Friday on the edge of panic

We've had a scary, jittery kind of week here in the Hatcher household. Way too much time spent sitting in doctor's waiting rooms and waiting on lab results and so on and so forth. Probably not the best week to be reading one of the most edgy and unsettling graphic novels I've seen in a while, but it was what I had in my bag.

Comes of being a supporter of the indie press. You all remember that I went to (pro)text last weekend, right? Small-press affair at Richard Hugo House?

...yeah, I know. Sort of like if Alternative Press Expo was held in your grandmother's living room. It was a little cramped. But the people who were there seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Julie ended up staying home sick, and despite my pushing the event hard in class, none of my students made it. So I wandered around on my own, thinking I'd at least BUY something so the afternoon wouldn't have been a complete waste of time.

I'm usually pretty comfortable at events like this, but I felt myself having a bit of a nerd flashback; one of those ridiculous insecure moments that sneak up on you without warning. For no apparent reason, I suddenly felt completely unwelcome, too old, too stodgy, too everything.

It was irrational and stupid, but it happens. You never know what's going to trigger one of those social-awkwardness flashbacks. And the crowd WAS a little oppressive. I ended up taking refuge in the ZAPP archive, since I'd never seen it and I thought I might at least see a familiar face or two down there.

The archive is in the basement of Hugo House and it was wonderfully roomy and cool after the sweaty claustrophobia of the upstairs crowd. Hazel Pine was minding the desk and we had a nice chat; apparently the writeup I did here a few weeks ago got them a little business, which was a pleasant surprise. (Note to any of you indie zine people out there -- they really, really DO want your stuff. Put them on your mailing list if you have one. The address is at the bottom of the article linked here.)

Chatting with Hazel restored my confidence somewhat, at least to the point that I could remember that I was forty-five years old and had been out of high school since 1979, and there was no reason to be such a baby just because I was in a room with a lot of people I didn't know, people who were doubtless all perfectly nice. Feeling faintly ashamed that I was still prone to silly-assed adolesecent nerves, I decided I'd take one more run at the actual fair and at least look at what people had to offer.

It had thinned out a little by the time I got back upstairs, which helped. As far as I could tell, the only folks doing business -- actually selling books, I mean -- seemed to be the comics table, which made me smile. Take that, poetry snobs!

There was a whole cluster of cartoonists at this one particular table, and I think the common factor was that they'd all contributed to the Pet Noir anthology, which by the way is a lot of fun and recommended.

It was another book that caught my eye, though. Trevor Alixopulos was a vaguely familiar name to me, I'd seen his work in local papers like The Stranger. The style looked kind of cool and the blurb really sold it.

Stylish, violent, and sordid, Mine Tonight is a story of individuals with high ideals but few scruples. Lukas is an amoral gun for hire who finds himself embroiled in the corrupt 2004 presidential election. Pulp noir blurs with autobiography as the lives of Lukas and Alixopulos intersect, from the heady chaos of 1990s WTO protest Seattle to the moral fog of post-9/11 New York. The tricks of memory and the ambiguity of politics leaven the intrigue in a tale that's at turns intensely personal, and immediate as breaking news. This is a graphic novel of a new breed. Deftly mixing reality and fiction, love and blood, Mine Tonight paints a jittery portrait of our time.

All I needed to see was "pulp noir," really, but pulp noir against the backdrop of WTO 1999? That made it a must-buy. I was here for the WTO riot and it was a deeply scary few days here in Seattle. There's something really surreal about your hometown, the streets you're on every day, suddenly jammed with cops and stinking of tear gas.

I wasn't involved with the protests, or anything like that. I was just one of the hundreds of people that worked in downtown Seattle that got caught in the crossfire. It started as a regular morning, albeit with traffic a little snarled up because of "some goddamn protest parade," and it turned into this...

The printshop I was working at was about three blocks south of where this picture was taken. And Zanadu Comics, where I still have my pull-list to this day, is maybe two blocks north. To suddenly have your neighborhood, your home, under jackbooted martial law -- I don't think you have any idea what that feels like, how scary it is, unless you were there. It's got nothing to do with politics. I assure you, the police weren't checking ID that day. If you were fool enough to be on the street, you got a faceful. Period.

All this is by way of saying what a brilliant idea I thought it was to use that insane day as the backdrop for a noirish suspense thriller. Somebody should do that.

Because the catch is, that's not what Mine Tonight is. It's actually quite a bit better.

This is more of a character study, the story of a nihilistic hitman named Lukas. We follow his life from childhood, where we see how he has been shaped into the disgusted, apathetic guy that he is today.

The drawing style is really clear and accessible...

...and darkly funny as well, as you can see.

The bottom line is, this book is completely not what I thought it was... but I still enjoyed it. It does have a little bit of political suspense, and a little bit of mystery, and a little bit of violence, and even a kind of self-mocking conspiracy-theorist feeling... but much more of it is concerned with Lukas himself, his constant questioning of self. What the hell am I doing here? How did I get to this place? Is this really the way the world works? Is life truly this arbitrary and unjust?

Trevor Alixopulos is a very nice man, by the way -- we ended up chatting a bit about the zine archive and the cartooning class and he happily traded a sketch in our class scrapbook for one of the student zines. It was a bit startling, later, to see the darkness of the actual work when you know the author's such a soft-spoken, friendly, pleasant fellow. (Now, bear in mind I read most of this book in the waiting room at UW Hospital while my wife was getting X-rayed prior to surgery, so I was asking myself a lot of those same why-this-why-now-why-so-unfair? questions. It probably got to me a lot more than it might have otherwise.) But it IS very finely crafted and I recommend it, especially to any of you folks that think comics can't be subtle or layered.

Just try to be in a better head space than I was when I read it. This is one of those books that makes you feel that the world's a little askew, that reality's tipped a little sideways. It sneaks up on you; and if you read it on a bad day, it'll really unsettle you.

It's not hospital reading, that's for sure. When Julie goes in for the actual operation I'm taking something a little lighter. Captain Marvel or Doc Savage or Groo or something.

See you next week.

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