Dirtbags, Mallchicks & Motorbikes
Dave Kiersh, writer/artist
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I’ve kept my eye on Dave Kiersh’s work since coming across it in Jordan Crane’s seminal NON anthologies, where his simple line and design sensibility and poetic writing style coupled with his aching, romantic subject matter to suggest John Porcellino gone Young Romance. In the years that followed he’s drifted from more straightforward pseudo-autobio tone poems toward a more targeted examination of love, lust, and emotional turmoil among suburban adolescents, frequently filtered through the sensibilities of late ’70s and ’80s afterschool specials, young adult novels, and teen sex comedies. It’s an unusual pursuit, that’s for sure, and I think Tom Spurgeon said it’s a shallow pool for a cartoonist of Kiersh’s obvious talents to swim in, let alone spend a Xeric Grant on, but I don’t think Tom’s right. For whatever reason, that kind of material has a lot of power. The mirror it held up to the actual experience of suburban American adolescence may have simultaneously sensationalized and simplified that experience, but the reflection was recognizable nonetheless; artists as wide-ranging as Charles Burns, Judd Apatow, Richard Kelly, and M83’s Anthony Gonzalez have recorded their observations of that reflection, to memorable effect. Why not Kiersh?
Dirtbags, Mallchicks & Motorbikes, as you can probably guess from the title, sees Kiersh continuing to explore and refine his interpretation of the teenage-wasteland’s aesthetic and emotional milieux. It’s a collection of short stories, none of which feature any kind of resolution, not even the usual non-resolution resolutions you see in other short comics about young people and relationships; they just kind of end. It’s a bold choice, and it’s what prevents several of the more knowingly pastiche-driven stories–the boy who falls for his invalid mother’s sexy live-in nurse; the girl whose hotsy-totsy friend convinces her to shoplift a push-up bra–from feeling paint-by-numbers. Other well-worn types get zig when they should zag: The kid who winds up lonely in the crowd when he throws a party while his parents are away is the star quarterback; the beautiful tennis player with the loser admirer doesn’t slowly discover the man of her dreams beneath his grubby exterior, she simply fucks him in the stands just to see what life is like when you don’t care. The stories themselves twist and turn rewardingly before they expire; I was particularly taken with an interlude between the thoughtful quarterback and a drunk cheerleader who throws herself at him in the bathroom, which he escapes by promising to take a shower with her but climbing through the shower window before she can climb in with him, and by the way a story on teen pregnancy is constantly shifting the ground between the main character (the father-to-be) and everyone he encounters (the mother of his baby, his boss, his customer, his friend, his mother, the notional baby itself) in terms of values like responsibility and caring. Kiersh’s art is less fancifcul here than in his old work or his recent book Never Land, rooted firmly in emotions inspired by the everyday rather than daydreams. His thick round line is reminiscent of Keith Haring’s, particularly in the suburbiascape endpages, but Kiersh uses those chunky delineations to connote isolation rather than cohesion and community. This strikes me as very thoughtful, considered, personal work. If you like the Donnie Darko soundtrack school of wistfully emotional ’80s pop, or modern-day approximations thereof, I think you’ll get a lot out of this.