All right, let’s take the elephant in the room and fly that fucker around like Dumbo: These are self-published, arty alternative comics written and drawn by an actor whose movies have grossed just shy of five billion dollars worldwide. In that respect Shia LaBeouf has already lapped most celebrities who’ve gotten their names on a comic, since in most cases “name on a comic” is as far as it goes. At best, these vanity projects might provide an interesting mainstream creator with a better work-for-hire opportunity than most. Far more frequently they exist just to give some nerd-made-good the thrill of seeing their name on the stands at the Android’s Dungeon of their youth, or to provide proof of concept for some shitty genre movie-or-TV-show-to-(never)-be. In a context where singer Gerard Way’s apparently short-lived but well-received stint as an honest-to-god scriptwriter for his smart superhero series The Umbrella Academy qualifies an extreme outlier, it’s difficult to believe in the existence of freaking minicomics from the co-star of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull even when you’re holding them in your hands.
Believe it, though. And believe this, too: They’re good.
Let me be clear that “good” doesn’t mean “holy shit, call Grandma.” LaBeouf is an enthusiastic amateur, with an emphasis on both halves of that description. The “amateur” shows primarily in the art — here it’s too clearly photo-reffed, there it’s bereft of considerations like perspective and line. In other words, while I’d happily have flipped through a review copy had it been sent to me cold because that’s just how I am, it was the name that made the books pop off the stands at Jim Hanley’s Universe, not a sense that I was witnessing the birth of the next great cartoonist.
So yes, the art’s rough. But it’s also effective, in both complementing his lacerating writing and conveying emotional weight. So even though it’s likely rough by necessity, the roughness of a study-hall satirist or a first-year CCS student, it’s the effectiveness that should be the lens through which the art’s viewed. And honestly I’m probably selling it short, to an extent. The magic-marker pink aura with which he surrounds the figures in his graphic novella Cyclical, about a Johnny Blaze-type motorcycle outlaw’s last ride, both belies the macho mock-Hemingway elegy of the narrative and imbues it with the sensual road-sign glow of the American West. It’s the equivalent of the opening-credit type treatment for Drive, and it’s sophisticated shit.
So too is his footing upon the fine line between irony and sincerity. Cyclical winks at the melodramatic excess of its story yet does so with a straight face, if that makes any sense. Like, say, Benjamin Marra, LaBeouf understands that the ridiculousness of a period-’60s motel sign (“Pink” in Vegas-style quasi-cursive, “MOTEL” in big block letters, palm fronds swaying in the background) or a demonstrative sex scene between a man with an eightball back tattoo and a dreamlike blonde I can’t help but mentally refer to as “his girl” (“Oh fuck…Davey…Your [sic] the best there ever was baby…the best there ever was…Stay with me”) doesn’t cancel out its weirdly primal power.
On a more intrinsic-to-comics level, LaBeouf eschews panels and grids here as he does throughout his work, preferring a single borderless image and caption on every page. But he has a grasp on pacing that (I still kinda can’t believe this) marks him as a natural comics-maker. Cyclical‘s book-length build-up to its hero Dave Raven’s final, inevitably fatal jump over a canyon is exquisite, culminating in a series of close-ups and glory shots that give way to airy nothingness when he finally draws the jump itself — Raven and his bike a collective dot dwarfed by the yawning chasm. The eerie, presaged ending involving a hatched egg and a touch of the supernatural gives the affair a lingering crackle that transcends its knowingly stock tragedy.
Even the comparatively shaky Stale N Mate, an earlier, longer story about a death-row inmate whose last request of a cigarette in his no-smoking prison pits unyielding laws against one another in a Kafkaesque case that goes all the way to the Supreme Court, transcends its occasional didacticism and rough-even-by-LaBeouf’s-standards portraiture in this way. It builds to a final-act image—a cage created specifically for death-row smokers, positioned the required number of yards away from the prison and surrounded by flowers—that by-god moved me. It felt both inevitable and completely unexpected.
