At first glance, Simon Hanselmann’s “Life Zone” could pass as an Adult Swim show, or even a reality television one, if the characters were, you know, human. If you have a distaste for reading about drug culture, then this is definitely not for you. This piece is rife with drug humor, as the main characters spend most of their time getting drunk or high off of everything from marijuana to ketamine. The portrayal of their drug use is quite complex however, giving us insights into the life of a group of high school friends, now in their thirties, who live in a house together that mirrors a peculiar hybrid of Half Baked and The Real World.
With the exception of one character, who I will get into later, they seem to suffer from an “amotivational syndrome” of sorts, preferring to watch movies and television on their sofa instead of working. They are quintessential slackers, appearing apathetic and out of touch with reality, but their drug use actually allows them to see the world with awe, beauty, and at times insight. It also gets them into situations that seem like brilliant ideas at the time, but are completely ridiculous, obscene, and often dangerous. Hanselmann throws a lot of gross humor into the stories, which might be off-putting to some, but in my opinion, is well utilized.
“Life Zone” revolves around four main characters: Meg, Mogg, Werewolf Jones, and Owl. Meg, a witch, and the only female in the group, is an insecure, self-conscious, and self-medicating witch who is unknowingly the object of the other three’s affection. She is one of those people who does not realize her true value. Mogg, her cat partner, is your “typical” stoner who puts minimal effort into everyday activities. He is nonchalant, easy-going, and self-assured. Werewolf Jones, their raucous neighbor, is in constant party mode, instigating debaucheries wherever he goes. He’s also an aggressive bully at times. The most markedly different character is housemate Owl, a neurotic, yet impressionable character who is easily persuaded to go along with the rest of the characters’ intoxicated escapades. One of the reoccurring comedic gags throughout the story is him being beat up in various situations, usually due to his misjudgment, self-righteousness, and bad luck.
The book is composed of four short stories which nicely showcase Hanselmann’s strong character design and development. In the first story, “Jobs”, Owl realizes that he is paying a disproportionate amount of rent. He is the responsibly employed one and as such Meg and Mogg feel that they are off the hook for taking care of their end of the deal. Despite their aversion to working, Owl secures jobs for them through a family friend at Hot Outdoors, a camping store with a ridiculously provocative marketing campaign. Surprisingly Meg, Mogg, and Werewolf Jones show up to work, but things take an absurd turn as they transform their place of employment into a drug-fueled club and cleave a "portal" into the wall in a failed attempt get to the Forever 21 store, so they can all be "21 Forever." Little references in this book, whether they be pop cultural or simply subversive, add subtle humorous jabs at the inherent ridiculousness of existence.
In the second story, “Owl’s Date”, Owl attempts to save a relationship with a girl named Heather, who he royally screwed up with at a party. Heather makes multiple attempts to break up with him at a Korean restaurant, but Owl denies them, instead playing a practical joke on some teens outdoors, which gets him into another physical altercation. What I liked about this story was the examination of the confusion of romantic relationships, especially as Heather regrettably takes Owl back out of pity. It is more understated than the other stories and is placed appropriately between “Jobs” and Hanselmann’s next story, “High School”.
“High School” is essentially a high school parody, comparable to any teen movie or sitcom. The gang ponders whether they should attend their high school reunion, which conjures up that typical “Ugh, I don’t want to deal with this, but I’m sort of intrigued” reaction. They flashback to their high school days as a group of drug fueled misfits, non-conformists, and badasses. Seeing the origin of their drug use makes you wonder if they would still be friends if they were sober or at least moderate. Yes, they party and have a grand old time, but there are unspoken tensions in the group, such as Owl, Mogg, and Werewolf Jones’ competing crushes on Meg.
“Altered Beasts”, the last story, follows Meg as she gets ready to go to a friend’s engagement party. The panels of her getting ready nicely showcase Hanselmann’s watercoloring as well as his thin but assured linework (Meg’s flowing hair strands are a perfect example). Meg manages to pull Mogg out of yet another drug induced stupor to go to the party. My favorite part of this story is the last two pages of the two looking at the brilliant moon. It is one of those transcendent moments where Meg perfectly articulates, “I could die right now and I wouldn’t even care”.
This is a well-crafted, crass, and funny book. It is also quite an artistic accomplishment given the fact that Hanselmann works in a 12-panel grid with such spatial variability. I look forward to seeing what other capers this eccentric gang gets into in future works and whether they evolve as individuals.