The Reveries of E.A. Bethea

E.A. Bethea's comics read as detailed, confessional fever dreams. Her comics have the cadence of poetry, the text and images coalescing into commentaries on visual detritus, hilarious observations, charged and frequently sexual memories, and fascinating personal and cultural details. She's been fairly prolific of late, and Domino Books published a collection of her work titled Book of Days Daze. It is unfortunately printed on cheap newsprint instead of the thicker paper stock she's used in self-published comics like Faded Frankenstein and All Killer, No Filler. That said, those latter two comics had limited print runs, so the Domino edition is most people's best chance to read Bethea's work. Despite its limitations in this format, it is my choice for the single best single-issue minicomic/zine of 2018.

Faded Frankenstein, from 2016, is my favorite of her collections. Bethea ranges from nine to twelve panels per page, shakily hand-drawn as though she had no time to indulge in precision. There's a furious flow to her writing that makes it seem as though it's bursting out of her pen, each page a separate explosion of images and memories that demand to be expressed. Sometimes a page will have a single image. Other pages are illustrated text in an open-page format. Some of her stories have a conversational feel, as though she was confessing them to the reader at one of the hole-in-the-wall bars that she favors. Others are directly poetic, didactic or purely observational. All of them are dense and immersive, demanding a reader's full attention.

"Poydras St. Coffee Wharf" is a perfect example of Bethea's observations of a place leading to flights of fancy, as she imagines the bustling life of a wharf, from a woman unraveling her sarong so that stevedores could stare at her "mighty rump" to a boss unable to please his workers to a tugboat captain watching the world go by. It's a grimy, cross-hatched comic that acknowledges its own ramshackle character. "Odds And Ends" is just that: drawings of random things like thimbles, Sal Mineo, and a "prostitute's knife," juxtaposed against each other just like her observations and memories elsewhere in the comic. "Blue For Night, Amber For Dawn" is a great example of Bethea taking a concept (in this case, lighting effects for movies) and applying it to an ex-lover. Bethea comes to accept their parting by understanding it as both of them being part of "the same story," where "no one is ever left, really."

"Vigée Le Brun" is perhaps Bethea's greatest story, starting with thoughts about the titular portraitist for Marie Antoinette and turning to a memory of Daphne Jones, an African-American friend from elementary school. Jones disappeared as a young woman, and Bethea captures the haunting details, unspooling herself in time to imagine her life at the same time Daphne disappeared, and drawing a rose in her memory. Bethea has a particular talent for evoking visceral city images and bitter weather, making every piece feel uniquely lived in. Every piece is personal and introspective, as she's reached an age where she no longer knows what she knows and is questioning everything. "Uncorking" is about being with a lover and telling each other your dreams, facing uncertainty head on. Along the way, there are whimsical drawings of sea creatures (drawn while stoned), Donna Summer, and a tarred-and-feathered Walt Whitman.

Book of Days Daze is a collection that follows the entirety of her career, from 2003 through 2017. The forty-page comic includes all of the above stories, as well as many others. Bethea is originally from New Orleans, and so the pieces from her teenage years linger on pool halls called "Sport Palace," with memories of the sharks and the losers mingling with her own tactile recall of the "cone-shaped chalk." "Highballs and Lowballs" is a perfect example of how her thinking about bars mixes in with other subjects, like Hollywood star Veronica Lake becoming a barmaid to make ends meet when her film career ended. Bethea finds something romantic and redemptive in the stories of people down on their luck, trying to find their own inch of glory and dignity in a cruel and absurd world.

Bethea has a fascination with detritus, with flotsam and jetsam, with the discarded aspects of city life. It's where she shines as an illustrator, drawing donut signs, caskets, stickers while talking about faded love affairs, old ways of life going away, and good deals for coffins. She writes in the voice of Holden Caulfield, commenting on his slimy roommate Stradlater and his phoniness and then later embracing it. She imagines the coed that Stradlater slept with and her life, glowing after losing her virginity, "running the bases, alive with pleasure." She recalls the lives of the other people who lived in her New Orleans apartment building: a drunk who was an artist, a woman and her elderly mother, and a drug dealer. She illustrates key observations, like the fact that the artist's mattress never had sheets.

