Jessica Abel, Gabe Soria, Warren Pleece, Life Sucks (FirstSecond, 2008), $19.95, paper.
By Jared Gardner
For no good reason (and for plenty of bad ones) I really wanted to not like this book. I am almost as tired of vampires these days as I am of zombies, and I was pretty sure I would have everyone on my side when I came up with some clever bon mots about metaphorical monsters and the hipster creators who love them. I actually even wrote some of them up, and trust me they were very funny and scathing. You would’ve loved them. But then I decided I better actually read Life Sucks. And for all kinds of good reasons I had to get over myself and admit that the book is an absolute gem.
Our hero is Dave, who made the fatal mistake of applying for a nightclerk position at a local convenience store only to discover that the owner is an undead émigré named Lord Arisztidescu (Radu, to his friends). Ever wonder why all vampires are rich, unconcerned with the day-to-day responsibilities of paying rent or keeping themselves in coffins and all that vampire couture? Abel and Soria seem to have worried over this a lot and decided it was time someone told it like it is. As it turns out, vampires are wage-slaves like the rest of us… well, of course not like the rest of us. Because being “hired” by Radu--a decidedly unglamorous eastern European who owes more to the stylings of Steve Martin and Dan Akroyd’s 1970s Wild & Crazy Guys than to the 1930s elegance of Lugosi’s Dracula--means serving him for all eternity as his undead, minimum wage night clerk. To make matters worse, Dave is pining for Rosa, a goth-chick vampire wannabe who doesn’t even know he’s alive… or, more accurately, doesn’t even know he’s undead.
The premise is funny and smart, and for that reason it is unfair that Life Sucks has sparked seemingly inevitable comparisons in the reviews to Clerks (which for the record, since no one has the guts to say it, is both un-funny and un-smart). Unlike Clerks, Life Sucks is so much more than its premise. Abel and Soria clearly developed a real affection for their characters and lived with them a long time, to the point where they became much more real and moving than the premise would suggest. This is a funny book, but it is also a moving story, presenting a complex cast of characters who--even if they can’t cast a reflection--are remarkably believable and multidimensional. Even the book’s villain, the super-rich, surfer vampire who serves as rival for Rosa’s attentions, is just desperate enough in his desire for Dave’s respect to make us almost overlook his nasty habit of decapitating his vampire brides as soon as they begin to bore him. And our hero is far from perfect, despite his heroic attempts to maintain a vampire version of vegetarianism into his afterlife (with disastrous consequences for his street cred). Dave can be selfish and immature, and the Faustian bet he makes with Wes for Rosa’s hand turns out to have repercussions he will be living with for a long, long time.
It is worth pausing here to remark once again on the remarkable output of FirstSecond in its first few years in the business. 2008 is shaping up to be its strongest year yet, with entries like Pedrosa’s Three Shadows, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s splendid nuts-and-bolts textbook, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, and some exciting projects coming out in the next few months. Even as they remain committed to their primary target audience of literate young-adults, they continue to expand into broader markets with consistent quality and a love for the form that is unmistakable in everything they do. Don’t let my good friends in the Pacific Northwest know I said this, but it might well be that FirstSecond is the best graphic novel publisher out there today.
The pacing of the book is perfect, the twists just right and just at the right time to keep you wanting to follow this story out to the end. One can see how much Abel has matured as a storyteller in working through her first long narrative in La Perdida and in codifying some of those discoveries for her recent how-to guide. But without knowing who is responsible for what in the writing here, it is clear to me as a long-time fan of Abel’s work that the final product owes much to Soria’s work as well, and I am hoping we will see more of him in the future. In fact, I am hoping, as Soria suggested in a recent interview, we will also see more of Dave, Rosa, Wes and the whole undead crew. Go out and buy this book so I can get a sequel (a far cry, no, from the bratty reviewer who only a few paragraphs ago was ready to trash the whole thing without having read a word?).