To Get Her

To Get Her, by Bernie MireaultTo Get Her is a lively and clearly very personal comic by Bernie Mireault, a cartoonist whose work I have admired for almost twenty-five years. It's also, narratively, a ringing disappointment.

I learned about To Get Her from Tom Spurgeon's May 6 interview with Mireault. I understood from that interview that the book's current incarnation, its only public incarnation thus far, is that of an extremely limited edition, partly Xeric-funded (though Mireault hopes to republish it for a wider readership). So I was startled to find a copy locally.

To Get Her has reportedly been in the works since 2003. My own knowledge of Mireault dates to his collaboration with Matt Wagner and Joe Matt on Comico's Grendel, way back in 1987 (an arc later collected as The Devil Inside). That collaboration put Mireault on my radar, and so I dug into his quirky, low-rent superhero pastiche The Jam, a generally lighthearted riff on the genre but laced with semi-autobiographical, underground-flavored elements. The Jam began as a backup serial in the Canadian series New Triumph back in the early mid-80s, then began to find its own way after 1987 (Comico published a one-shot after the Grendel run that I glommed onto very happily). By the mid-90s I thought of The Jam as a humorous but soulful alternative to superheroes-as-usual, a project that, despite its fitfulness and its caroming between publishers, promised what Mike Allred's Madman also seemed to promise at the time: life, energy, and homespun storytelling within the straits of that oh-so-familiar genre. I dug it the way I dug Allred's work, and Mike Gilbert's work on Mr. Monster, and the way I still dig Paul Grist's myriad superhero comics.

Over the years I've tried to follow Mireault's comics work and have sometimes failed, as the several iterations of The Jam (Matrix, Comico, Slave Labor, Tundra, Dark Horse, Caliber) confused me or gave way to shorter efforts that, for me, didn't quite jell—for example the Dr. Robot comics that appeared in the back pages of the Dark Horse version of Madman in 1999. Every one of those strips was a buoyant formal workout, showing Mireault's command of cartooning, design, and color, but the concepts seemed over-familiar, shopworn, as if Mireault had abandoned The Jam as a vehicle but hadn't yet arrived at anything else. Of course he was busy living, and doing other things I knew nothing about. To Get Her must have been one of those.

It turns out Mireault hasn't abandoned The Jam, but has transformed its hero, Gordon Kirby, alias The Jammer, into To Get Her's semi-autobiographical protagonist. This version of Gordon Kirby makes clear that Gordie is Mireault's surrogate. He's now very much a down-on-his-luck cartoonist who not only lives the life of the Jammer but also chronicles it on the comics page.

To Get Her, page 12

In other words, the central conceit of To Get Her is that The Jam is Gordon Kirby's autobio comic—which is why the book climaxes by bringing us right to the threshold of that first Jam story from New Triumph, back in 1984.

Obviously this Gordie stands in for Mireault. To Get Her goes beyond providing a backstory for The Jam, recounting the disintegration of a long-term relationship in painfully confessional terms that inevitably seem autobiographical. It also experiments with mixed genres, or at least mixed means of expression, fusing comics with pages of ruminative typeset text—and incorporating a number of Mireault's own comics, here imagined as Gordie's. It even includes as a jam page by Mireault and several real-life cartooning buddies—one of many moves that serve to blur the lines of memoir and fiction, making To Get Her a shifty autofiction rather like, say, Seth's It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work. I mean, it really doesn't work. I want to like the book desperately, because I'm a longtime Mireault reader primed to like what he does. I'm a fan. But To Get Her tries to salvage too much of The Jam's gnarled continuity, and as it does so it undercuts the power of its ruminations with daft subplots and narrative feints and quick-fixes that clash with its bitter autobiographical insights. Tangled plotlines from past Jam stories—a missing person, a police investigation, and so on—are brought forward just when Mireault seems to be trying to sail past all that. A comically broad subplot puts paid to the book's ostensible focus: the painful disintegration of the relationship between Gordie and his partner Janet.

