Best of ’07: Red Eye, Black Eye

December 8, 2008

K Thor Jensen’s Red Eye, Black Eye

Behind a great title and better cover, K. Thor Jensen turns two months of couch surfing into a fine debut book.  Ostensibly of the maligned genre of autobiography, it really ventures into largely unexplored country for comics: travel writing.  Both fresh and retro, the book’s style and surface make it seem like it appeared in 2001 when its story was happening.  In fact, no one at that time, especially not Jensen’s younger self, was so seamlessly weaving a subtle formalism with a deceptively naturalistic story.

The book reads like a mumblecore movie without the dead pauses.  When Jensen loses his job, girl and home in the course of a few days, and then the country loses the WTC, he heads out on Greyhound.  Why not?  Hitting the road makes the failures seem like a birth, at least at first, and he nails all the details, from leaving’s elation to the weariness that sets in once the cities all look the same.  In fact, he draws every city the same: his trip was not about picture postcards.

Neither is its telling.  Jensen has pared his storytelling down to the essentials: six panel pages, gestural cartooning, and just the facts.  Yet he foregrounds the telling with deft use of captions, allowing for at least one purely formalist masterstroke.  The story seems like a lark, with Gen-X repartee softening Jensen’s often-unflattering self-portrait, but a rigorous structure gives the story weight.  And Jensen avoids cliché, including that travel writer’s sin of spending the journey in his own head and then boring us with the monologue.

Instead, he retells the stories of the people he meets.  Everyone has one.  They pass time telling them, as we do by reading them.  Some are interesting, a couple probably fake and all speak about a generation who wants to hit the road, but doesn’t know why.  In between, they get drunk, eat and go to parties.  Local color makes just a few cameos, as when a friend introduces him to Kansas City’s barbeque (though why his host picks Gates instead of Arthur Bryant’s I will never understand).  There he also finds himself alone for a brief moment.  Standing on the cusp of the American West, he encounters landscape for the only time in book.  It’s empty.  Perhaps shaken, he later asks his host why she stays there.  Her only answer is that it’s home.

Jensen thinks about that briefly, before lighting out and seeing the homes of ten, fifteen more people.  One of those homes is his mother’s, and one of his initial losses was his grandfather.  He draws no special attention to these details.  The thinking he does about home, or more accurately, his place in all the homes he has drifted through after losing his own ties, is not revealed until the final page.  The ending throws the whole book into a new light, with the weight of years after the trip when he did that thinking.  It seems to invite us to join him, too.  Best of all, it announces that a cartoonist who has been around for a while has finally arrived.

(Another great travel comic is Oliver East’s Trains Are Mint #4, an artist’s book as a palimpsest, full of lovely watercolor drawings.  It may not be a comic per se, but I spent a wonderful evening getting lost in his beautifully colored drawings.)

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