Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Alcoholic by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel

Jonathan Ames, in his graphic novel Alcoholism, has created a protagonist who is narcissistic, self-destructive, and only slightly self-aware. When Jonathan A., the character in the novel, proclaims himself self-destructive, it is pages after any reader would have come to this same conclusion. Unfortunately, whatever insight Jonathan attains is shattered by his desperate need to hurt himself in an attempt to end his pain. Despair is absolutely the perfect word for this graphic novel. As the protagonist strives to redeem himself from his latest fall from grace, the reader is already aware that he will fall again and hard. The novel begins almost where it ends. Through flashbacks, the reader is shown how Jonathan becomes an alcoholic. Young and reckless, he gets drunk with his best friend, unable to hold his liquor and dependent upon his friend to hold him up as he drinks himself into vomiting blackouts. That he knows he has a problem is not enough to stop him and, although he claims to want his parents to confront him, he never makes any efforts to confront his own drinking habits. For anyone who wonders what rock bottom looks like, the reader gets to see Jonathan’s rock bottom time and time again. There is a saying that when an addict hits rock bottom, the addict pulls out a shovel and starts digging. If this graphic novel were not fiction it would be a powerful argument for the truism as the reader sees Jonathan A hit rock bottom and then dig deeper into his addiction. There is little hope in the pages. When he finally goes to rehab, it is a memory, told from a present where we already know he’s woken up in a compromising position. No matter how many people he loses in his life, he will end up waking up from yet another blackout, trying to piece together how he got here from there. The novel’s conclusion is ambiguous, leaving the reader to decide whether the protagonist will ever find peace. Frankly, I didn’t like the protagonist enough to hope he would. I simply didn’t care. Dean Haspiel adds a layer to the story telling that elevates this graphic novel from being a tedious piece of humorless self-deprecation. Haspiel’s noire style drawings reinforce the idea of despair, with stark visuals hammer home the bare bones message of the story. This is despair drawn in angles, sharp visuals, shadow and light. The drawings compliment and complement the story that Ames has created, as the graphics of a graphic novel ought to do. It is hard to say that I liked this graphic novel, easy to say I did not hate it. How does one like a story about someone who is unrelenting and pretentious in his supposed desire for redemption? Seemingly driven by his ego, the reader is left to assume he is driven by his id. There is nothing redemptive about the character and the despair is only lightened by failed attempts at humor. I never smiled while reading the story. My appreciation for this graphic novel is that Ames has created an unsympathetic character whose story is at least intriguing if not unsurprising. But when reading other books about addiction, I have at least walked away thinking how fun it might have been to party with the addict. I never felt that way about the protagonist. Ultimately, Jonathan A comes across as a tedious frat boy who knows he needs to grow up but never figures out how. Still, I cautiously recommend it because it is interesting; a curious attempt at something that maybe is not resonating with me. I plan on giving my copy to my daughter so I clearly didn’t loathe it. I just don’t know how much patience a reader has to have to enjoy the story but I can say that it takes little to appreciate how well Haspiel has visually communicated the emotion of Ames’s words.

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