That relationship, I recall, used to be a sweet selling point of the Jam comics, I suppose in the same way that Frank's relationship with his girlfriend Joe works in Allred's Madman, or, more to the point maybe, the way the bond between Billy and Jane works in Dean Haspiel's semi-autobio but super-wild Billy Dogma comics. Like those other cartoonists, Mireault seemed to be doing a fantasy autobiography rooted in romance. To Get Her questions and undermines all that romance in favor of pained self-examination and, ultimately, loss. The relationship between Janet and Gordie is stripped of its sugar and becomes the book's central problem, one that is set forth in the book's opening salvo of bitter reflection: several pages of loosely edited and highly abstracted prose, thickened by verbal roadblocks like these:

A superfluity of effort coming from both sides would make light work indeed of the unglamorous tasks that are usually passed, hot potato style, to the lowest person on the totem pole. To have the comfort and security of being part of a fairly run and functional team, this is what I want for everyone. Especially for myself and my partner. (6-7)

Some of these lines manage keen insight into what makes relationships work and what makes them difficult. Mostly, though, the prose is gaseous and rather bland.

To say that To Get Her is at odds with itself is an understatement. It's easy enough to say that Mireault's trademark winsomeness and joy have been sidelined by bitter personal experience: this is his divorce album, so to speak. I would like to say that the book's difficulties make for a thorny but not wholly uninteresting new approach, something worldly-wise, hard-won, tougher, a bit trickier to read perhaps, but intriguing. And all of that is true. But just when I find myself warming to the idea of darkly reflective autobio from Mireault, To Get Her goes off the rails, tucking in more of the old Jam stuff than this sober new approach will let fit, and in the process showing up, by awkward contrast, the slightness of the old comics' charms, that is, revealing just how feather-light, delicate, and evanescent the thrill of those old Jams was. This move doesn't make the old work look good, yet it doesn't liberate Mireault to pursue a genuinely new direction either.

The relative sobriety of the book is enlivened by several wonderful feats of cartooning, and, visually, Mireault's energy persists even in the face of some debilitating moves in the direction of digital aridity. I miss the old, hand-rendered scratch of the early Jams, which here has largely been replaced by a digitized clear-line aesthetic and somber gray tones; however, I do see some wonderful page-building and cartooning here,

To Get Her, page 22

and Mireault keeps tossing in different examples of his other work to stir things up. He really is a wonderfully skilled and loving comics artist, clearly enthralled by the medium. He is not, however, a first-rate writer of people, and that hobbles him sorely here.

Mireault clearly sees the book as a meditation on the relationship between love and work, hence its repeated use of two paired icons, the heart and the wrench (first shown on the cover). That relationship feels contested and difficult here, as I suspect he intends. Indeed the book's plot seems to build toward the end of Gordie and Janet's relationship, which imparts a feeling of fatalism and slow inexorability. What I came to expect through my reading was a frank appraisal of how a once-romantic, now half-broken, love must end. However, To Get Her ultimately fudges this by leaning hard on a farcical subplot about one of Janet's suitors, an absurd, posturing clown with a convenient mental problem who kicks the story in a different direction. Broad strokes finish off this plot even as Mireault ushers Janet out of the picture, so to speak, for the final break,

To Get Her, page 147

which is delivered over the phone in a Chris Ware-like sequence of flattened affect and dull repetition—the kind of thing that Ware can do brilliantly but that comes off here like a cheat. There's no sense of mutual recognition or emotional culmination in this. Furthermore, a deus ex machina gift of cash to Gordie—a dividend from that wacky subplot—belies the story's truths about the travails of the working-class cartoonist. In short, Mireault's move toward soul-searching semi-autobio gets scotched by plot devices of a tacked-on, unearned, and unpersuasive kind.

Tonally, To Get Her is an unstable concoction. It's a careening, uncertain, disunified mess, a series of nervy bank shots that don't come off. Mireault strikes me as a cartoonist who prefers to work in a bright, positive register, but who, in this case, has something dark he needs to get off his chest, something he needs to process in order to establish a new beachhead for his work. Unfortunately, the result has a forced, unhappy quality. In fact, for such an ambitious, long-simmering project, and such a potentially important one for the author, it seems surprisingly ill-judged and premature. Despite some attempts to humanize Janet—i.e., to do justice to both sides of the story's central relationship—in the end the book seems like an awkward if not spiteful act of self-justification.

I can't bring myself to dislike To Get Her exactly. It boasts some wonderful evocations of place and mood, quite a few pages of nicely elastic cartooning, and several fascinating formalist coups. But, it must be admitted, the book finally fumbles its insights and falls to pieces in a bemusing and disheartening way.

