Is it trite to say that A Lot Was Happening during the peak years of the COVID-19 pandemic? Maybe so (definitely so), but it was an especially fertile time for emerging indie cartoonists, what with nobody being able to go outside for extended periods of time. It lent itself well to the emergence of creative, dedicated obsessives and their fans, with little to distract them, and that’s when Drew Lerman–who’s been making his fascinating minicomic, Snake Creek, since 2018, but finally started to grow into the wider comics landscape in the early days of the coronavirus–caught a lot of peoples’ attention, mine included. And whatever else one might think of Snake Creek, it’s anything but trite.
I first encountered Snake Creek–the ongoing adventures of best friends Dav and Roy in a blasted, sandy someplace-or-other that resembles both George Herriman’s wild and shifting deserts and the minimalist ruins of a suburban business park–when Lerman released Tales of Old Snake Creek. A self-published minicomic that came out in 2022 (a previous, self-titled collection of older material was out of print at that time, but is now back on his website), it was surprising, difficult, half-formed, and full of promise; it was also a good entry for people like me, who find Instagram (Lerman’s main platform for Snake Creek) unnavigable and ill-suited to the comic art medium. Surprising: It was shockingly cohesive for something that seemed so randomly composed. Difficult: The art could seem amateurish at times, and it’s frankly still a style that I have trouble with today. Half-formed: It wasn’t yet a thing in and of itself, and it hopped around a lot thematically in a way that could be confusing, but was never boring. Full of promise: Well, now it’s time to talk about Escape from the Great American Novel.
To call it a great leap forward is an understatement. It’s Lerman’s first major attempt at an ongoing narrative, his first truly coherent work from a story standpoint, and an artistic progression that doesn’t entirely shed the qualities that make his drawing a love-it-or-leave-it proposition, but which builds and advances what he’s good at (his interiors in particular are hugely improved, and there’s a sense of motion and energy present that speaks of an artist really coming to understand and expand what he can do) without losing anything or getting overly polished, which would be a fate worse than death for Snake Creek.
The story, such as it is, is simple. Dav, left directionless by cruelly having not died in a raging hurricane, decides to cope with the emptiness of life the same way so many other go-nowhere bohemian types do: write The Great American Novel. You don’t have to have as deep a background as Lerman clearly does in our great cultural milieu to know that this never ends well. Dav will, of course, crash head-first into the walls of his own pretense and sloth, and The Great American Novel will not so much be escaped from as abandoned, but the story takes the kind of unexpected turns that great literary works rarely have, and it’s all pretty funny, in both the ha-ha and peculiar sense, along the way.
The great appeal of Escape from the Great American Novel is its thematic sprawl. Although it’s far tighter than most of Lerman’s other work (while written and drawn simultaneously with some of his other collections, it’s clearly been selected to tell a specific story), it’s the rambunctiousness of his approach to cartooning that ironically makes it hold together so well. Snake Creek has always been a whirling blender of techniques and ideas: puns both elegant and groan-worthy, literary and cultural references both shallow and deep, song lyrics and poems, slapstick and highbrow intellectual jokes, satire and irony, and self-referential gags living alongside surrealist non-sequiturs.
The tone can shift with the breakneck quickness of the art, but both somehow hang together in a way that is impossible not to like, no matter how much the style might make you bristle. Largely because of Lerman’s vague but vividly-rendered backgrounds and his adeptness with what used to be called ‘ethnic dialect’, the usual touchstone for his work is Krazy Kat, and the fact that I’ve already namechecked Herriman once before in this review should tell you that’s not wrong. It’s also highly reminiscent of a specific period of zine culture; Snake Creek gives off mid-2000s vibes that are so strong at times that I can practically feel the staples. But just as valid is the underground comix scene of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, an influence that shines through particularly in the broad but expressive facial contortions of his characters.
What truly shines through about Escape from the Great American Novel, though, is Lerman’s clear love of language and ability to shape it into dialogue that is seemingly simple but cleverly complex. He has, dare I say, a novelist’s love of narrative voice, and while Dav certainly comes across as pretentious and self-deluding about the progress of his book, the self-effacement of these scenes lets the reader in on the joke in a very generous way that keeps it from ever being self-pitying. The breadth and depth of reference is always precise and never inaccessible, and the jokes are strung along nicely without ever losing sight of the fact that we’re reading a book in the four-panel comic strip format, with all the rhythms and structure that implies. Even the puns, whether you think that form of humor is elevated or debased, work out far more often than not.
Lerman has been steadily improving since he started Snake Creek, and as tempting as it is to call this a culmination of his hard work, I think he’s on a path to do even better. I was truly caught off guard at how much I enjoyed Escape from the Great American Novel, which is the sensation that every critic chases. My antipathy to Instagram aside, he’s a talent who’s instantly gone on my to-watch list, and this is a book that, while it probably won’t make him a household name, will hopefully get him the kind of exposure that someone as wild, wonderful, and deeply strange as him deserves.