Never Ending Summer
Allison Cole, writer/artist
Alternative Comics, April 2004
Originally written on July 25, 2004 for publication in The Comics Journal
Never Ending Summer blazes no new trails. In fact, what trails it treads are familiar almost to the point of predictability: I think that by now we’ve all read enough auotbio comics to know that young, hip people drink cheap beer, complain about their jobs, obsess over their relationships, fetishize vinyl records, make mix tapes, and make out. If adolescent power fantasies are this medium’s overheated yin, post-adolescent disempowered realities such as this are its underheated yang.
But there’s a lot to be said for charm, and that’s why there’s a lot to be said for the very charming Never Ending Summer. The story, such as it is, follows author Allison Cole through a summer of minor upheavals in Providence, Rhode Island. Allison wakes up one day at the beginning of June with an enormous injury of an unspecified nature upon her lip. “So this is how summer begins,” she thinks as a friend drives her to the hospital in another friend’s borrowed car. It’s a fitting beginning to the story as it introduces several prominent themes: The power of Cole’s minimalist cartooning (her nightmare image of the injury consuming her entire face works perfectly), the unexpected difficulties that beset her throughout the season, and the support and succor she gains from her community of friends.
Cole’s debut graphic novel finds her confident in her use of her unique vocabulary of character, which is to say she draws adorable little people who look sort of like the ghosts from Pac-Man, but with arms and legs. Each is given a unique adornment for distinguishability–a ponytail here, an ironic moustache there, Descendents-style eyeglasses everywhere–and while that trick doesn’t always work, what does is the simultaneous sense of universality and idiosyncrasy the overall device lends to the characters and the story. It’s a lot harder to get tired of the misadventures of hipsters who hang out in kitschy dive bars when they look like stuffed animals. (It’s also interesting to compare this technique to the almost manic self-scrutiny of a Jeffrey Brown, say. Where Brown makes his seemingly uneventful autobio stories work through the intense navel-gazing reflected in his restless, sketchy inks, Cole takes the opposite tack and breaks the action down to a bare minimum of lines on a page. In the former, the reader is moved along by the sweaty work of the artist; in the latter, the artist encourages the reader to move the breezy work along.)
The clear influence overall is John Porcellino. Cole does not have the minicomics god’s assuredness of line, nor the ability to pull off the transcendental moments of liberation that marked Porcellino’s similar autobio novel Perfect Example. I was actually all the way through such a moment in Never Ending Summer before I realized, “hey, that was the big climax, wasn’t it?” But Cole’s learned that simplicity suits a simple story, There’s never a moment that feels forced, pretentious, or overblown, and the quiet moments are quiet without being maudlin or tedious. Some of my favorite images are simply Allison kneeling on her roof next to her chimney, or curled up with her cat. Clearly these are some of Cole’s favorite images, too.
Cole’s piece in Kramer’s Ergot 4 was a bit of inspired comedy, terrifically lampooning the oh-so-sensitivity of emo boys by casting them as the world’s wimpiest pirates; I’d have liked to see more of that wit in use here. I’m also not sure that the ending is earned by the events that come before: The idea is that Allison’s newfound creative outlet as a DJ enables her to be happy with and by herself rather than fixate on emotionally unavailable men, but wasn’t she already a cartoonist? Perhaps the nature of her cartooning–writing about her fixation on emotionally unavailable men–precludes that kind of fulfillment. Makin’ people boogie is probably a much better way to forget about that sort of thing. But unwittingly she’s done that here, crafting a delightful book that I’ll happily read again. It’s a promising start until she begins blazing trails of her own.