Note: There are no tentacles in this story. Just so you know!
I met Sina Grace for the first time at the Emerald City Comic Convention, and he was nice enough to pass along a copy of Not My Bag, his Image graphic novel from last year. I've been terribly lax about keeping up with the stuff I got at ECCC, but I'm getting there!
So here's this book, which is only $12.99 for a nice slice of comics.
I always have to remind people that I don't really love autobiographical comics, which is one of the reasons I skipped Not My Bag the first time around (they are, to be blunt, "not my bag"). If a creator can do something different with the format, that helps, and Grace does that to a degree, as he writes about "his" time spent working in retail (I use the quote marks because while the book is in first person, Grace never identifies himself as "Sina Grace," and he does admit that parts of the book are fiction, so the line is a bit blurred). It's not an unusual job in the least, but it is interesting to see it in a comic book, so there is that.
Grace gets the job because, like so many other people, he desperately needs a steady paycheck (he still works on his art, but that is anything but steady) after he bashes up his car. He's working at a clothing store in a California department store, and he really throws himself into it as he becomes the store's Eileen Fisher clothing line specialist. The book becomes about the tension between Grace's desire to do better at a job he doesn't really like and how the competition warps him and his relationships. For anyone who's ever worked in a corporate environment or a retail environment, Grace's revelations won't come as too much of a surprise, but it's still interesting to see it play out, because it really is as petty as Grace makes it out to be (I assume most people in their life have worked in a capacity like Grace does, so I'm not really saying anything you don't already know, just that Grace does a good job with it). So he meets his co-workers, one of whom he calls the Shark, a scary-looking, heavily made-up woman who almost attacks customers. He meets a new boss, Frankie, who seems to take a liking to him but who is, naturally, not really on his side (one should never believe the boss is on your side, no matter how much they seem to be). Frankie tells him that he's being wasted on Eileen Fisher and she tells him that they have plans for him, which makes Grace work harder at this job he doesn't want and get far too angry when things don't work out for him. Grace himself doesn't come off too great in the book, which makes it feel more "real" - he doesn't bother to learn many co-workers' names and gets called out on it, and he freaks out because another worker stole "his" customer a few pages after he did the exact same thing.
But he takes his time with the work stuff, so that we understand why he has become this way, even as the reader and Grace himself realizes that he's changed. The difficult thing about the way Grace works is that even if you don't love your job, it's admirable to try to do the best at whatever job you're doing. So even though Grace dislikes the job, the fact that he's trying to do the best job he can is laudable ... until he suddenly realizes how much it's changed him. Grace gets to this point rather deftly.
The other theme in the book is Grace's past relationships haunting him, in some cases literally (Grace draws ghosts following him around quite often). He's in a relationship with a person he calls The Lawyer, but he hasn't gotten over his first love, The Teacher, but he doesn't feel like he can tell The Lawyer about these feelings. This is the weaker part of the book, unfortunately, because Grace doesn't seem to invest as much time in the non-work stuff. He takes his time to show how important fashion is both to him and others, how designers work, and how things at his job spin slowly out of control, but his relationship with The Lawyer and the problems he has moving past his older relationship doesn't feel as important, and that's too bad. The Lawyer seems to be there to remind him that he's a comics artist and he should work more often, but that's about it. The book ends happily, but it's a bit ironic that Grace's relationship with The Nerd ended because he felt they "didn't fit" even though they were perfectly comfortable, because that's what it feels like with The Lawyer. The end of the book ought to feel more important, but it doesn't, because Grace hasn't made The Lawyer an important enough character in the book. Grace shows in other parts of the book that he's quite good at creating interesting characters. The Lawyer isn't one of them, unfortunately.
Grace does a lot of nice work on the art, too. I like his art better in black and white, because it feels sharper and more consistent, so it's nice that this is in black and white! The book is slightly fantastical in that Grace adds elements that are slightly "off" or clearly products of the main character's imagination, but presented seamlessly, and it works quite well.
The Shark, as I noted, has a scary face - it looks so heavily painted that it becomes a mask, but that's the point. He uses exaggerated features to good effect, but he's also "naturalistic" enough to draw the clothing and jewelry of his job with great precision. The book flows well - there are a lot of panels and it's quite verbose, but Grace's design sense helps keep it moving nicely. His art helps take us inside the mind of his main character nicely, as we get a very good sense of the anxiety "Grace" is feeling as he becomes more and more entrenched in the job. I'm really not sure why a major character is always shown with different masks on - I mean, I can understand it on a symbolic level, as the person remains faceless and perhaps less like a real human being, but is that? Maybe that's it. It's kind of strange, because it's implied a couple of times that the person is wearing actual masks, which seems a bit odd. I don't know - it does allow Grace to put the character in some interesting masks that seem to reflect what's going on at that point in the comic, but it's still a bit weird.
There's a lot to like about Not My Bag, but some things that don't really work either. It's not a long book, but it still took Grace a while to finish it, and I understand why he didn't want to make it longer, but I think his personal life could have been fleshed out a bit more and made the entire thing a bit stronger. The parts related to his job are quite strong - they lead to a fairly obvious ending, but it feels earned, and that's a good thing. Grace is an interesting creator, so if you're looking for something a bit different, check out Not My Bag. It's a pretty good comic.