“The world teems with poseurs, but you are the genuine article.”
This statement is made 11 pages into E.A. Bethea’s new peculiar memoir Francis Bacon, spotlighting a snaking inconsistent tone, jocular psychology, and intense reminiscences. An accompanying illustration on this same page is of an unsightly Victorian duo sharing a rotisserie chicken and bong with the local lesserthans, knuckledeep in grapes. Go back a few pages and you’ll find a historical look into the life of the titular English painter, a few pages more and there’s a study of the decorative soaps adorning the sink of the author’s mother. It’s this loose switching from second person to first, from self-help book from a cantankerously witty seen-it-all to lucid ruminations on flawed lives (the author’s included) that makes Francis Bacon an instant cult classic, if not the best comic of the year.
First, that title. A friend mentions that Bethea shares a resemblance with the brutal artist. That’s used as a springboard to dive into the death-matches between masochism and tenderness, memory and forgiveness. Yes, it features Francis Bacon, the painter, but the other one too. In fact, there are so many bit players in Bethea’s story — Anne Sexton’s along for the ride. Hamlet’s there. Soap opera stars, frozen burritos, and New Orleans tchotchkes are all stewed together with affection. Bethea doesn’t traffic in nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, but to truly reflect on a life experienced and recollected. This is a chronicle of events, not the event — real life doesn’t follow a three-act structure. No lessons are departed on the reader, other than to accept and, perhaps, love the person you used to be.
“I never aspired to be at the top of the heap or a member of the ruling class. I am barely the ruler of my own heart, getting emotionally stirred by wilted Boston lettuce and losing it completely over commercials for pain-free catheters.”
This statement, written on the top of a page most timely, also presents an astronaut in a Gucci spacesuit standing amongst common litter and a For Sale sign. He has just urine-grafittied “I PEED HERE” on the lunar soil. Bethea continues: “Surely if man can go to the moon and piss his name in the moondust, then all catheters can be pain-free. Maybe I am bonkers. I don’t even know the track to Yonkers.” Francis Bacon is filled with spiraling allusions and alliterations, all conveyed with a smirking, inviting confidence that only comes from someone who is this adept at selecting just the right word, editing their own work (which you’ll find obviously meticulous if you read a lot of other comics), and adding the complimentary drawings — sometimes serving as a gag, a portrait, or a closer look at the minute details described.
Every page is split in half horizontally. The top half is all that poetic text, handwritten and slightly tilted to the right, adding to the enthusiastic tumbling momentum of the paragraphs. The bottom halves of the pages are reserved for Bethea’s black-and-white renderings of the past. And some of these drawings look like memories themselves. There are bold outlines, thick and Sharpie-like, along many of the figures and landscapes, but the interiors of the drawings are filled out with a hazy Wite-Out wash and little natural traces, both frantic and perfectly in place, resembling the floaters in your field of vision. The art feels marinated in some underground tradition, but removed from any outright obvious inspirations. It’s warm, but not totally inviting, which is a positive. You could see someone saying the linemaking and portraiture in Francis Bacon are too expressive, too raw, too messy. You could also, rightly, see someone calling the book termite art.
In 1962, Manny Farber wrote that the best examples of what he coined “termite art” are when “the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.” Thirty eight years later, Henry Rollins sang, “Win, lose, or draw / I want it all.” Why not both? These feel like apt descriptions of the mindset behind Francis Bacon’s artwork and narrative.
In an era where reality itself is a commodity, being bought and sold, traded and dealt on the daily, maybe it’s vital that we have a memoir that so diligently sweats the small stuff. Bethea shows us that it’s the only thing that matters anymore. If you are serious about comics, the mesmerizing powerhouse Francis Bacon should be firmly on your radar. The world teems with poseurs, but Bethea is the genuine article.