his line and is starting to fill up his pages with greater detail. In that respect, Kiersh’s pages began to have the same sort of powerfully immersive quality as that of contemporaries Ron Rege’ Jr. and Souther Salazar, the latter of whom is a Kiersh collaborator. Kiersh even plays around with collage in one story.
Dave K. Greatest Hits, a compendium of stories from 1999-2004, finds Kiersh starting to emerge into his mature style. He starts to vary his line thickness a bit more, giving his characters greater presence and power by using a thicker line. His use of hatching and dot effects adds to the overall density of his strips, providing a necessary counterbalance to the simplicity of his figure work. Kiersh’s interest in the malaise of suburban living becomes a key theme here, as the dull comforts of such lives clash against anxiety and outsized emotions. Kiersh continues to experiment with a number of different storytelling styles, as some stories (like the “Soda Jerks” series) are more whimsical and other stories are more poetic. Kiersh also demonstrates his interest as a mark-maker, creating vivid illustrations that create entire suburban worlds without a traditional comics grid or narrative. It’s easy to see why his strips fit in so well in cutting-edge anthologies like Kramer’s Ergot.
A Last Cry For Help (2005) is Kiersh’s first truly significant work. It’s not a sustained narrative in the traditional sense; instead, it’s a free-flowing set of vignettes, drawings, and single-page captions that all live up to the book’s title. We meet a group of young people all in various stages of extreme trouble and despair: a girl is raped at a beach party; a group of boys get drunk and wreck the family car (while loving every minute of it); a pregnant woman in prison deals with every stereotypical difficulty imaginable; a nerd gets beaten up by a jock at the behest of the girl he has a crush on; a waitress longs to be swept away. The weirdest of the stories is a young man who imagines he’s the “Driller-Killer” from the cult film Slumber Party Massacre 2; his longing turning into half-hearted homicidal mania. Kiersh demonstrates that he’s not so much interested in expressing his own feelings through thinly-veiled characters as he is concerned with exploring emotions at their most explosive and least empathetic. There’s a certain salacious sleaziness in these stories, as though he set his mind to extract the latent emotional content of exploitation culture. Kiersh removes the titillation factor from such trash cinema and TV, applying a layer of raw emotion that dares the reader to empathize with the creeps and losers he depicts.
Neverland (2008) may well be his best work. The critic Tom Spurgeon refers to Kiersh’s oeuvre as “lonely-boy” comics, and this is an especially accurate appellation for the sort of first-person, narrative-caption driven comics that Kiersh excels at. In terms of the text, these comics seem to come easy to Kiersh, which in turn seems to compel him to increase the visual complexity of his stories. There’s a buzz and an activity on his pages that draws the eye in, somewhat reminiscent of Keith Haring’s paintings. Neverland sees the Kiersh stand-in meditating on his life with a large degree of dissatisfaction, wishing he had taken more risks. Declaring that “fantasy is better,” he’s visited by a sexy female Peter Pan, who chastises him for having children’s book fantasies before she winds up having her top torn off by “Captain Hooker.” Bemoaning, “This may just be a dream, but it’s all I’ve got” with a desperate emphasis, Kiersh launches back into real life with a very different take on things.
Flitting from fairy tale scene to fairy tale scene in a variety of guises, the protagonist stops talking about himself and instead starts writing to his lover. Taking him out of his tedious workday doldrums, the thought of his lover enables him to transcend the trivia of his life. This time around, flying isn’t simply an escape into fantasy, like in the first part of the book. Kiersh isn’t running away from something, he’s flying with his love (and lover), and hopes that they “never ever land … neverland.” The sentiments are simple, but the cleverness and sheer density of Kiersh’s layouts, his playful line, the integration of familiar fairy tale imagery and iconography, and the way he solves storytelling problems in novel ways make this a comic that bears many rereads.
Dirtbags, Mallchicks and Motorbikes (2009) is a more refined, more complex, and more sympathetic take on the sort of stories Kiersh did in A Last Cry For Help. This is the first book he did that’s in full color, resulting in a completely different visual approach from Neverland. Whereas the latter book makes heavy use of blacks, visually dense pages, and small panels, Dirtbags uses a strict four-panel grid, simplified backgrounds and a striking but simple color palette. Working bigger lets Kiersh use a consistently thick line that helps him wring more pathos out of each character’s sad story. ”Motorbikes” follows a young man obsessed with motorcycles & girls with a learning disability who must come to grips with his own insecurities in the face of his mother’s illness. ”Mallchicks” follows a young woman desperate to get attention, while “Dirtbags” is about a girl who, tired of being perfect, winds up sleeping with a sleazy loser.
The most interesting story is “That’s My Baby”, about a high school boy who’s gotten a girl pregnant; the twist is that he wants to raise the baby but she doesn’t. Being adopted led him to wanting to raise his own child. Each character in the book winds up at a low point by the end of each of their stories, but their circumstances are largely of their own making. These characters are losers in the sense that they’ve made decisions that led to losing situations; however, Kiersh is clearly sympathetic to each protagonist even as he doesn’t let any of them off the hook for their choices. While there’s a glimmer of hope for each character at the end, there’s no assurance that they will act to make their lives any happier as they negotiate social pressures, malaise, poverty, and a lack of broad life choices.
Buds is another zine that features a variety of visual approaches: dense and heavily gray-scaled pages, rough sketchbook work, and vivid full-color stories. “Cruisin’ In Suburbia” uses a lurid color scheme that fits the late ’70s setting, while “French Girl” finds Kiersh simplifying his line and using a layered color approach to move the reader’s eye across the page. He starts with a bright color for the page, then another color that frames the panels, then a different color for each panel border, then yet another color for the panel background. He varies the colors from panel to panel, minimizing visual dissonance by filling up each panel with a single image: a girl, a car, a cassette tape, a couple. The effect is like being at a carnival, which fits given the rare optimistic turn this story takes.
Kiersh is unusual in that his entire career has been a process of refining variations on a single theme, either as straight fiction or first-person lyrical ramblings. The narrowness of his focus means that his comics are not for everyone, but there’s no question that he’s carved out an interesting niche as an artist. While his stories tend to focus on pain, longing, and desperation, they are all emotions born out of the potential for pleasure, fulfillment and contentment. His characters are of an age where they don’t understand what it is they really want or the best way to get it. They’ve started on a path that will likely lead to a lifetime of bad choices and dead ends, but Kiersh purposefully focuses on their beginnings, holding out a modicum of hope that their lives can change. That hope reveals the warmth Kiersh has for his characters; their travails don’t feel exploitative nor does Kiersh hold them in contempt. While he never absolves them of their actions, Kiersh embraces his characters by giving them a voice.