Falling

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The redemptive power of produce.

I am completely satisfied with this comic. The fruits, the vegetables, the script, the visual juxtapositions, and the layers of symbols. The story is more hopeful than some of Bonnie Jo’s work; that’s why I used the mason jars in the last panel, even though they were destroyed by a fire. For that narrator, they were an aspect of home, and even though her house burned down, she’s still creating this sense of family out of these men, so that a camper, a garage, a tent, and a garden become a home.

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Bringing Belle Home

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So, yeah, I imagine Belle looks a lot like Kristen Chenoweth.

This one was hard! There aren’t a lot of visual symbols to work with besides Thomssen’s perception of Belle as a physical being, and cutting down to the bones of the story required a brutal touch. There’s love and there’s domestic violence and there’s terrible childhood memories and there’s self-medication. It’s about a guy who tries so hard to love but he can’t seem to get it right. She tries to tell him that she’ll never really let him love her, but she’ll keep taking from him. He can’t hear it anyway. They’re both so out of touch. They’re both broken beyond repair.

I spent way too long drawing those liquor bottles in panel 2. The Cuervo isn’t mentioned in the story but the other brands are, and I needed one more bottle to fill the panel properly. The juxtaposition of the “We can change” quote in panel 4 and the implication in the story about Belle keeping the change and never tipping the bartender was unintentional, but now it pleases me. The image in the last panel could have also been Belle sitting in Thomssen’s living room with a broken window behind her and the snow blowing in. She’ll still be wearing canvas shoes with no socks and Thomssen’s sweater with no coat because she doesn’t know how to protect herself from the cold.

Winter Life

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If you count Stuart and Pauline’s mom, Mary Beth, who likes everyone, it’s a love octagon.

Loneliness, or fear of loneliness, is probably the number one reason people make regrettable choices when it comes to marriage. People like Mary Beth figure that out, and accept the loneliness rather than make the same mistake twice. People like Harold double down on their mistakes, try not to think about it, and commit ever more intently to a course of action. Harold knows that he will never leave Trisha, even though she’s a sloppy drunk who’s in love with his best friend, even though there’s a girl who loves him more and is probably better for him waiting at the farm store. He’s made his choice and he won’t hurt Trisha. And then there are the Trishas of the world, marrying in haste, repenting at leisure, and not really having any degree of self-reflection about it.

And Pauline, of course, will probably always be lonely. Why didn’t she say something to Harold before he married Trisha? Fear of rejection, right?

For a while I had trouble pulling visual symbols out of the story; I didn’t want to draw Harold and Pauline kissing in the farm store. The best image is the memory of Harold and Pauline walking home in the blizzard, holding hands and still wearing their skates. Lucky me, I didn’t read the passage correctly the first time and spent quite a while drawing their skated slung over their shoulders. But they wore their skates back to Pauline’s house, where Harold has been living because his dad is not OK, and took them off in the mudroom. Ultimately, the story is called “Winter Life” and all Harold is thinking about is the spring, even though for Pauline the most important moment was the winter. But Harold loves his garden the most, he can’t wait for growing season to begin, and this year he’s going to get a jump on it with cold frames. He’s shopping for ice melt. What happens in winter stays in winter.

Family Reunion

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I wasn’t sure if I was really going to draw that final panel, but I drew it.

As I recall, there are a couple of pieces of American Salvage that appear in Bonnie Jo’s second novel, Once upon a River, which is apparently being made in a movie even as we speak, and the events of “Family Reunion” are a big part of Once upon a River, which I guess means that in short order we’re going to have a feature film in which a teenage girl shoots off the tip of her rapist’s weapon.

I guess America is seriously ripe for this kind of honesty in cinema. If more rapists got their dicks shot off, maybe there would be fewer rapists in the world.

It’s really only a couple of pixels, but it did seem like a kind of far-out thing to draw. Then again, so are gutted deer and spit roast pigs. And this is the 4th comic in a row that features a gun.

In the story, Marylou finally recognizes the violence that was done to her through the metaphor of a gutted deer. The word “rape” doesn’t appear in the story, and there’s no particular recollection of the actual event, although she describes the details of the moments before and after. The pig makes a vile, but apt metaphor as well.

Selective mutism is a not completely uncommon response to trauma among children. There’s a certain degree of power in willful silence. The way Marylou experiences the world, jumping back and forth between current and past events, is also a result of trauma. In illustrating the story, I jumbled up the images, quotes, and captions, too. Everything is mixed up. But Marylou has a moment of clarity at last. It’s a satisfying ending, the kind of justice that we so rarely see in the real world.

The Burn

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It’s a true comedy of errors, but he really shouldn’t have run that red light. Never a good idea.

