November Garcia represents a welcome trend in memoir comics: autobio that’s funny above all else. Garcia is a Filipina cartoonist, but Foggy Notions covers the period of time when she lived in San Francisco. In many respects, this comic is as much a history of the burgeoning gentrification of even some of the roughest spots in San Francisco as it is about her journey in the city. It’s also a departure from her first comic, Malarkey, in that this is a collection of narratives, as opposed to a collection of one-page strips. As a result, there’s a greater focus on the visual aspects of the narrative, especially in the amount of detail paid to background details like buildings, buses, parks, and streets. That said, Garcia’s pages tend to be extremely text-heavy, in part because of how large her hand lettering tends to be. That stands out in the first story, which had a lot of white background space, but Garcia manages to figure out a better overall balance in the rest of the comic.
Garcia is funny because she zeroes in on the weird, the inappropriate and the extreme–and that’s just with regard to her own behavior. There’s a hilarious sequence where she’s at a house party with her musician boyfriend, and she starts swigging whiskey like it’s beer when he starts playing. In a real-life version of The Hangover, she spends the rest of the story going through her post-bender protocol (assessing damage to herself and others as well as seeing what might be missing) and then tries to recreate the events of the evening. One of Garcia’s strengths as a storyteller is escalating the stakes of a story while maintaining an even keel as a narrator. Her increasingly-poor decision making is exacerbated by she and her future husband Roy getting spotted by the cops (who at first threatened to run in Roy and then Garcia) before finally making it home–when she drunkenly proposes to Roy, calls him chicken when he hesitates, and then does a chicken dance to drive home her point. It’s a story that’s equal parts distressing and hilarious, as even Garcia starts to think she may be drinking too much.
The rest of the comic follows Garcia from job to job, with the exception of the two pace-setting pieces that open the comic. The first sees Garcia on a bus, loaning her phone to the person next to her, who promptly tries to sprint off the bus in order to steal it. Garcia goes after it and gets a black eye for her trouble, which earns her boyfriend glares and a general sense of being tough from everyone else. When the black eye potentially has long-term repercussions, she has a crisis moment where she’s worried about losing her sight and pledges that she’ll walk the straight and narrow and draw every day. Of course, when it turns out to be fine, the last panel cuts to Garcia and Roy watching a trashy reality show on TV, late at night. In the second story, Garcia tells the tale of her perception of a homeless man they call “Everlast” because of his jacket, but it is really just an excuse to give the reader a tour of her neighborhood and the weirdness one could encounter in it. This is a story where I wish I could have seen more in terms of backgrounds, just to get a better sense of the city.
It’s easy to compare Garcia’s work to that of Julia Wertz, but it’s clear that she’s just as influenced by Peter Bagge. Mixing slice-of-life with extreme moments of absurdity or even fear (or both together) is a Bagge specialty, and so the story where Garcia is robbed during the first two weeks of getting a job in San Francisco nicely encapsulates that sense of danger, boredom, and exploitation that she felt. While she and Wertz share a similar outlook (cynicism paired with a secret delight in so much that life has to offer), their senses of humor aren’t quite the same. That’s especially true when you compare Wertz’s early strips, which are extremely silly, to her later work and to Garcia’s work here. There’s a surprising maturity to Garcia’s work that’s likely a function of her becoming a cartoonist later in life. Her narrative persona is simply more fully-formed than those of younger memoir cartoonists.
While there are a number of other amusing strips about various jobs (including a disgusting one about working at a dog kennel), the other real highlight in this comic is about her apartment building with paper-thin walls and a surprising sense of camaraderie. With a communal garden, regular cook-outs, and funny gossip, Garcia brings to life the possibility of real community while living in a city, as everyone there is their own kind of oddball, and the building also includes a number of artists. When Garcia sees the writing on the wall after the invasion of the rich started to affect their building, she and Roy decide to move to the Philippines. It’s a funny but bittersweet story capping an era of the city that no longer exists. Garcia’s skills as a storyteller are strong, and there’s never a wasted panel or sense of padding in her stories: everything serves either the story moving forward or is a funny gag–and the gags usually move the story forward as well. While Garcia is a skilled gag cartoonist, it seems clear that her greatest strengths lie in long-form narrative storytelling.