W.H. Auden once dubbed the 20th century the Age of Anxiety, but it's beginning to look as if a lot of people may not be up anymore to the sustained psychological tension that's the hallmark of anxiety (you're anxious because you're afraid of something you can't quite name, but at least you're fighting it), and that we've descended into the Age of Depression, where the active tensions of anxiety dissolve into passive darkness and bleak affectlessness, and Prozac begins to take Valium's pride of place in Dr. Feelgood's bag of magical tricks.
Pop artists have, for a while now, been registering this shift as much as the pharmaceutical industry has (though they may not be reaping quite the profits): the alternative film movement of the 1980s and '90s, kicked off by sex, lies, and videotape and the really depressed James Spader, gave rise to countless film portraits of befuddled melancholy (most played by Eric Stoltz, if you recall); '90s grunge was basically musicians screaming their way out of black chasms of sadness (genuine or faked); and even a magazine called No Depression was founded to chart alt.-country bands like Uncle Tupelo and Wilco, whose leader, Jeff Tweedy, contracted a case of depression so bad that he needed to be hospitalized a couple of years ago.
That depression would infiltrate "comix," or the graphic novel, if you will, is no surprise, given that so many of the new comix come from the ground zero of pop culture—that is, from suburban American high school kids who've graduated from doodling on their math folders to illustrating fanzines to writing full-length autobiographical narratives spelling out how strange and sad it feels just to be alive. Time was when this sort of abjection was the province of exhausted Russian cynics living underground, or Algerian nihilists killing Arabs on the beach for no reason at all, but the depression caused by existential alienation, unlike wealth, has dependably trickled down to the masses. And so the appearance of a graphic novel like John Porcellino's Perfect Example gives us the chance not only to note the trickle-down, but to see how an American pop medium, in the right hands, can transform, democratize and enliven an old idea.
Perfect Example is so pretensionless that it feels odd to put it in such austere cultural company; in fact, the only cultural reference points that the book alludes to are '80s bands like REM, the Cure and Soul Asylum, as well as the cabal of bands—like Hüsker Dü (one of whose songs supplies the book's title)—that recorded for the SST label. That music, however, is pretty smart stuff. It provides a terrific soundtrack—replete as it is with perplexed misery and mystified longing—for Porcellino's autobiographical narrative (called both a "graphic novel" and a "memoir" on the book jacket) of the spring and summer of 1986, when he applied to college, graduated from high school, went to parties and on road trips, fell into dangerous suicidal moods, and took some extraordinarily touching if timorous steps into the world of romantic intimacy.
The drawing in Perfect Example is so primitive and kindergarten-like that I sometimes couldn't tell if Porcellino can't draw—if he may as well sit on the school steps and draw "ligers" with Napoleon Dynamite—or if he's doing an extraordinarily accurate rendering of a little kid's sketching. Whatever the case, the results are convincingly and heartbreakingly innocent: the 17-year-old John is often drawn as if he were maybe 10, which only reinforces the pathos involved in his initiation into the fearsome realms of adulthood. What further reinforces the pathos is that Porcellino recounts his almost embarrassingly timid fears with an absolutely vulnerable sincerity. The first chapter, for instance, details a trip John takes with his friends to a Soul Asylum concert, which they can't get into because it's a 21-and-over show. Not wanting to blow off the night, his friends decide to buy some booze and get drunk, but John is too afraid, and when he refuses the bottle—much to the what's-the-big-deal consternation of his friends—he plunges into a depression so deep that he has an out-of-body experience (captured in images that recall the woodcut novels of German expressionist Franz Masereel). Almost the same thing happens whenever he approaches another precipice of adulthood: making out with a girl, he stops in the middle and trudges home, dark with sexual confusion. Even worse is the night he's asked by a male friend to watch the July 4 fireworks: the friend ends up bringing along a girl—a girl John has a crush on—and making out with her while John looks on. John goes into a tailspin: "The next thing I knew I was standing on my front porch at home—I had decided to kill myself."
The innocence of John's emotions, the childlike drawings, the searing suicidal leanings: the combination makes for a reading experience that makes us feel protective, but not in a sentimental way. Porcellino is a pure folk artist—he genuinely, "honestly" wants to express his feelings, his free-floating sadness, his perplexity at being young and utterly at sea, without manipulating the reader or getting all fancy in the expression. The book's bravery is in having the courage to be a wimp, and to not even make the implicit argument that he's speaking for anyone other than himself. But it turns out he does. Perfect Example is a tender little yelp of a book, like some cry you hear echoing in the bedroom of a suburban house as you walk past. As John Irving once wrote, sorrow floats—everywhere.
PERFECT EXAMPLE BY JOHN PORCELLINO; DRAWN AND QUARTERLY. PAPERBACK, 144 PAGES, $16.95.
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