Comics Time: Giraffes in My Hair: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Life

Giraffes in My Hair: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Life

Bruce Paley, writer

Carol Swain, artist

Fantagraphics, 2009

136 pages, hardcover


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Pencil is not an easy medium to publish in for a cartoonist–just ask the superhero artists whose work looks like the proverbial cake left out in the rain when “digitally inked” or colored right off the original pencils. But Carol Swain makes it look easy, and I think it’s because she’s figured out a way to spot blacks with a pencil. Those sooty shadows and clouds and night skies and manes of wild hair suffuse her work in Giraffes in My Hair with a sort of negative-image glow, popping her foregrounded figures off the page with a barely-there white aura. Couple it with her ever-shifting angles and it’s a damned effective way to create a sense of space and depth, reminiscent of similarly adroit strategies by Jeffrey Brown and Ben Katchor. If Swain’s jarring close-ups make her panels less immersive than theirs, her porous gray shadings make up for it with atmosphere–an inviting softness, tinged with just enough smokiness to remind us that what’s going on here isn’t entirely pleasant. The overall effect works so well that I really had to stop myself and peer at her pages to figure out what made them tick. I was too busy being propelled along by the effortlessness of the art.

So Giraffes, a collection of anecdotes from Bruce Paley’s teens and twenties on America’s countercultural fringe, is a breezy read. But it’s one rooted in an almost unchanging nine-panel grid with sparse, nearly monotone narration. At times this allows the comics to tip over into bluntness, particularly with the ending to some of the stories: The tale of how Paley avoided Vietnam ends with a shot of the Wall; a story of New York City’s ’70s heroin scene ends with Death itself offering us a bag of smack. But in general, the art and the writing are a perfect fit. Swain’s art rarely calls attention to or gets in the way of itself, and in that it meshes seamlessly with Paley’s deadpan “here’s what happened” narrative style, his reluctance to overstate or oversell the import of the anecdote reminiscent of Harvey Pekar’s. (Of course, Pekar’s work rises and falls on the strength of his collaborators–Paley’s got Swain, so there’s not much falling to do here.)

Yet at the same time the presence of that subtitle indicates a unifying theme, which makes Paley’s storytelling choices all the more interesting. The first story shows an 18-year-old Paley ditching college and leaving home to hitchhike cross-country with his girlfriend, but the home life that led him to drop everything and drop out is relegated to a quick line of dialogue and about half a page upon his return from the journey. As hippies give way to punks we suddenly discover that Paley’s a habitual heroin user, but we never see his introduction to the drug. A story about an ill-fated attempt to import drugs from overseas sees Paley casually mention time spent in Tangiers, but up until that point his adventures had been strictly domestic. In some graphic memoirs these lacunae would be maddening; here’s they’re sort of the point.

Paley’s not claiming anything spectacular about the life he lived or the stories he plucked from it. The way he tells it and Swain draws it, living on the edge feels like an interchangeable commodity with Pekar’s life as a civil servant. An interesting conversation with the janitor may be replaced by doing speedballs with Johnny Thunders, but the game’s the same: get by, find a little happiness when you can, and cling to the stories that comprise your life, the recounting of which has a value all its own.

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