Ken Dahl, writer/artist
Secret Acres, 2009
Gross-out sex-life autobiography has a storied history in alternative comics, but it’s sort of a St. Olaf story. (Crumb is repeated first as tragedy, than as farce.) Folks with sufficient cartooning chops are afforded ample opportunity to Tex Avery themselves out, which I do appreciate. And of course there’s the thrill we get from coming across someone with no internal censor–to paraphrase Hesh Rabkin, between their brain and their pen, they have no interlocutor. But it’s very, very, very well-trod territory, and you can count me among the people who came across Joe Matt’s Spent and thought “Well, that’s enough of that.”
So it took some persuading for me to give Ken Dahl’s Monsters the story of his life with herpes, a shot. Another comic about some creepy artist type’s loathsome behavior around and toward women? Drawn with confrontationally ugly underground-style depictions of everyone involved and hyperactive exclamation-point-ridden lettering? Coupled with enough grand-guignol lesion close-ups to trigger my skin-growth phobia like wo?
Wrong wrong wrong! I enjoyed the heck out of this book. For starters, I was giving Dahl’s art short shrift. Jeepers this guy is accomplished. I don’t point this out nearly often enough, but as a non-artist, I really get a thrill out of good cartooning because it’s so beyond my ken. To develop a visual vocabulary and deploy it consistently page after page…I mean, man. Anyway, on the most basic level, Dahl’s bobble-headed, adenoidal characters are crafted with an assured, flowing line that trails off into feathering wisps for a hint of vulnerability beneath the slickness. Moreover, they are an instant visual signature, serving both to deflate the angst and self-absorption of his story and satirically skewer the various alt lifestyles of which he is a tangential part. (For what it’s worth, I think the mockery–of everyone from Christians to vegans–is one of the less considered parts of the book, but still, no one comes out of this looking like an angel.) But more importantly for the book, they’re a template from which he can deviate for extravagant, almost Tom Neely-esque sequences, in which Dahl’s emotions and/or his infection literally explode from within and take over in monstrous fashion.
But for me, the most interesting thing about Monsters is Dahl himself. Turns out he’s not a creep at all! He has no idea how he got herpes, had no idea he had it when he gave it to his girlfriend, and commits a grand total of one genuinely douchebaggish actions in the entire course of the book. Instead, he obsesses on his condition to a psychologically debilitating degree, sealing himself off from having a healthy social life or any kind of romantic relationship for years. In fact, while the “educational filmstrip” facts’n’figures sequence about herpes simplex is the book’s ostensible centerpiece, for me the real tour de force was the ending, which in a quick one-two punch upends what I’d thought was going on with both the story’s plot and its moral. Dahl turns out to be far more victim than victimizer, and the deft way in which he teases that reversal out of our expectations for a book of this sort is its best trick.