Thursday, February 23, 2012

Better Man Review

I honestly have no recollection of discovering Bob the Squirrel for the first time. I'm guessing mid- to late-2007 as that was when I really started getting into webcomics in earnest. At any rate, I know I was reading it when creator Frank Page started showcasing his divorce in the strip, and I know that because I was going through mine about the same time. The comic because infinitely more relevant for me because, not only was I able to see my emotional self in the comic, but I knew that it was more-or-less contemporaneous. I had several Bob strip tacked up around my cubicle at work to help get through some of those darker days. (I still have several strips up, but more recent ones.)

I paid a little closer attention to Bob after that, and I saw a lot of myself in Frank. He was like the me I would have become if I really tried to be a cartoonist instead of a graphic designer.

A little over a year ago, out of the blue, I got a message from Frank just saying that he was a fan of my blog. A very nice gesture, and one that I deeply appreciated since I don't tend to get a lot of feedback. But since then, we've chatted on a number of topics and gotten to know one another a bit better outside of what everyone else sees on the internet. I even enlisted his help in obtaining a really cool Christmas present for my S.O. this last season.

Now, with that background in mind, I finally got myself a copy of his self-published graphic novel better man. He'd mentioned it from time to time on his site over the years, but it's not something he's really plugged much. (For that matter, he does little self-promotion compared to... well, just about every other webcartoonist out there, I think!) I knew it was an autobiographical piece, not really related to Bob but that was about it.

The story mostly covers Frank's life from about ages 13 to 17. Possibly the worst years of everyone's life. In Page's case, it involved being on the receiving end of a lot of spit balls, locker slams, gut punches and a host of other physical assaults that prompted him to spend as little time as possible in the school hallways. It also involved living with his mother and her parents, his father having split shortly after Page was born. The crux of the story then revolves around Frank learning from and bonding with his grandpa as a surrogate father, and the challenges a man in his 60s faces after having worked himself almost to death just trying to keep his family afloat.

One of the dangers with autobiographical comics is that they can be too self-absorbed. As the reader, it can come across as just a self-indulgent ego-trip. What makes this creator think s/he's so interesting that I'd want to read about it? Worse, why should I even care about this person/character? But in the case of better man, Page displays an excellent ability to draw the reader in and really convey the emotions at a fairly raw level. It's an amazing contrast to Bob in that, while Page wears his emotions on his sleeve in the daily strip, he rips them out of his chest, throws them down in front of you and you can't help but look at them here. It's much more raw and powerful.

And while you might suggest that I was predisposed to feel something because we'd already established a rapport, I discovered in reading it that I don't know jack. Yeah, I got bullied and pushed around in school, but not like that. Not to mention that my home life was much more stable; hell, my folks are both still alive and still married to each other! The teenage Frank Page bears zero resemblance to the teenage Sean Kleefeld.

And now, having Page's "origin" story, that puts Bob in a different context. There've been more than a few instances when, upon reading about a personal challenge Page was facing, I'd say to myself, "Sure, I've been there; you just need to..." (Though I never actually told Frank any of that since I knew it'd be too late, as he draws the strip several weeks ahead of time.) But in the context of better man, I can't say that. Because even if his challenges and mine are superficially the same, the unspoken psychological ones running in our heads are different. Maybe just different by degrees, but different nonetheless.

I'd also like to take a moment to compliment Page's design skills here. Bob is mostly a short-form gag strip, so we don't see a lot in the way of storytelling. In better man, though, Page largely retains his illustration style, but takes full advantage of the graphic novel format. Throughout the book, he does an excellent job drawing readers' attention around the page using a variety of different layouts and visual narrative devices that serve the story well. He doesn't quite in getting in those wild Neal Adams or Jim Steranko layouts, but there are plenty of unconventional ones that are well executed here.

This is an excellent work. For autobiographic comics, I'd easily put this in the same league as Blankets and Pedro and Me. It's possible I'm showing some bias here, although, I don't think much. For fans of Page's online work, better man is not Bob. Very different tone and feel. But I don't think that's a bad thing at all.

1 comment:

Lisa M. said...

I believe you're spot on with your review. I read it a few years ago. As I made my way through, I was sucker punched, not having expected the raw emotion. When I fell victim to the work, my daughter looked at me and said, "You're reading a comic book. Those aren't supposed to make you cry." Maybe not, but when Frank is at his honest best, you may have no choice. I also rank it up there with A Tale of One Bad Rat for Frank's ability to connect with the reader in such a short piece when compared to a novel, which gives you so much more time to connect with the characters. Quite an achievement in my opinion.