Saturday, June 02, 2007

Drawing from Life #1

Drawing from Life #1, March 2007, Image Comics
by Jim Valentino

To paraphrase Dickens, they are the best of comics, and they are the worst of comics. I’m talking about autobiographical comics, which are, in my opinion, the most challenging genre in the graphic sequential storytelling medium. On one hand, an autobiographical comic book is the easiest to produce since the artist is so intimately familiar with the subject matter, which has conveniently already written itself, sans any melodramatic exaggerations that would make the work more entertaining for third party audiences. On the other hand, the presumption of an autobiographical comic is that their creators lead a life worth reading and, since such compelling stories are also usually controversial, the artist must breach his privacy to truly capture an audience, featuring some of the most vulnerable moments of his life. Is the ease of this genre really worth its personal liability? Either way, the effort is therapeutic for all parties; the creator fulfills his need to purge certain thoughts and memories via his creativity and skill, and the consumer fulfills his need to pry into someone else’s life via the convenience of art. Everybody’s happy!

So why does Jim Valentino, in his latest Image autobiographical anthology Drawing from Life, seem so miserable . . .?

Honestly, I wouldn’t have purchased this book had I not read about it in Comic Shop News first, which highly praised Valentino for his creative prowess. Therefore, as a wanna-be artist that has contemplated autobiographical projects in the past, I thought I should check out the genre in the hands of a professional, to see if I would ever have the chops to contribute. In short, misery loves company! Like the dichotomy of the genre itself, Valentino’s efforts are both encouraging and daunting, equally capturing the shocking and the mundane with an unfiltered vigor that manages to intimidate potential artists with its sheer effortless skill yet persuade ambitious storytellers to mine their life for similar down-to-earth hallmarks that could entertain a general audience, as well. In twenty-four pages, Valentino recounts eight different life experiences, ranging from the realm of domesticity and parenting to artistry and the comics profession, which denotes that the most charming aspect of the Image founder’s narrative skills is his succinctness. Where some artists would have spent pages building anticipation or exaggerating minutia to engage the audience, Valentino finds a pacing that caters to the single-page strip as well as the five-page short. In drawing from his life, “Kid,” as his friends seem to call him, doesn’t take too much away from mine – so everybody wins!

However, Drawing from Life is more than a mere autobiographical comic book. When examined, it’s a tutorial for the modern black and white independent format, utilizing crosshatching and page layout with the nostalgia of Scott McLeod’s Zot! and brushwork and heavy contrast with the pop vitality of Miller’s Sin City. Valentino’s work isn’t perfect – his lines sometimes betray the splintered tip of a Micron pen and his speech balloons aren’t always void of the guidance lines he penciled before the final lettering phase, but, considering the context, these quirks contribute the susceptibility of the issue as a whole. This kind of production value would be unforgivable in an issue of All-Star Batman and Robin (though many would claim that ASBR is the mainstream equivalent of such arguable shoddiness), but when the story is about a struggling comic book artist, this breach of the proverbial fourth wall actually grabs the reader and pulls him in deeper. “Look!” Valentino unwittingly proclaims, “These plights and misadventures are real! See me sitting at my drawing board on page 14? I’m sitting at the drawing board right now!” The comic book becomes an interactive aspect and personified supporting character, which is a feat many artists cannot respectfully pull off. Jim Valentino does it by accident, that’s how good he is.

So, have you ever had an elephant stomping on your front door? Have you ever wandered into a beachside war protest and had tear gas shot in your face? When’s the last time you got high with your friend’s grandmother, or were nominated for an award you cared little about? Valentino’s experiences are relatable but incredible, balancing the pressures of his son’s first day at school with the disappointments of a mediocre royalties check through the unfettered life of an honest artist – and when I say “honest,” I mean the honest he asserts with himself. Valentino isn’t a hero or a victim, archetypes that the novice or casual autobiographer would easily seize, but rather merely documents his thoughts about his best of times and his worst of times – a feat so few of us can accomplish in the moment, that I can’t help but admire any artist that can do so in a comic book after the fact. It’s just too easy to be too hard on yourself!

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