guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

Tim Lane, Abandoned Cars (Fantagraphics, 2008), $22.99, hardcover.

By Jared Gardner

If I were ten years younger I would love this book. No, if I were more like 18 years younger, and still smoked two packs a day and drank whiskey out of big gallon jugs, and still drove around in that old 1962 Dart with the metal dashboard and no seatbelts, and still lived in Baltimore on an annual salary of 12K. Of course, I wasn’t reading books like this back then: $22.99 was a week’s worth of cigarettes and a bottle of bourbon. And even then I found the blue-color chic of a Chuck Bukowski tedious and pretentious (and vaguely exploitative). No, truth be told, I suspect I like this book much more now, nicotine-free and relatively sober (except when I am writing these reviews, of course) in my two-story Columbus home, than I would have then. But what would make me really like these stories, I must confess, would be if someone else was writing them. Because this guy can draw! He is, in fact, every bit as talented and startling an artist as, unfortunately, he thinks he is as a writer. But the truth is, he clearly wants to be a writer first, and his deep love affair with the American visionary writers of days gone by makes this a very writerly book, so much so that his brilliant artwork ends up serving a decidedly supporting role to the very wordy narration that accompanies each story.

I don’t mean to be overly harsh here: there are some splendid writerly touches. The continuing story of the end of John’s marriage (which gives us at least one of the abandoned cars referred to in the title) is effective. And in truth the writers Lane so greatly admires—Kerouac, Henry Miller, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway—are not in
my bedside bookshelf: along with Bukowski, they all rub the wrong way in precisely the ways that Lane’s prose gets under my skin--macho, egomaniacal, self-pitying martyrdom narratives. Since that is Lane’s bookshelf, I must give him credit: he channels them well.

But I believe that no one who draws like this can for long take pleasure in allowing his panels to serve primarily as a second-tier visual track supporting a heavy-handed, purple narration. He is going to grow and mature, maybe collaborate, and emerge in five years or so with a masterpiece. This is not it. This feels like juvenilia in the hands of a fully realized artist, like Charles Burns and Phoebe Gloeckner illustrating some self-styled prophet’s undergraduate creative writing assignments. I would have certainly warmed to this material more had I encountered it in an anthology, or spread out in small doses in a serialized comic. Over-packed and over-packaged in this high-end hardcover edition I just found myself wanting to shout: “You are too talented to take yourself so seriously!” I suspect such advice would sound absurd or contradictory to Mr. Lane at the moment, which is fine. But when he is ready to crack and smile and realize that, in fact, Jack London and Henry Miller are two of the worst things that ever happened to American literature, then he’ll have something to write about. And I’ll be the first in line to sing his praises.