October 8, 2011

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Life with Mr. Dangerous

Written by Paul Hornschemeier
Illustrated by Paul Hornschemeier
Villard (Random House)

Amy is your typical mid-twenties girl who's having a hard time finding her way through life.  With a mother who plays it safe (while wishing she didn't), a love-life that keeps filtering its way through a series of bad ideas, and a job that pays the bills but nothing else, Amy finds her only solace in a popular television show that seems absolutely mind-numbing in its repetition and theme.  Can Amy find a way out of her rut?  Or she bound by the same rules as her sitcom?

This book was originally put together as a series of entries in Fantagraphics' Mome anthology, which is where I recognized part of the narrative.  In style and theme, it's a typical real-world comic.  By that I mean the type of book where the protagonist could be you (or someone you know) struggling with what it's like to grow up here in the twenty-first century, with all its complications, anxieties, and worries. How much you like that type of story will heavily influence your opinion of the book.  If you see them as diaries of the possible you (or your friend), then connections can be made with the book.  If you tend to think of them as whining to the world at large about how terrible life for a child of the 1980s is, then you're going to hate the protagonist and the overall story.  I like these kinds of comics, because they offer windows into how those of us of similar age are coping with the world around us.  If you aren't of the same age group, it's possible that this comic might not work for you at all.

With that out of the way, let's look at the story itself.  Here, Hornschemeier looks at what it's like when you put your life on a holding pattern, doing just enough to survive but nothing to progress.  For most of the book, Amy is seen as denying her feelings for a long-time friend, Michael.  As a result, she sleep-walks through a series of relationships and one-night stands that might not be as bad as she makes them out to be, but are not healthy for her at all.  Amy is surrounded by people who do the same, in different ways, ranging from her passive-aggressive mother (who feels she can't change because to do so would lead to certain failure) to a co-worker who's too meek to stand up for herself.  Even the more aggressive people in the story are seemingly happily to rule their own little worlds, never looking past the edge of their nose.

While Amy starts to fight back against this feeling, her favorite show, Life with Mr. Dangerous, seems stuck in a rut.  As she explores what it means to be Amy, the show keeps flashing back to a certain point.  This is one of the best narrative tricks Hornschemeier uses in the book, because it's so subtle.  There are no flashing neon signs that Amy's life is like a perpetual re-run, but we can recognize it all the same.  Only when Amy starts to look beyond what she's familiar with can Life with Mr. Dangerous move on.

Hornschemeier's artwork reminds me of Daniel Clowes and those of his ilk.  The characters are presented realistically, stiffly, and just a bit like they are sleep-walking, which fits the narrative tone well.  He does move into caricature when Amy moves out of her reality, giving some nice change of pace pages and preventing the art from being too uniform.  I really like that the characters in the book look like actual people.  Amy is just a bit overweight, with a plain haircut.  The men aren't gorgeous.  Amy's co-workers could be found in just about any retail store.  It's always nice to see artists who want to tell real-life stories trying to provide characters who look real for the reader.

Life with Mr. Dangerous is not funny, except perhaps tragically, despite some of the back cover blurbs.  It's the story of a woman who has to decide if she's going to do the same old thing or make a change.  That's a question many, many people around my age have to make, day in and day out.  It's not easily and what you decide may not even work.  Hornschemeier recognizes this, and makes a great book about twenty-something living in the process.  If you are of the right mind or age, this is going to be a great book for you.  It might even make you re-think your own life.