Mireault continues to be an ace cartoonist without a sturdy vehicle. That's too bad. To Get Her seems less like the opening of a new chapter and more like, already, a memento of a hard time.


16 Responses to To Get Her

  1. Scott Grammel says:

    As that Jam one-shot referenced above remains one of my all-time favorite comic books, I was pleased to see his newest book reviewed here, and then truly saddened to read Hatfield’s unhappy reaction. Frankly, even the few pages shown above look less than ideal: the tones are fussy and too faint, the drawings are precise, stiff, and dull. I started noticing his work in the midst of his Mackenzie Queen comic, enjoyed some of the earliest black and white Jams, and then rarely felt his post color one-shot stuff was even worth picking up. Not sure what happened, and hope things can be turned around for him.

    Still, it certainly doesn’t diminish my enthusiasm for that Comico one-shot one iota.

  2. Harold Coltrane says:

    I liked it. This review feels unnecessarily harsh and too informed by Spurgeon’s interview with Mireault. The reviewer takes much as “obvious” (eg: Mireault’s other work incorporated into the story, the autobiographical elements, etc.) but it wouldn’t be so if he hadn’t read the interview beforehand.

    There’s plenty of non-mainstream comic art that’s different and personal (especially in its execution) and not perfectly tailored for mass approval; this is one of them. It takes guts to do that kind of work and reviews like this one (entitled, lazy, overly subjective and just plain mean) are kinda cowardly and unfair. Bash Spiderman if you want to, but when you attack hard-working, independent comic artists to this degree (esp. veterans like Mireault), you do the entire art form a disservice.

    Fans of ‘The Jam” will probably like this work, but it also stands on its own with a strong story and lovely art. Maybe it’s not for everyone but it certainly doesn’t deserve to be raked over the coals like this. Kind of shameful, actually.

  3. Pat Palermo says:

    I haven’t read Mirault’s newest book, but I must take issue with Mr. Coltrane’s harsh review of this harsh review. Hatfield seems to take every opportunity to give Mr. Mirault his due, and is quite specific in his praise of Mirault’s other efforts. Is he to blame if his honest assessment of the comic is much-less-than-favorable, if he approached reviewing the comic in good faith, as it appears he did? Mr. Coltrane writes,

    ‘Bash Spiderman if you want to, but when you attack hard-working, independent comic artists to this degree (esp. veterans like Mireault), you do the entire art form a disservice.’

    Actually, what I think most disserves the form is for critics and general readership to persist in stooping to applaud every creative effort solely on the basis of its non-Spidermanishness. Frankly, I’d rather read a really ripping superhero yarn than a poorly executed family drama comic. As I said, I haven’t read ‘To Get Her’ (yet), and can’t say if I would agree or disagree with Hatfield’s assessment of the work. But really, it shouldn’t be enough for readers, critics, and fans of the artform to satisfy themselves with a an author’s effort just because it’s ‘independent’, ‘mature’, or ‘not made for mass approval’. If the work doesn’t speak to the reviewer, that’s fine as long as they do their job and work to articulate their problems with the piece.

    I also take issue with Mr. Coltrane’s implication that Hatfield doesn’t approve of the work because it is somehow outside the mainstream. That’s sort of a cheat and ignores Hatfield’s lucid criticisms of the comic’s execution and storytelling choices. Of course it’s fine if Mr. Coltrane disagrees with Hatfield’s review or thinks he’s completely dense and misunderstands the book. But he has no cause and no right to try to shame him as a bully for what reads to me like a very honest and respectful, if very unfavorable, piece of criticism.

  4. Harold Coltrane says:

    It’s hard to comment on what you write, Pat Palermo, because you haven’t read the book yet you’re jumping to the critic’s defense.

    But let me just say that when I wrote the comment about bashing Spiderman, I simply meant that a company like Marvel doesn’t “feel” a bad review like an independent artist does; in terms of morale and money.

    Secondly, I never implied “that Hatfield doesn’t approve of the work because it is somehow outside the mainstream”.

    I’m did try to express that in non-mainstream comics (certainly more than mainstream comics) over the years we certainly find more quirky, offbeat and personal work, both in terms of theme and execution; no one is telling the artist what to do, they create and publish it (or maybe a small publisher who supports their work).

    When an artist like that has his work called a “careening, uncertain, disunified mess”, amongst many other things, it’s gotta hurt. It’s a long, extremely negative, dissection of Mireault’s work, it’s in the Comics Journal which affects public perception of the book.