Whew! This is my favorite story in the book so I wanted to do it justice. Do you see how lovingly the seeping wound in panel 4 has been illustrated? That little white poof between the women in panel 6 is a cat if you zoom way in.

I ended up cutting out the first 5 pages of the story, which can be summarized as, “Jim is having a particularly frustrating Friday night.” That allowed me to start with what, in my opinion, is the linchpin moment of the story: when Jim sets himself on fire. Because women are confusing and he can’t get one and he’s so sure that having one is like having a direct line to god, which makes his inability to score that much more frustrating and emasculating.  It’s ridiculous. And then he sets himself on fire and it all comes out into the open. Everything about it makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time.

The use of water in the story is really nice too, as a counterpoint to fire and as a symbol of healing and compassion. There’s a lot to analyze here, if you want to write an English paper. I just used some of my favorite moments and motifs.

The Solutions to Brian’s Problem

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Here’s another word of advice: if you are a normal human being, you should never, ever Google any combination of the words “12 gauge shotgun” and “suicide.”

A pretty easy text to comic-ize. The only real issue was deciding which 2 of the 7 list items to combine into 1 to fit the 6-panel format. Math! I guess this story would also be considered experimental, in the sense that it really is a list of possibilities. Some of them offer pros and cons. For some of them, the pros and cons are obvious without being pointed out.

It’s not just relevant to drugs: it’s about anyone who’s ever stayed in a terrible relationship with a terrible person because love causes you to see people as you wish them to be, or as you think they could be, or they way they used to be, rather than who they are right now, and who they are likely to be in the future. It’s easier to keep doing the same thing than it is to change. But Brian’s tolerance is crazy high. The line in the book is, “last week your wife stabbed you in the chest while you were sleeping, that she punches you, too, giving you black eyes that you have to explain to the guys at work.” She stabbed him in the chest! (I presume it was with a steak knife.) But his instinct is still to protect her from the rest of the world, if not from himself.

There’s another story in American Salvage that reminds me of this one, “Bringing Belle Home,” where the guy will still do anything for the girl, even though she’s cruel to him, even though she doesn’t even seem to want him anymore. Love makes you crazy. That’s the only explanation.

The Inventor, 1972

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I had the fog in panel 1 perfect, and then I accidentally deleted the layer, and just couldn’t make the fog look perfect again. But it’s supposed to be foggy in panel 1.

From the moment I took on this project, I wondered how I was going to draw the homemade scuba gear, which seemed like such a memorable symbol, but on rereading the story, I felt the homemade scuba gear was less important. The girl in the story believes Uncle Ricky was a real angel, but he was a kid who gave his friend a homemade tattoo and also made his own fireworks. He was no angel. Also, he tested his homemade scuba gear alone, at night. He wasn’t as smart as he thought.

There’s a lot going on in “The Inventor, 1972,” and I had to cut a lot out, particularly the man’s fraught relationship with his father, and the fact that he is referred to as “the hunter” despite the fact that his hand injury leaves him unable to shoot, and the scene that depicts him trying to hunt as a younger man shows him failing to take the shot. I thought there was some ambiguity about the car accident. The man keeps saying that he didn’t see the girl, but then he thinks about how happy he was when he hit her because he thought she was a deer, and then he recalls how she looked emerging from the fog. So, did he hit her on purpose, mistaking her grace for that of a deer? Or was it all too fast to be anything other than an accident? How culpable is he? He sort of hopes that he will go to jail—his situation is so bad that jail would be an improvement, to his mind—but his guilt is mixed up with so many events that it’s hard to say how guilty he is now.

In the story, the girl sees the man’s hunting license pinned to his jacked when he approaches, but when I Googled “Michigan hunting license 1972,” all the hunting licenses from that era clearly read “display in middle of back.” Having never hunted at all, let alone in Michigan 2 years before I was born, I didn’t know what to make of that, so I just left the license out, since the girl can’t read it anyway. Also, it’s supposed to be the back of his hand that’s burned, and I ended up drawing the front of his hand burned.

At its heart, I think this story is about 2 people who don’t know each other at all, even though both of their lives have been indelibly affected by the death of another character and they’re clearly connected and could help each other. I’d like to think that the girl’s parents find out that he was the person who hit her with his El Camino, but also the one who went running for help, and that they would, naturally, recognize him from their own childhood, and that somehow he gets reintegrated into the family’s life and becomes a subsequently less broken person as a result. I think it’s meant to be redemptive.

This comic took almost an entire week to write and draw, but in my defense, I was at Tucson Comicon for 3 of those days, 4 if you count picking up my media badge and skulking around the load-in on Thursday. Usually I write the script before I start drawing, but I knew that panel 1 should just be this moment of the girl lying on the ground with the man kneeling in front of her, so I just started drawing and figured out the text as I went along. Maybe it would have been more coherent if I had worked it all out first.