John Pistelli's Reviews > It Never Happened Again: Two Stories

It Never Happened Again by Sam Alden
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bookshelves: comics, twenty-first-century

[Disclosure: The publisher sent this book to me, thinking I would make a good audience for it given my review of their previous offering, True Swamp: Choose Your Poison.]

These two stories are deliberately stripped bare. Reproduced from Sam Alden's pencils, the drawings have the air of sketchbook pages, contours and gestures caught in the moment. But, as with all arts of simplicity and spontaneity, a careful structure supports the seeming improvisation. Alden paces his stories across mostly two-panelled pages and works largely with cinematic repetitions of shot-distances and camera angles, both speeding readers through scenes by holding the backgrounds steady while also forcing us to notice small changes and differences across panels. Alden is a natural at comics storytelling--both stories in It Never Happened Again demand to be read quickly even as they repay careful and repeated attention.

The first story, the nearly-wordless "Hawaii 1997," recalls a vacation on which our young protagonist encountered a mysterious girl in a mysterious landscape. The best passage in this story comes when she challenges him to a game in which they try to leap on the heads of each other's shadows. The characters become outlined white figures scurrying across their own scratchy black shadows--the story turns abstract, a play of light and darkness, a form of poetry only comics can create. The story ends up turning on a theme that might be summed up as Platonic love; that is, the girl and the whole Hawaiian experience become in retrospect an irrecoverable fount of beauty and meaning, the source, perhaps, of Alden's art. That this is a standard plot of idealistic male desire going back to, well, Plato and reaching its gendered apotheosis in the poetics of Dante will no doubt seem "problematic" to some critics who hope for more politically progressive aesthetics from emerging media like comics and the Internet (the story originally appeared on Tumblr). Luckily for Alden, I'm largely not that kind of critic!

The second story, "Anime," is more realist in narrative mode, a character study of Janet, a young Japanophile in a dead-end job in a dead-end town who hopes with the plangency of somebody out of Chekhov or Dubliners that things will all come good if she can only escape to the Japan of her dreams. It would be easy to mock the naivete of such a character, and even easier nowadays to rail against her with mind-numbing moralism for "cultural appropriation," etc., and Alden does carefully show that Janet is in love with a country in her mind, in ways that make her insensitive to the realities of both her everyday surroundings and of Japanese culture itself. But the story ends on an ambiguous but hopeful note, one that shows Janet perhaps finding her redemption not in a fantasized Japan but in the labor of truly getting to know another culture and another language in all its complexity. The desire for mere escape is chastened in this story, but the desire for an encounter with otherness is not. As for the aesthetics of the piece, it is in structure a classical short story, as my comparisons to Joyce and Chekhov indicate. Its storytelling mode is the same as that of "Hawaii 1997," but the drawing seems more detailed, as if to emphasize this story's greater social and psychological realism. There is an almost too-showy but undeniably admirable eight-page set piece in which Janet's trip to Japan is narrated via nothing more than the view out the airplane window.

Taken on their own terms, these stories are superb. How much affection one feels for them comes down to taste. Without wishing to take away from Alden's achievement, I'd like to end with one observation. As someone who grew up on '90s Vertigo comics and their ilk, which were perhaps inordinately writer-driven, I still have an admittedly personal preference for comics of greater density, greater conceptual power. Sometimes it seems to me that indie comics are afflicted with some of the same malaise as MFA prose fiction, treating personal experience rendered with lyrical simplicity as sufficient unto itself. And sometimes it is, but still--if "Anime" is the stronger piece in this book, it's because of its approach to larger and more nuanced themes.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
August 29, 2014 – Shelved
August 29, 2014 – Shelved as: comics
August 29, 2014 – Shelved as: twenty-first-century

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