    Hatfield has a right to write what he wants, I’m not disputing that. And yes, through his incredible and almost personal disappointment in Mireault, Hatfield says some sorta nice things.

    But the critic has a responsibility too, especially if he’s prepared to trash a work like that. Reading a revealing interview beforehand with much “behind the scenes” information, getting influenced then writing about what’s “obvious”, presuming what’s fiction and what’s fact, – that’s lazy journalism.

    Hatfield wants a particular thing from Mireault and didn’t get it. This work is heavy while Mireault’s other work is often more light (not always); Hatfield seems almost disgruntled over this.

    His strongly worded dislike for the work, his personal disappointment, his comments that are influenced by reading Spurgeon’s interview – all these things make up most of the review.

    He chose to write a very harsh review of a small, independent, veteran comic artist’s new book and that will most likely have a negative affect on the artist. I guess that’s life, but many other critics know both sides of the coin and write more insight, objectivity and humanity, even when they dislike something.

  5. Pat Palermo says:

    Mr. Coltrane, you could certainly argue the merits of the book and dispute Mr. Hatfield’s criticisms. You are the one who characterized the reviewer as ‘entitled, lazy, just plain mean’ and called his writing ‘cowardly’. And yet you offer absolutely no evidence in the text to justify your ad hominem characterizations, except for the fact that you don’t agree with his judgement of the book. You also seem to take for granted that Mr. Hatfield has based all his critical judgement on an earlier interview with the artist and offer up no evidence in the text of the review to justify this accusation. Upon comparing your criticisms with Mr. Hatfield’s I would say you are the one trading in highly charged language that seems emotionally and personally directed, not Mr. Hatfield. And I don’t need to have read Mr. Mireault’s book to make that judgement.

  6. Harold Coltrane says:

    Mister Palermo, the “evidence” supporting my views is clearly presented in my two posts.

    Have you taken the time to read Spurgeon’s interview with Mr. Mireault? It can easily be found online and I shouldn’t have to provide you with text from the review.

    1) Read Mireault’s book. 2) Read the interview. 3) Re-read Hatfield’s review.

    THEN perhaps it will be more appropriate for you to defend the critic against my “highly charged” and “personally directed” language.

  7. Harold Coltrane says:

    And may I add that, YES, you do have to read Mireault’s book and his interview with Spurgeon to make your judgement.

    How else could you possibly know what you’re talking about?!

  8. Stuart says:

    This was a worthless critique. I totally agree with Harold with all of his criticisms especially the part where he said it was hugely subjective.

    As I was reading this, before I got to the comments, I was wondering what the reviewer’s problem was, and I knew, without having to Google his name, that Charles Hatfield had never been able to produce successful published comics.

    Hatfield imposes a ridiculous number of asinine and immature restrictions on artists in general and this one in particular and holds Bernie Mirault up to standards that he wouldn’t accept for himself.

    Utterly worthless, if any TCJ editors are looking at this, please review this reviewer.

    In so many ways this review was excessively negative, nitpicky and highly unfair to the artist.

    An apology is due and Charles Hatfield should try coming up with his own comics, for us to review. And yes you do need to have produced comics to be able to make a living out of criticizing creators who make comics for a living.

    Not having done the hard yards yourself points to a failure of credibility.

  9. Mike Hunter says:

    Stuart says:

    ….Charles Hatfield should try coming up with his own comics, for us to review. And yes you do need to have produced comics to be able to make a living out of criticizing creators who make comics for a living.

    A common, yet ludicrously absurd misapprehension.

    While having put one’s time “in the trenches” of creativity can give particular beneficial insights — technical challenges and limitations, the usefulness of relying on tropes and well-worn plot mechanics in order to meet a deadline or satisfy genre readers — the qualities for being an able critic are ones that are hardly required to create art:

    – A substantial knowledge of the art form, its history and varied practitioners, the better to study and “place” the creator and his/her influences.

    – An ability to both experience the work as its audience would, yet distance oneself. To also be able to analyze plot mechanisms, see possible symbolic meanings, attempt to understand why the creator was aiming after certain aesthetic effects, and succeeding or failing at achieving them.

    – Writerly and journalistic skill: the ability to describe the work perceptively and accurately, educate readers as to other antecedent works of the creator, possible influences, vividly convey insights and interpretations.

