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.

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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.

World of Gas

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I envy people with this kind of energy, but not people with 3 teenage sons.

Back in 1999, I felt pretty much the same about Y2K. What a lot of fuss. I worked that night; New Year’s Eve is a good time to make money. But people can always find something to get riled up about. There are still dirty dishes to wash at the end of the day. If you can’t identify with that, you won’t understand this story. The last panel could have been Susan washing dishes, but I drew dirty dishes for “My Sister Is in Pain” and it’s gross. Dishes are a pain and I have to do them at least twice a day. I love the idea of all the machines stopping for a while and people just shutting up.

That Pur-Gas logo looks sweet.

The Yard Man

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How could anyone fail to be charmed by an ermine?

As with last year’s “Daughters of the Animal Kingdom,” I knew that I’d have to only draw animals in this comic, but, as with “Children of Transylvania, 1983,” I knew I’d have to excise huge swaths of the story to fit it into 6 panels, especially if I was going to insist on making the animals the focus of each panel.

In “The Yard Man” we see one major theme of this book, which I categorize as, “Heteronormative Men Who Really Like Women but Aggressively Don’t Understand Women.” In Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, the main characters often seem crippled by a stunning lack of self-awareness, but in American Salvage the men tend to know who they are and what they want (love), they just don’t understand the people (women) they are trying to get that love from. Anyway, I’d call this story a little sad: Jerry and his wife are living apart by the end. Jerry still loves her, and he’d probably follow her if she asked him to, but she doesn’t ask, and he really, really, really wants to see that snake again.

I have to apologize for that snake. My picture does not do it justice. I probably should have drawn it as a red blur moving through the grass. Bonnie Jo reminded me that snake’s identity is meant to be a mystery, but the snake is not a symbol. It’s just a snake, she said. Pretty proud of that ermine, though.

As I told the Rabbit, I see both sides of the issue. The creatures are amazing. There is poetry to a wall full of honey, to an ermine returning to land where ermines have not been seen in years. But also, you can’t live like that, with bees inside. When I lived in Michigan, I had to help a friend remove bats from his house a couple times, and I had encounters with deer, snakes, and spiders. Never had any problems with honeybees, though, and I’ve never even seen a wild weasel. Once, in Kalamazoo, I was out in the woods. And you know how sometimes you’re walking in the woods and you step on a stick and it makes a loud crack and suddenly some deer, which you never even knew were there, jump out of the undergrowth? I had the opposite experience. I was standing quietly in the woods not noticing some deer walking along the ridge and one of them stepped on a stick and the crack startled me and I jumped a couple feet in the air. I could see the deer peering down the ridge looking at me like, “Isn’t that sad? Poor, dumb animal.”

The Trespasser

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Can’t imagine what Google must think of me after some of the queries I ran to get source images for this comic. The worst part is that I didn’t get any relevant results for “cum stained mattress” and had to improvise anyway. 

When I told the Fox that I was gearing up to write volume II of Bonnie Jo Campbell Comics, he told me that after I finished the first one I swore I would never do anything like that again. I literally have no recollection of saying that. It’s probably like having a baby, where your brain blocks out the level of pain you experienced so you’re not too terrified to do it again. I’m not terrified at all. After spending 300 hours drawing 8 pages for Linda Addison, an estimated 56 hours to draw 14 pages sounds like a cakewalk.

It seemed important to keep the style consistent between the 2 books, meaning I’m back to hand-lettering, which is very time consuming, but didn’t take as much time as I remember it taking. At any rate, I realize that even reverting to conventions like drawing most of the lines with a massive weight of 4 pixels and making people’s eyes look like tiny dots in any face that doesn’t take up the whole panel, I can’t revert entirely to the style in which I draw last year, because I learned so much in the process of drawing the first book that no matter what I do, the drawings are going to look better.

Another thing I noticed as I wrote the text was that my brain let go of the idea of summarizing. I’m not telling the story the way I did with “My Dog Roscoe.” I think this is Linda Addison’s influence, because everything she does is about poetry, including her prose. This comic seems to have more poetry to it than the early comics in the last set. It’s about “The Trespasser” but it doesn’t exactly tell you everything that’s in “The Trespasser.” It seeks to communicates the feelings and theme of “The Trespasser.”

To my mind, it’s a story that functions through juxtaposition. There are 2 girls who never meet in person, but who are heavily influenced by the artifacts of each other’s lives, and we’re forced to compare and contrast the characters while they are comparing and contrasting themselves, so that dictated the layout of the comic. This story is really rich in symbols, too, and it was hard to choose which ones to use. In particular, Bonnie Jo spends a lot of time describing the objects moved by the 16-year-old, but I think the portrait of the 13-year-old with her gymnastics trophy surrounded by bronze animals gets at the heart of it. I didn’t realize that bronze figurines of dinosaurs and farm animals were common things to collect, but according to Google Image Search, they must be.

A lot of people think of American Salvage as being a more androcentric book, but this story feels connected to the themes of Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the plethora of dudes who don’t understand women soon enough.