December 12, 2010

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120 Days of Simon

A Week of Top Shelf Reviews begins here!

Written by Simon Gardenfors
Illustrated by Simon Gardenfors
Top Shelf

Top Shelf carries the work of two of the best autobiographical cartoonists working today, James Kochalka and Jeffrey Brown. Now they've added a new artist to their roster, Simon Gardenfors, a Swedish singer and creator who also uses his own life as fodder for the comics he creates. Watch as he spend 120 days in the homes of friends and strangers for fun and profit. Be a witness to...the 120 Days of Simon.

Initially, this book made me think of both Brown and Kochalka, as the Gardenfors seemed to be in the same mold: A man approaching his 30s with no clear direction, trying to support himself on his artistic talents, with quite a few issues about how he lives his life. As if to make the comparison complete, he's even unable to figure out what to do about a potential relationship that's forming in his life, at possibly the worst time. After all, he's about to go off for 120 days. I even started to feel sorry for him, just a little bit.

This lasted for about two dozen pages or so, at which point I realized that Gardenfors, unlike Kochalka and Brown, is not a very likable guy. He's controlled by his baser instincts, if this comic is any indication. He sleeps around, often in an unsafe manner and with women who are way younger than he is. He does drugs, and not just the soft ones. I was actually shocked by how frank Gardenfors was about this. I guess this must be a difference between Sweden and America. He drinks himself to excess on a regular basis and lies constantly, often to those who are trying to be good to him.

In short, Simon Gardenfors is not a very nice man.

But man, is his story fascinating to read! Despite being horrified by the things that Gardenfors says and does in this comic (especially when he promises not to include things but does anyway), I simply could not put the book down. I had to see just how far he would go. Could he be any sleazier than lying about putting one of his many conquests in the book? Yes, by putting the moves on the daughter of one of his hosts. Simon Gardenfors is exactly the kind of person you never want to be associated with but seeing him go lower and lower with every turn of the page was absolutely fascinating. I think I can better understand now why people follow celebrity gossip. It's not worshiping at the shine of popularity--it's seeing just how awful people can be.

Peter Bagge refers to this book on the back cover blurb as being "alternately charming, funny, and aggravating" and I think that's a pretty accurate description, though I'm not so sure about the charming part. Gardenfors certainly knows how to tell a story, picking the best parts of his visits to share with the reader. At no time is this book ever boring, whether it's showing his many flaws as a human being or what happens when you live life on the edge. Worries about money, death threats, pregnancy, and even his own drawing hand are all a part of this book, though I admit that I was hoping that he'd have some real consequences and that doesn't play out.

We see Gardenfors charm a plethora of women and use that charm for his own selfish ends, trying like mad to keep it from catching up to him. He lies to a television program with the help of a friend, leading to one of the best sequences in the book because it shows that you can do crazy things without actually hurting anyone. Perhaps most interesting of all is that there were people out there willing to let a perfect stranger into their homes for a few days at a time. It all makes extremely compelling reading, even if you want to slap Gardenfors in the face (or worse).

Artistically, Gardenfors's figures are small, Mickey Mouse-like creations that still manage to do very human things in believable ways. He relies primarily on head shots, as a lot of autobiographical creators do, along with quite a bit of dialog. Backgrounds are sparse and only used as absolutely needed. Where Gardenfors excels, I think, is in his ability to differentiate characters. Despite rendering everything in a very cartoonish manner, it was easy to tell who each character was. Given that Gardenfors is all over the map (literally) and talking to dozens of different people, I was impressed by his ability to craft headshots that looked unique almost every time.

120 Days of Simon is not going to appeal to every taste. Those who can't overlook his many, many flaws are going to be angry after reading this book and probably shouldn't pick it up. Those who appreciate the honesty of autobiographical comics will definitely have a lot to like about 120 Days of Simon, even if they hate the title character. Like Robert Crumb, he's willing to show that the life of an alternative cartoonist is sometimes not something you hope for your children. As with Brown and Kochalka, he's not afraid to show himself in less than a stellar light. The difference is that Gardenfors seems like he takes pride in being a horrible person (especially to women), and that places this book below those other creators, who, at least on the printed page, are willing to show shame.

On the other hand, nothing seems to scare or shame Simon Gardenfors, since life had a way of fixing all of his problems by the end. At the end of this book, I don't think he's learned his lesson, though the reader has definitely learned lessons about him. I'd happily read more of Gardenfors' life, but I certainly wouldn't want him to be a part of mine. Fans of autobiographical comics should definitely being this book into their life, and see what they think for themselves.

Top Shelf was kind enough to provide a copy of this book to me for review purposes. Thanks, guys! If you'd like me to do a review for you, please feel free to contact me (trebro @ gmail.com).