    – And so forth…

    Are you saying then, that some teen-age amateurish mini-comics creator is therefore automatically a far better comics critic that someone who’s studied and imbued themselves in the art form (and other useful information such as the arts and culture in general, psychology, history, politics) but never had the inspiration or inclination to create their own comics?

  10. Robert Boyd says:

    Stuart wrote: “As I was reading this, before I got to the comments, I was wondering what the reviewer’s problem was, and I knew, without having to Google his name, that Charles Hatfield had never been able to produce successful published comics.”

    And yet Charles Hatfield has produced lots of successful criticism, including two whole books of in-depth critical writing. How dare you criticize his criticism without having written a substantial body of criticism yourself! Go write a book-length critique or two, and I might consider your criticism of Charles Hatfield’s criticism worth reading.

  11. “Utterly worthless, if any TCJ editors are looking at this, please review this reviewer.”

    Yes, TCJ editors, please review the credentials of your reviewers. Otherwise you might end up with embarrassments like this, where you publish articles by people who later receive Eisner awards for their critical and academic work.

  12. Jeet Heer says:

    “I mentioned Mallet’s tragedy of Elvira, which had been acted the preceding winter at Drury-lane, and that the Honourable Andrew Erskine, Mr. Dempster, and myself, had joined in writing a pamphlet, entitled, Critical Strictures, against it. That the mildness of Dempster’s disposition had, however, relented; and he had candidly said, ‘We have hardly a right to abuse this tragedy: for bad as it is, how vain should either of us be to write one not near so good.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why no, Sir; this is not just reasoning. You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.'” From James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (recording a conversation from 1763).

  13. We have a winner.

  14. Harold Coltrane says:

    A comics critic does not need to have practical experience creating comics (same goes for any other critic).

    A critic works at writing criticism and when they get published people read, evaluate and judge those critiques.

    For the record, my comments about Hatfield’s review were based on what he wrote; my opinions and my direction are simply different than his. He has a right to write what he wants but I felt that his approach to criticizing Mireault’s work was horrible and I expressed that here – that’s my right. As a published writer, Hatfield is going to receive criticism, as well.

    I love comic art and I like my critics to love what they write about, too. I’m not saying that Hatfield doesn’t (and I am not familiar with his writing in particular) I just have an issue with that particular review and let’s just say I didn’t “feel the love”.

    Like Wayne Newton says, “Take care of what takes care of you”…
    In our case, take comic artists for granted and you risk messing stuff up for everyone, so I’m sensitive (but not overly) about that.

    Folks, I read Mireault’s work and liked it. After, I went online and found the Spurgeon interview, read it and had my eyes opened a bit and learned more.

    Hatfield came at it the other way and I feel his review was soured because of that and also, to me, it reeked of entitlement and over-subjectivity and I found that gross.

    So no offense to Hatfield, I just hated his review and think it wasn’t nice.
    And the reaction to my post by Palermo was nonsense.

    I would greatly like to see comments from people who have read “To Get Her”.
    If you haven’t yet, I recommend it.

    But, with respect to Samuel Johnson, a comic is not a table.

  15. Harold Coltrane says:

    whoops – sorry, that Samuel Johnson part at the end of my last post was not supposed to be there. I was going to respond to Jeet Heer’s post but decided not to, after all.

    But, now I have to explain dammit! I wrote “a comic is not a table” because in reality, judging a table and a comic (or a tragedy) are two different things.

    I support criticism, but the inherent subjectivity in creating or appreciating art requires the critic to approach the art and the artist quite differently than one would the carpenter and the table. Clearly, one is functional, the other is human expression. That’s why I believe a critic should have a strong degree of respect and sensitivity, even if on just the most human level.

    Artists of all kinds; musicians, painters, comedians, writers or athletes, even – lay it all out there at the risk of being eviscerated by some critic.

    But still, the artists have expressed themselves and people will like their work and that’s a good thing.

    A table-maker who makes tables that don’t work is of no use to anyone!

  16. Halloween Jack says:

    I’m getting to this quite late, but I was still interested to find out that Mireault had taken another crack at Gordon Kirby and Janet; I was a big fan of his work in the eighties, especially The Jam, and kept checking in vain to see if he’d ever get around to doing something else of substance, until I more or less gave up.

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