Y’know, it really does seem like just last week I mentioned the surprising paucity of first-person perspective comics - oh yeah, it was just last week. Still not a genre that you see more than once in a while. Probably best in small doses. Point-of-view is used sparingly in the cinema for a good reason, that reason being that it can be rather distracting if done more than once in a while. For emphasis.
It also represents a significant formal challenge for the cartoonist. Wouldn’t you know! Sitting down with this week’s book, Caroline Cash’s PeePee PooPoo #420 (sigh), I was confronted with one of the most ingenious uses of the device I’ve seen in many a moon. “The Walk” is only five pages long: a memorable stroll around Cash's Chicago neighborhood over the course of an afternoon and an evening. It’s got everything you’d want from a night on the town - a trip to the bar and a conversation with a grating boor, a ride on the CTA, a climactic McDonald's run.
I am tickled pink by the cover to this comic, a note-perfect pastiche of the linework and design of early-to-mid Eightball. Confrontational, cheerily parodical. The previous issue of PeePee PooPoo, #69 (sigh), came emblazoned with a dead-on Crumb pastiche. Questions of influence often seem especially acute in comics, where a cartoonist can put what was formative to them at their fingertips for all the world to see. The generation that came of age in the late '80s and early '90s cast a long shadow over subsequent decades. Seems like I was just talking about that too, at some point in the last couple weeks.
Despite all my verbiage, there’s an insouciance to Cash’s work that seems to work against that kind of critical fussing. The real lineage for a suite of short stories like this lies in the canon of comics ragamuffins, those brave souls willing to portray themselves in their most feral state, for the edification of the likes of you and I. Certainly, Ed Brubaker’s Lowlife marks a constellation in the dirtbag firmament, as does the self-flagellation of the likes of Joe Matt and Chester Brown. Of course, there’s always something a bit self-serving there: the aforementioned instinct towards mortification as a flavor of egoism.
But then there’s the obvious fact that, whether or not she’s a ragamuffin, Cash also portrays herself—portrays her comics avatar, that is—as a confident figure, world-weary and not without some degree of charm. She knows the people in her neighborhood. She loses a bit of momentum to smoking pot, on occasion, but in the immortal words of Homer, who doesn’t? She carries herself, in other words, as a supremely powerful townie dyke.
The problem is, Cash is really good at this whole drawing thing. While not precisely aping, there’s nevertheless a relentless sense of evocation. Take “Tax Season”, f’rinstance, the centerpiece of the issue. A short story about doing your taxes. On the face of it, the most normcore experience possible, hardly the stuff of edgy indie comics. More grist for Dave Berg’s mill. Except, this is a much more interesting strip than the subject matter might lead you to believe. Paying taxes in the United States has evolved into a truly, profoundly unpleasant experience, humiliating and persnickety in equal measure. Cash cuts to the heart of the matter in the fashion of fellow Chicagoan Ivan Brunetti, with a variation on that perfect, worried-over precision of those first few pitch-black issues of Schizo. You know, from before he thought it best to publish comic books the size of Mosaic tablets.
In genuinely good news that has nothing really to do with comic books, however, the IRS has recently announced a pilot program for an independent e-file system. That’s not a joke, that’s a true and factual news item that broke a just a few days ago. Maybe this is the last year we’ll have to descend into a Piskoresque Red Room to knife fight a civil servant in an executioner’s hood. Maybe? I’m sure they’ll figure out some way to make it still suck.
Anyway. The book got one hearty belly laugh out of me. I won’t give it away, but it’s the scene with the meatball sub.
There’s a part of me that wonders if that’s enough, for a review - to name a bunch of stylistic referents and influences and call it a day. I worry when I find myself dropping too many names over the course of a review: is that simply shortchanging an artist by placing them in an endless game of context with everyone who came before? It begins to resemble less independent artistic impulse and more a series of nesting Matryoshka dolls, one engulfing the other all the way to the center, a teeny tiny Yellow Kid wearing a giant canary smock emblazoned with the words Gee! Don’t blame me for any of dis.
But then, says the angel on my shoulder, you’re not the one who devoted a page in your one-person anthology series to a series of drawings where you're climbing up a mountain in a dream that looks a little bit like Louis Riel, albeit with a big head instead of a little head. On her own, in what appears to be her native line, there’s a delicacy that reminds me of the almost near-certainty that Cash has been inundated with manga from a young age, enough so as to form a kind of bedrock for anyone younger than 35. Just as Dan DeCarlo’s Archie was the bedrock for so many before that cutoff. That language has nestled into our own storytelling tradition, in a way that marks a genuine demarcation line in comics history. It’s generational, just like that Simpsons reference I made a few paragraphs back.
You know who didn’t grow up surrounded by manga? Dan Clowes. Imagine if he’d been able to read Berserk as a child, just how different the history of comics could have been.
I like Cash's use of screentone, another practice I think has been partially resurrected due to the influence of manga. Now it’s done with computers, I believe, because no one manufactures the plastic film they used to use, or the dry transfers, or whichever it was John Byrne used for Namor.
PeePee PooPoo #420 (sigh) is an attractive book - I find myself flipping back and forth and gawking at different parts. It has that same effect as so many of the '80s and '90s alt comics, presenting a complete object whose every aspect has been painstakingly crafted by hand. I miss the prevalence of those kind of comics. Mostly, I just miss the periodical alt comic, so it’s nice to come across someone still dedicated to the old ways. Let’s meet up around here again for the inevitable PeePee PooPoo #666, which I’m sure will look like an issue of ACME Novelty Library. Since we’re flipping the bird to famous Chicago cartoonists and all.