January 23, 2010

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Soundtrack

Written by Jessica Abel
Illustrated by Jessica Abel
Fantagraphics

I really enjoyed La Perdida, the first Jessica Abel book I'd read, so I'd been eying this one up at the library the past few times I'd be around to browse the stacks.

Soundtrack is a collection of Abel's self-published work, both in mini-comic and newspaper form, along with a few pieces here and there from anthologies. In addition, a few previously unpublished illustrations are included. The book is divided into six chapters, ranging from "short fiction" to "journalism" to "covers."

Due to the nature of the book, it's a very mixed bag of material ranging from experiments with artistic style, subject matter, and length. Nothing, however, is more than a few full size pages, as I imagine the original printings were smaller in scale.

Overall, I'd have to say that this book was a bit of a disappointment. I'm pretty flexible in my comics reading, especially with mini-comics and even I had a bit of a problem because the selections feel stripped of context. It's a major flaw in presentation in my opinion that distracts from the reader's ability to understand how Abel matured as an artist. When I read an archival work like this, I'd rather see things arranged by date, rather than subject. Pieces from Artbabe, the comic that put Abel on the map and got her a place in the Fantagraphics family, are chopped up across sections. That might work thematically, but it hurts in terms of looking at Abel's early work as a whole and seeing how she progressed from piece to piece.

Had there not been a brief explanation of the sources, which I found quite useful in my quest for context, I might not have even finished the book. For instance, in the "Funny Pages" section, there are two really badly drawn comics that seem out of place--until you learn that Abel was experimenting with primitivism. Another one-page comic has a random alien attack in it, which makes sense because it was for an anthology of such stories. The trouble is that you have to flip back and forth between the index and the stories, a distracting process that could have been solved by keeping things together or using a footnote to provide context.

If you can get past the odd structure, there are some really fun pieces in here that show why Abel was selected for major publishing. The alien story is perfectly normal until it tips its hand, in a cool narrative trick that's done in one page. Stories like "The Junkie" and "Jack London" foreshadow the relationship stories Abel would later pen, and her newspaper feature on Godzilla fans is so cute as to make me wish she was still chronicling events in comic form.

As with the stories themselves, artistically this is all over the map. It would have been nice to see the art progression in linear form, but it's still possible to do so here, albeit by flipping back and forth. Abel's style is pretty well defined by the time we get to the later Artbabe material, and even the newspaper work from 1995 shows the touches most readers will be familiar with. In a few cases it looked like Abel was trying a more 1950s pulp style, but I am glad that didn't stick.

Overall, Soundtrack is a useful historical record that could have been stronger if Fantagraphics or Abel had opted to place the material in a better context. As it stands, it reminds me a bit of the old Peanuts collections--a good read, but lacking perspective. Fantagraphics got that right by printing in order. Maybe someday, as Abel's popularity grows, we'll see this material again in a way that sheds more light on her early work. In the meantime, it's probably okay to pass on this one unless you are a big fan of Ms. Abel's. I enjoyed it on that level, and most likely, you will, too.