July 31, 2014

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It Never Happened Again by Sam Alden

Written and Illustrated by Sam Alden
Published by Uncivilized Books

Two stories show Sam Alden's skills at creating situations that leave his characters (and the reader) thinking about their life choices. In the first, a young boy--who may or may not be Alden himself--takes a moonlight stroll in Hawaii, only to encounter a girl who'll leave him with a haunting question after challenging his expectations. The second story features an American who's focused her life so hard on Japanese culture that she's lost all hold of everything else. When she makes it to Japan, the final break from reality happens.

Though the characters--and art styles--could not be more different, Alden ties them together by going for the conceptual link: How do outside influences change our lives, and how do we react to them? It's a question that has no easy answer, and we see that as these tales play out. Alden isn't afraid to let the reader draw their own conclusions, either, as both parts to this narrative contain endings that close a chapter in the protagonists' lives, but by no means finish their story.

Hawaii 1997, the story of the boy, is drawn in an extremely minimalist way, with rough pencils only. Lines sometimes attack each other without the benefit of inks or erasers, as the images created by them fight for dominance, like when the boy (Sam) runs through the trees with the girl. Sometimes shadows cross into the solid shapes of the trees. In other cases, lines are abruptly abandoned, as the outline of Sam is configured almost abstractly instead of in a formal, refined manner. There's a sense of unease here, as if the reader was allowed to see the finished work before it was completed, just as Sam-as-character is interrupted by the girl.

It's a fine line (no pun intended) that Alden walks here, because in most places, the art is raw and primal. Not everyone is going to appreciate the unlined lettering, which shifts across the page. The idea of taking the characters and allowing them to spend most of the story merely as outlines within a densely-pencilled background. It takes an appreciation for the craft involved to use just a pencil to achieve shading, shadow, and structure to really like Hawaii, and I'm not sure how people less attuned to the nature of comics creation would feel about it.

However, if you take the time to linger, and look past what at first glance looks like something unfinished, the amount Alden does with just a pencil is striking. From blurring the world when "Sam" isn't wearing glasses to his Van Gough-like depiction of the stars to the way the water is shaded just a bit differently from the night sky, there are plenty of details to absorb a careful reader.

Even if that's not the kind of thing you might appreciate, the ending of the story hits like a punch to the gut. This girl, who interrupted a night of reflection, leaves "Sam" on a thought that will haunt him forever. It's such a great moment, especially how Alden pans out at the end, to let the depth of the implication set in.

On the other hand, in Anime, the main character is not very good at understanding implications. Janet is under pressure from her father to do more with her life than live in a basement with her boyfriend and work for a local tourist outfit. Initially, Alden allows us to sympathize with her--after all, not everyone wants to be a careerist. But after we see Janet's obsession with all things Japanese, from how she greets people to calling out jokes from manga at uncaring strangers. The fact that she's a weeaboo* and not a person who actually understands the culture she's placing above her own is hammered home in a great moment where Janet doesn't even realize she's watching edited anime and can't tell a Korean-American from someone of Japanese descent.

Once we know enough to know that Janet is a damaged individual with a tenuous connection to reality, the rest of the story--her trip to Japan with her boyfriend--heads in the inevitable direction. Faced with the reality of life in America, Janet makes a choice that's sure to be fatally wrong, but since the reader knows it, Alden just leaves us with a few key scenes, including Janet's utter delusion that she's fitting in perfectly.

Though Anime is also done all in pencil, there is far more detail to the linework. Unlike Hawaii, where the pencil work is rough, the images we see here are mostly polished, at what you might consider the "ready to be inked" stage. It allows us to get a clear picture of Janet and her world, as well as the one she aspires to. It also means that when Alden opts to move back into abstract shapes, it ties into the story. For Janet, the only things that are clear relate to her dream. The reality of pedaling three drunks across town blurs into general shapes, giving visual confirmation of Janet's feelings.

There's a sequence in Anime that is absolutely amazing, though, because it shows that comics can convey a sense of movement, even in static images. Over the course of about 15 panels, Alden focuses not on Janet or the passengers or the plane itself, but what she can see out the window. At one point, all the reader has to look at are a few tiny dots, because they are out over the ocean. You can "see" the plane move as a result, thanks to the framing device, focus, and selection of images presented in this tight window on the action. Though it's probably the least-detailed part of the book, in some ways it's the most powerful, and shows just how much thought goes into Alden's work. As with Hawaii, there's a focus on the craft of telling his story, and the absence of detail is what shows the skill in the way that a million perfectly-placed lines could not do.

It Never Happened Again isn't a book you hand to a casual comics fan. It requires, I think, for the reader to have spent years reading comics in all kinds of forms, because otherwise you don't have the ability to grasp that Alden isn't taking shortcuts by working in pencil or leaving figures in a state of abstraction. Instead, he's taking the nature of visual storytelling and working with it at the most basic level, leaving it there to show just how much goes into crafting a comic from the very start of the page.

If that sounds appealing to you, then you'll love It Never Happened Again. When you combine it with Alden's ability to be philosophical without dragging the reader down into unnecessary angst, it makes for a work that will challenge the reader to engage with it on a level that may be new to them.

If you're willing to do that, you'll be richly rewarded.

You can pick up a copy of It Never Happened Again directly from Uncivilized Books here.