Al Burian Goes to Hell
Al Burian, writer/artist
Migraine, July 2010
Confession time: I threw this book away. More specifically I left it on the “free table” at my day job. Some stuff that doesn’t appeal to me at first glance gets kept around anyway just in case, like if there’s clearly a fully formed aesthetic at work that simply happens not to be my cup of tea; crude-looking zine-y stuff usually doesn’t stick around at all. But a few hours after putting this on the giveaway pile, an older, cooler coworker of mine pressed it back into my hands, saying he’d just read it in one sitting and was totally blown away by just how deep into his own darkness Burian was willing to go. Alrighty then–what have we here?
Well, I can see how my coworker, who I’m guessing hasn’t read a small-press comic since the ’70s, would be impressed. Years of immersion in the medium and exposure to an untold number of autobiographical alternative comics can dull you to the impact a book about nothing but the author’s depression and self-loathing could have on the unsuspecting. Burian uses a very, very loose pastiche of Dante’s Inferno to show himself spiraling into emotional paralysis over the course of a day spent at work, in art school, getting thrown out of a supermarket for grazing at the bulk bins, talking about life and literary theory with friends/faculty/presidential assassins, and so on; what he’s particularly good at is demonstrating how self-awareness–of the run-of-the-mill nature of his problems, of how turning them into art doesn’t necessarily validate either problems or art, of how he’s relatively fortunate in the grand scheme of things–makes the depression of the sort suffered by white male American middle-class artsy-fartsy types feel even worse, not better. Not only are you depressed, you’re lame, which is even more depressing!
But this is probably all stuff you were already aware of. However sympathetic you might feel about Burian’s plight, the art is still rudimentary–his avatar is a simplistic Easter Island-browed cartoon usually shown in profile, backgrounds are minimal to nonexistent, his line is just sort of a thick inert presence on the page. The storytelling, too, is pretty lackadaisical, basically just enough of a Dante swipe to avoid having to come up with a throughline of its own. I’m not the sort of person who waxes outraged over navel-gazing to make myself feel like more of a he-man autobio-haters club member, but bellybuttons ahoy. I’m also noticing that the bright pink cover is smearing itself all over the exterior of my laptop when the two are placed together in my backpack. It’s crudely done, is what I’m saying. It did leave me wondering what grade Burian got on it–it’s his college thesis–but it mostly left me wanting to give him an issue of King-Cat and say “Give it another shot”…
…which apparently is just what Burian did. Google reveals that by now he’s longtime punkrock and zinescene staple, living the expatriate life in Berlin. Indeed, according to this post on his blog, he never intended for this work–done some seventeen years ago, when he was 22–to be published, and a former colleague did so without authorization. I guess he got out of Hell, but Hell followed with him. A strange little saga.