Robert Dayton's The Empty Bed is a long howl and a laugh up his own sleeve. This is the multidisciplinary artist's first long-form comic, and its mixture of word and image has more in common with Ray Fenwick's typographical comics than anything else. This is a dense, splotchy pen-and-ink affair about a devastating breakup. Actually, it's not so much about the breakup as it is the long, long aftermath. That aftermath, featuring the dreaded "I love you but I'm not in love with you" rejection, is interminable, self-indulgent, self-pitying, and frequently hilarious. What's interesting is that despite the wall of noise that Dayton builds for himself, time and reflection actually do make an impact, and so the end of the book is surprisingly insightful. Along the way, the reader is treated to thoughts and images both profound and banal, as the aim of the book is not to encourage lingering on any particular image, but rather to flip to another thought as fast as possible.
Dayton throws the reader right into the middle of his feelings at the beginning of the book, despairing about the emptiness of his bed and missing his ex's contours. There are jokes (a "subliminal message" that reads "Go fuck yourself"), references to phone sex and herpes, and dark thoughts ("Mourning your loss would be easier if you were dead"). That last one is drawn on a gravestone with a picture of a barren tree losing its last leaf, which is typical of Dayton's over-the-top melodrama in many of these single-page images. The cover image of a heart sent to the gallows is paired in the book with an image saying "Oh! All my exes pitched in to buy me this plaque!" (The plaque says, "You were never the best.") That last one is particularly telling of someone with a big ego that's been taken down several notches; it's not that they said, "We never loved you" or even "You suck," but a statement that says he wasn't the best screams of an ego not equipped to deal with loss.
Dayton is well aware of this and milks it on every page. It's an act of self-immolation and self-glorification all at once. At the same time, small bits of self-realization start to seep in as he becomes less defensive. She claimed he didn't listen, and after some mental gymnastics denying it, he realizes it was true. He talked about sex toward the end of their relationship and his overall selfishness, even as she was pulling away emotionally. There are funny documents like a "job application" to the local donut chain that are just long laments, references to horror comics, and "moving on" companies on a permanent smoke break.
There's an extended section that reviews each of the Charles Bronson-starring Death Wish movies, titled "The Death Wish Guide To Loss". It's a hilarious send-up of his own big feelings, as he notes the way that the films' Paul Kersey deals with loss (the inevitable rape/killing of his loved ones) is by tracking down the perpetrators and blowing them away. After the fifth installment, Dayton recommends the calming power of chamomile tea. Still later, when Dayton decides to resume having a sex life, there's a coupon ("One Free Pass: Admit You To Me!"), but he later realizes that he's still way too hung up to do anything. For all of the ego and posturing and self-pity in the book that's done in a performative manner, it was moments like those that truly stood out. It was a moment of total honesty and vulnerability, as he described the previous relationship as "seeping through my pores."
For all of the emphasis on text in the book, there are some striking images. Porn is depicted as a literal can of worms. There's a piece of text that says, "I'm in a much better place now" that's a patch of white lettering on a black background, crammed into the bottom corner of the page. There's also the funny image of "a gaggle of 19th century romantic poets gather in a church basement for a love addiction meeting," bringing the modern self-help addiction model to the kind of over-the-top writing he's engaging in here as well. There's other addiction-related language in there as well, like "rock bottom" (depicted as a super-villain to defeat), "healthy boundaries," and "total surrender."
There's an interview he did with his mother at the end, focusing on death and divorce. She divorced Dayton's abusive father and remarried a man whose last name Dayton eventually took as his own. He eventually died after a run that wasn't long enough for his mother, but it was still a good one. Dayton points out that death, divorce and truly painful experiences were something missing from his life, so that's one reason why he found this break-up to be so difficult. Her hard decisions and willingness to find love again were fascinating, and it clearly inspired Dayton. The last images are of him healing with a big glimmering heart (which will heal you as well), a pun on closure and closing the book, an acknowledge that he will make new mistakes, and a horror-based visual pun. While it's clear that Dayton went on a journey of healing, the reader is not so much privy to his journey as they are given access to his account after the journey, with all its drama and silliness.