Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #147: Welcome to the Dahl House by Ken Dahl

If Fox News wanted to create a caricature of the left-wing "alternative" cartoonist, they'd be hard-pressed to beat the way Ken Dahl presents himself (and his alter-ego Gordon Smalls) in this 2008 collection. I'm not exactly criticizing: Dahl is who he is, and he can present himself however he wants. But it was amusing to read through this book and tick off all of the boxes: self-identified punk, getting too old to skateboard, drifting and working at dead-end jobs, obsessed with the correct style for a minor self-indulgent artform (zines), anti-military, anti-war, anti-war-hysteria, teetering between anger that cute girls won't give him the time of day and a semi-feminist realization that mindset is profoundly creepy, and huffy about how badly he was treated after actually stealing something. (He's even from Hawaii, like the President they hate!)

Welcome to the Dahl House collects strips from the decade leading up to 2007, but more than half of the strips here are from the 2005-2007 period: the darkest Bush years, with two foreign wars of choice raging and terror hysteria at its highest shriek. So it's easy to see how an aging underemployed guy -- working as a short-order cook, I think, at barely minimum wage -- could despair about the world and rage at all of the things he hates. And Dahl -- as I understand it, he also is or was or sometimes still is Gabby Schulz, though I don't really get the distinction -- is honest and clear in his comics, combining an expressive '90s alt-cartoonist look (a little Bob Fingerman here, a little Peter Bagge there, a clump of Dan Clowes over yonder) with wordy but incisive ideas about the things he clearly really cares about.

The Gordon Smalls stories are the best pieces here, since they get Dahl to separate his story from himself -- they operate a bit like Kevin Huizenga's Glenn Ganges character, in that Gordon is clearly an aspect of Dahl, or a person who feels and cares the way Dahl does himself. (This is my assumption: Smalls may actually be based on someone else, or a purely fictional character. But he feels connected to the same concerns and fears as the "Dahl" character and voice in the other stories, so I feel confident in that assumption.)

Welcome to the Dahl House is not explicitly political (except for one story about flying on 9/11/2002), but it is the collected stories of a man who was angry and disgusted at the world around him (and, somewhat, himself) for these years. It's also something of a time capsule, for all that it's not quite a decade old: that particular variety of jingoistic hysteria burned itself out (and most of America seems to want to pretend it never happened, or that they weren't part of it), and even Dahl's obsession with zines is clearly from the time when the Internet hadn't quite conquered everything. It does encapsulate what this one guy -- as representative as you want to make him -- cared enough to cartoon about for ten rocky years in American history.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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