Each story is an independent unit, but there's an accumulation of details and dirt that piles up, as the reader learns to look at the world through Bethea's eyes and understands the privilege of being privy to her memories and the images she created out of them. There's beauty in all of that trash, especially in the way she arranges all of her images. Bethea is also just as quick to make a joke as she is to relate a wistful memory, and her full-page illustrations are usually the height of absurdity.

The cover of All Killer No Filler features Mickey Mouse flipping the bird in an appropriation/parody of New York magazine, declaring itself to be the "lesbian chic issue" that depicts "the outre' E.A. Bethea in her Rockaway cottage." This is her most recent work (from 2018), and Bethea essentially doubles down on everything. There's more reveries about sex, more city life, more history, and stranger images. "Sundae Thymes" begins with this couplet: "I hate the coarseness of the Floridian. I love the softness of a Branch Davidian." She warns the reader, "I'll tell you right now, this comic is going to veer off-course so jump ship or pull onto the shoulder now if you're a square." It's true. Bethea jumps from image to image and idea to idea at a whip-crack pace, and not just in this entry.

There's a reminiscence of being with her girlfriend on St. Mark's Place in New York, smoking cigarettes next to Iggy Pop with his wife. Thinking about "Lust For Life", Bethea gets down to the essence of her work: "I had sought arousal in books and films and girls." Her work is about that sense of being alive, of being embodied at points in time and fully embracing those physical sensations and taking in the memory. "Bit Rot" reveals a fear of being forgotten, of our digital imprint on the world being erased. "Tonight We Try Every Position" counters that with a statement of purpose in the present, of creating a universe of two where "the bed is our private island." For Bethea, her reveries draw no distinction between the purely carnal, the emotional or the intellectual, because they are all part of the same thing.

"The Olcott Hotel" is another piece that talks about people and places that disappear in New York, this one being a rundown, bohemian residential hotel where people like Tiny Tim and John Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman lived. It is symbolic of an older, seedier, more desperate New York that's now been gentrified out of existence. In Bethea's memory, which includes blurry maps, images of Columbus' death, and shitty rock stars, the Olcott still exists. "Jamaica Bay" gets similar treatment, as she zips back and forth in time, imagining bootleggers, old yacht clubs, sex on the beach, and rain that's about to come down on those enjoying a lazy day.

"Grab-Bag" gets at her sense of humor as she assembles a bunch of random panels and sticks them together, talking about head wounds, Elmer Bernstein, the arousing nature of a picture of raindrops, Nancy talking about Bill Withers, and being afraid of beaten up. This is both Bethea's rawest work as well as her most cartoony, because she's thinking more like a conventional cartoonist than a comics poet. "Today Is Monet's Birthday" gets at the heart of her obsession with art and culture, as she thinks about horror films, Popeye, various biographies and the New Orleans Saints, musing about why pleasurable things must end and how we got sold that bill of goods. There's an urge to avoid restraint, to embrace that "you're the best thing that ever happened to you."

It wraps up with a recapitulation of so many themes in "New York Love Poem", where her brain is "dreamy and thick with thought", wanting nothing more than to "kiss, and grab your ass at four in the morning with a walk sign blinking on the outskirts of my vision for me to stop and go at once." It's the convergence of memory and sensuous experience all at once, in between blinks of the eye. It's beauty and sex and desire and thought all at once, because what Bethea reveals over and over is that they can't really be separated, nor should they ever be. We are always visiting and remembering every place we've been, everything we've seen and experienced, every city we've lived in with its own horrible and wonderful qualities. Bethea shows us these dreams, memories, and even nightmares, and reminds us to remember them and not seal them away.