Review by New York Times Review
SOMETHING about comics attracts confessional work - really confessional work. Ever since the underground-comix era of the late 1960s and early '70s, when Justin Green poured his Catholic guilt into "Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary" and Robert Crumb gleefully skewered his own unsavory impulses, there's been a strain of cartooning that would be a vicious invasion of privacy if it weren't about its creators. Art Spiegelman's first book, "Breakdowns" (1977), combined the obsessions that have defined his work ever since: agonized personal revelations and savage interrogation of comics as a medium. (Look again at that title.) Now it's been rereleased, in an edition that pairs a facsimile of the original with along new autobiographical piece, in which Spiegelman presents painful anecdotes about his artistic evolution and his family relationships in the mock-comedic form of vintage newspaper funnies. Yet the new material feels muted and slightly too assured alongside the fuming, raw energy of the original "Breakdowns." In the 1970s, nearly all of Spiegelman's work was years ahead of art-comics trends, from the original version of "Maus" (a three-page sketch about Spiegelman's father's experiences during the Holocaust, which evolved into his two-volume magnum opus in the '80s) to "The Malpractice Suite," an extended mutilation of an old "Rex Morgan M.D." strip that becomes more convoluted and deranged with every panel. Spiegelman draws them all with a frantic intensity, as if his pen were about to slash through his drawing board and crack his table in half. Jonathan Ames has made a career of neurosis-baring in autobiographical essays and prose memoirs like "What's Not to Love?," and he covers the same territory in his first stab at the comics form. "The Alcoholic," drawn in smooth, chunky caricatures by Dean Haspiel (who has also illustrated some of Harvey Pekar's autobiographical comics), is supposedly fiction, but it concerns a character called "Jonathan A." who stumbles boozily through events that may sound familiar to readers of Ames's first-person essays. Unfortunately, the tales of adolescent sexual confusion, a receding hairline, digestive difficulty and a rather unexceptional 9/11 experience don't quite add up to a coherent story - the ending's quick epiphany feels forced and tacked on. For that matter, the way nubile young things keep throwing themselves at "Jonathan A." suggests an irritating self-aggrandizement behind his self-deprecation. ANOTHER artist in the confessional tradition is David Heatley, whose first book, "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down," seems to encompass every uncomfortable thought he's ever had about sexuality, race and his family. The section "Sex History" is just what it says it is: Heatley's nearly complete sexual history, from childhood games onward, documented in more than 700 tiny, doodly, wobbly-lined panels (although he draws a discreet veil over his relationship with his wife). It's riveting for prurient reasons, of course, but also for its apparently comprehensive honesty: he's perfectly willing to come off as a callow jerk. "Black History," a much longer application of the same technique to his relationships with every black person he's ever known, is a little more coy - he tries to make his internalized racism shrivel up by exposing it to harsh sunlight, but he's also trying to reassure us that he's down. (Padding the story with handwritten commentary on his favorite hip-hop records was probably a bad idea.) But the final third of the book, devoted to his family tree, centers on a beautifully unsettling mosaic of comic-strip jokes that seem to be at his parents' expense but inevitably end up ridiculing his own dealings with them. The book culminates in a lengthy piece about the birth of his children in the context of the generations before theirs: Heatley isn't the only one, he knows, who's ever heard a woman gasping and a newborn crying. David Heatley records his every uncomfortable thought, top, and Art Spiegelman revisits his artistic break-throughs with experimental comics in the late 1970s. Douglas Wolk is the author of "Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean." He writes frequently about comics for the Book Review.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 27, 2009]
Review by Booklist Review
With stints as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter under his belt, Ames tries his hand for the first time at the graphic novel. Beautifully illustrated in moody, expressionist panels by Haspiel, The Alcoholic tells the story of Ames' alter ego, Jonathan A., and his self-destructive love affair with the bottle. Jonathan's taste for liquor begins, as for many with his affliction, during illicit high-school parties. From there, his binges follow their own unique trajectory, keeping pace with an undistinguished college career and following him into an oddly successful livelihood as writer of hard-boiled detective fiction. Ames lends a quirky flavor to Jonathan's occasionally nightmarish narrative by eavesdropping on his relationship with his aging great-aunt; the perplexing estrangement of his best friend, Sal; a heartbreaking romance with a woman he refers to as San Francisco ; and a drunken midlife tryst with an octogenarian dwarf. Yet Jonathan's tale is ultimately a universal one, reflecting the struggles all of us have in navigating the tributaries of career and relationships while keeping personal demons at bay.--Hays, Carl Copyright 2008 Booklist
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Long before he was a novelist of some repute, Ames was a teenage drunk of fearsome abilities. As Ames relates in this autobiographical graphic novel, he got drunk for the first time at the age of 15 in 1979 and found he loved it. The years that followed might have been a vomit-soaked mess, but that didn't stop Ames from keeping on with it. Even later, once Ames gets sober and becomes a writer, he continues his romance with alcohol by having the hero of his mystery novels be a serious drinker. Told in flashback fashion (with occasional sardonic asides) from a particularly horrendous postdrinking blackout, Ames's novel is primarily, and admittedly, a self-obsessed narrative of self-destructive behavior, with a particular emphasis on bad breakups and sexual misbehavior. The insular narrative is given drive by Haspiel's characteristic slash and jab illustrating style. But with the exception of the hauntingly unresolved story of Ames's painfully fraught childhood friendship with Sal, his original drinking partner, this is standard-issue graphic confessional, enlivened by the occasional bit of debauchery. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review
Rarely does a collaboration produce a graphic novel of such literary and artistic merit. Ames (Wake Up, Sir!, 2004, etc.) has distinguished himself as both a novelist and an essayist/journalist with a confessional intimacy and self-deprecating humor that sometimes blurs the line between memoir and fiction. He has found his artistic match in Haspiel, who brought a revelatory new dimension to the graphic memoirs of Harvey Pekar (The Quitter, 2006). Here, the whole is even better than the anticipated sum of its parts, with Ames exploring darker depths than he has in previous work, matched by Haspiel's noir-ish black-and-white illustrations, which make the lacerating, brutally funny story of a lovesick, self-destructive writer come alive on the page. With a protagonist named Jonathan A., the narrative invites the reader to identify the fictional novelist with his creator, though the string of mysteries penned by A. don't match the literary output of Ames. Yet it matters little what of this is "true" in the factual sense--the drugged-out debauchery, the coming-of-age sexuality, the opening tryst with an elderly woman that launches a series of flashbacks--for the truth of art rather than autobiography provides the richness here. In the wake of September 11, the self-absorbed narrator finds revelation outside himself: "It's perhaps too apt a metaphor, but collectively man was like a giant alcoholic--he knew better but he couldn't help but destroy himself and everything around him." The protagonist's attempts to come to terms with the tragedy as well as his addictions include cameos by President Bill Clinton and (hilariously) Monica Lewinsky. If the dinner with the latter never happened, it should have. There's also an orgy instigated by students at the school where the writer attempts to find refuge, and where he discovers that five women can't help him forget one. And there's a tender undercurrent throughout of a boyhood friendship complicated by suppressed homosexuality. Could be the most compelling and provocative work from either collaborator. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.