If LeBeouf’s long(er)-form writing is steady and sharp, his shorter pieces alternately stab and bludgeon. Let’s Fucking Party is billed, a bit too portentously, as “an illustrated journey into my thoughts” on the page that bears its author’s signature. Indeed this book-length collection of single-page portraits and captions draws a goodly portion of its strength from its autobiographical elements. Some of these seem overt: a woman saying, “My son is a huge movie star. He lives in California”; a quartet of portraits featuring LaBeouf’s drug-addict Vietnam-veteran father and members of his unit (“Scott, the man who introduced my dad to China White. Thanks asshole”); a drawing of LaBeouf’s collaborator Marilyn Manson accompanied by the proclamation, “When you find out the boogy man cant [sic] throw a punch hes [sic] not scary anymore.” There’s even that grandest of traditions, comics about making comics: “Here, they don’t assassinate poets. Here, they don’t notice them. Here, you gotta draw a whole fucking comic book to get your poem heard.”
But not everything is that obviously about LaBeouf, and that’s part of the fun of the collection. Who’s the fine actress who has aged out of employability? Who’s the blond actor who hasn’t done anything since his show got canceled years ago? Who is it that “could never drink again”—do those pages refer to the pink-shirted, cigarette-toting, mustachioed man they depict, or is that guy just a witness to LaBeouf’s self-assessment? Was there really a hand-holding assignation with a mysterious “she” who “came from hotel money”? Are these people and incidents drawn from life the way, say, a rejection of religion that LaBeouf accompanies with a sheepish “Sorry, Mom” must be? Or are these just characters, embodying LaBeouf’s stray thoughts?
LaBeouf maintains that “is it live or is it Memorex” feeling with his art, leaving his initial pencil drawings and lettering unerased and visible behind his pen-and-marker finished art. Meanwhile, his confrontationally ugly faces (it’s like a lo-fi Lisa Hanawalt) broadcast warts-and-all honesty. If it all dips into excess from time to time (“I admire a brave man, more than a fearful man. I am best when I am neither.”), it’s saved from the brink by LaBeouf’s facility with pretension-deflating Matt Furie Boy’s Club-style YOLO clichés and catchphrases, from the title phrase to “only boring people get bored” (a Mad Men bon mot, if memory serves) to my personal favorite, accompanied by a man and woman sporting near-identical shit-eating grins: “Life is a fat fucking turkey. And every day is Thanksgivin’.” (Cf. Stale N Mate’s famous last words, spelled out in flowers, which I won’t spoil here.)
LaBeouf expands his portraiture palette in the series of free webcomics he’s published through Issuu called Cheek Up’s. Each one makes use of the same sturdy template of image repetition: A person’s face, seen from the nose up at the bottom of the frame, with a brief monologue from their perspective scrawled across the white space at the top of each page, a line or two at a time. Again I’m impressed by the skill and style of his writing, the confidence with which he encapsulates people and sketches out their imaginary worldviews, knowing when to pull back and pare down for maximum comic or revelatory effect. At the time of this writing he’s already published over two dozen of these, and really the best way to read them is just to dive in at random. I really like Rhonda, a three-panel sketch of a girl recounting what passed for her first kiss before implying that she and her grandma are isolated recluses; The Real Thing, in which a man recounts a dream of enlightenment involving music without ever letting us lose sight of the fact it’s a dream; 5 Great Sentences, more cliché-skewering in the mighty Let’s Fucking Party manner; Lofty Bitches, a faux-Shakespearean diatribe against fashion people delivered by an old lady who looks like Mel Lazarus’s Momma… I could go on.
Which is amazing to me. I picked up these comics, and browsed them online, because they were by Shia LaBeouf. But LaBeouf could have, I dunno, plotted a Transformers miniseries and some would have feted him for it. Instead he hand-crafted a bunch of weirdo comics that leave him wide open for mockery when he hits notes too hard or takes ideas too far or makes drawings too sloppy (and he does on all counts, from time to time, inevitably), because he had something to say and had to say it with this particular art form. That’s something I respond to no matter whose name is on the cover, and the response is gratitude, for lack of a better word: “Hey, thanks for making this cool thing and showing it to me, because I had a great time with it.” The craft may not be there yet, but the heart and smarts are. Shia LaBeouf is a for-real cartoonist, and a talent to watch.