Sunday, October 17, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 256 (10/17) -- Drinking at the Movies by Julia Wertz

One of the great trials for any narrative artist is the leap from shorter forms to longer ones. Some short story writers never manage to finish a novel; many more emit novels that aren't worth reading. The same problems strike comics creators, but there lengths are slipperier -- a "full-length" graphic novel can be as short as 48 pages (maybe even shorter, as a European album), and the defining unit of measurement is the page, not the paragraph. [1] But, still, there are shorter stories and longer ones, and one hundred and eighty pages of comics is definitely on the "long" side.

Drinking at the Movies is proclaimed to be Julia Wertz's first full-length graphic novel, but it's really not all that different from her (now semi-dormant) online comic, The Fart Party -- a worm's-eye view of one young woman's life, complete with bad jobs, worse apartments, too much drinking, and all of the aimless, undirected energy of people in their mid-20s. Drinking is structured as the story of one year, but it's not all that structured: it begins with Julia at the age of 24, early in 2007, and her decision to move from San Francisco to Brooklyn, and then moves through the rest of 2007 and then all of 2008, as she settles in to her new city and starts (mostly offstage) to build a career as a cartoonist and freelance writer.

Drinking at the Movies, like The Fart Party, is made up entirely of short strips [2] -- not all single pagers, but rarely longer than five pages -- on different aspects of her life in Brooklyn: jobs, apartments, friends, drinking, misanthropy, comics, health care, family. It's not really different from the two collections of Fart Party strips (the first of which I reviewed for ComicMix), actually. That's not a bad thing -- the two Fart Party collections are gleefully bohemian, rudely loudmouthed, and unflinchingly honest collections of slices of life -- but Drinking is aiming to be more unified and coherent, and it doesn't really achieve that.

The title gives the perfect example: this is the story of the period in which Julia Wertz, apparently, came to the realization that she has a drinking problem -- but that realization, and most of the steps leading up to and away from it are downplayed here or kept out of these pages entirely. Wertz still wants to tell lots of stories about all of the different aspects of her life, instead of telling one long story about one piece of her life. And she does that well -- all of the short strips here are entertaining -- but they become glib and surface-y when they come in such a rat-a-tat fashion, and it becomes clearer that Wertz needs to dig down deeper and push those five page stories out to ten or twenty, to really look at who she is and what she does and try to figure out why.

Autobiography is never as easy as it looks, and it's not for the faint of heart. Wertz has been fearless so far in showing her surface foibles and the day-to-day sadnesses and unpleasantnesses of her life -- but Drinking at the Movies shows that she still flinches when given the opportunity to write a longer story about something central and difficult in her life. She's still so very young, though, and has stared at so much of herself unflinchingly that I'm sure that those longer stories will come, in time.

[1] Comics creators are very unlike writers in this one way: they always know precisely how long the project they're working on will be. Writers can guess, but their publishers can always cheat, in either direction. But a comics page is a page is a page.

[2] And, in fact, several of the strips here appeared on Fart Party, and are still there -- this book really is, in all but name, Fart Party, Vol. 3.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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