Friday, December 18, 2009

Like a Dog

Like a Dog
by Zak Sally
Fantagraphics 2009

Garrett Martin: I hope this isn't a good place to start with Zak Sally. I've heard great things about his comics for years, but Like a Dog is the first I've read. It collects various stories and pieces that first appeared elsewhere over the last decade, starting with Sally's self-published late '90's series Recidivist. He's a fine artist, but the stories he tells are rarely all that interesting. The Recidivist material is probably the worst in the book, overly wordy and self-conscious short stories that alternate between aimlessness and unsuccessful stabs at moral or psychological insight. There's a story where a character dreams about a greatly powerful movie about sin, hell, and the devil; it's drawn really well, with great hell-ish imagery and fluid transitions between both panels and perspectives, but even within the framework of a dream the importance of the movie feels completely unbelievable and overwrought. And then it ends on a facile, predictable point. Like a Dog isn't commonly that annoying, but it's also not much better. What do you think?

Hillary Brown: I think the eight pages or so of commentary in the back by Sally serve as an excellent judo move to deflect any criticism one might level at the book. Unfortunately. He knows this stuff is self-indulgent and that his artistic troubles aren't necessarily interesting to anyone else and so on and so forth, and he tells you so at length. Reading all that really made me sympathize with him and like him, and in some ways it's better to have it at the end of the book, so you're left with a warm feeling rather than a wad of annoyance in your stomach, but not everyone's going to make it to the end or through all the text that resides there. And besides, if I wanted to be harsh, I'd point out that just because you know the work's flaws and acknowledge them and acknowledge that you know acknowledging them doesn't solve them or make up for them, well... it's true. The stories are still frequently boring and overly zine-y (new word!), relying too much on art and not enough on narrative while also, often, having far too much text. And we still wonder a little bit why any of it was worth publishing, not to mention having an inkling that it has more to do with his musical career than with his skills as a comics dude. Ouch. Um, that said, the art is mostly nice, and if I didn't sort of look back on my early-to-mid-90s zine reading and artistic interests at the time (dark stuff!) as embarrassing and better forgotten, the book would fill me with a better sort of nostalgia. I totally respect Sally's willingness to put himself out there, and I think anyone who's ever had artistic ambitions can certainly identify with his story at the end, but how much did I like this book? Not a whole lot.

GM: I'm pissed I didn't think of that zine comparison. That's exactly what the worst work in here feels like. It apologizes for itself while assuming its mere existence merits attention. If Sally isn't 100% behind the material, why would anyone else be? That sounds harsh, especially considering all the half-formed crap the France has pumped out on our site, but then that's not wrapped up in a twenty-dollar hardcover. And it's not like there's nothing worth reading in here. There's a "I can't believe how naive I was" vibe to "The Man Who Killed Wally Wood" that anyone can relate to, bolstered by a few clever stylistic nods Wood's work with EC. The Dostoevsky short is a fine little biographical sketch with a message that obviously reflects Sally's punk-influenced outlook on life. And yeah, everything's well-drawn. But even Sally's better comics don't connect with me. It's like the more personal they get the less I'm able to relate. That doesn't happen with other creators, but it does here. Why is that?

HB: Maybe neither of us has all that much in common with Sally. Or maybe we've just decided not to romanticize our own days in depressing poverty. You're right to point out "The Man Who Killed Wally Wood" as probably the highlight of the book. It has a strong narrative, it's well drawn without being too showy, and it keeps things nice and brief. I also like the Dostoevsky thing, but man... it's kind of long. Some people might say Feodor himself is the same way, but it ain't so. And speaking of Dostoevsky, here's another thing I want to bring up, that Sally doesn't really get into very much even in all the revelation at the end: does this book feel, like, weirdly Christian to you? Not only is there the Dostoevsky story, which is nothing if not an intervention of God and the kind of thing that converts people as an individual experience, but the Hell film thing you mentioned earlier, and I think there are more, too. I'm sure there are good comics that are also Christian, but this feels like a subliminal message or something that at least should have been talked about, no?

GM: There's nothing weird or off-putting about the occasional moral undertone or two. I don't see either strip putting forth much of a religious message, either openly or subliminally. I don't have a problem with religious works, though, as long as the message isn't out of a Chick tract. I'm sure Sally grew up in an environment shaped somewhat by Judeo-Christian morality, as it's pretty damn hard to grow up in America without that background, so it's no surprise that that could appear in his work. But nothing about Like a Dog feels even remotely like a sermon. This really bothers you?

HB: Eh, it kept nagging at the back of my mind, especially during the hell thing, which is admittedly influenced by Chick's stuff. I mean, I could totally be being oversensitive here, but I really kept wondering where that story in particular was going. Was it going to tell me I was going to hell? It could have been. It turns that, no, it mostly wasn't, but there's just an undertone of religiosity here that skeeved me out a little, the more so as it's unacknowledged. We haven't really talked about Chester Brown on here, but it's a similar thing going on in a lot of his work--I just find him more interesting. I'll be especially curious to see if any of our readers pick up on this tone in Sally's stuff though, or if my brain is totally off. That said, will/should most of them buy it? Eh...

GM: If you're a Sally completist, yeah, pick it up. Otherwise tread lightly.

My problem with that story was less the possible religious connotations (although if I recall it ends with a bit of "we're already in Hell" claptrap, right?) than the notion that a dream or a movie or especially a dream about a movie could somehow feel so important and vivid and meaningful. Movies can be powerful, sure, but that movie? With a literal goat-footed, Euro-psychiatrist bearded cartoon devil smiling like Evil Otto? I can disbelieve strongly enough for that to make any sense. The grade-school Sartre ending is just the carpet that ties that room of head-shaking together.

I'm a little proud that we somehow avoided mentioning Low. Oh shit...

HB: Because we want his comics work to stand on its own! Which, um, it doesn't really. 

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