April 17, 2015

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Linework NW Preview: The Pants Dropping Truth in Jason Little's Borb



Borb
Written and Drawn by Jason Little
Published by Uncivilized Books

The cruelest joke in Jason Little’s Borb is that the best moments in the life of the homeless Borb end with him waking up from dreams and finding out that his life hasn’t gotten any better. He’s still a drunk and living on the streets. Each small comic strip in this book is a constant trial for Borb while the universe ignores the man’s troubles. Taken a page at a time, Borb almost looks like a comedy as the times and life of its title character become a unending series of almost ridiculously mounting bad luck for a man who starts out losing all of his teeth, twice even. It’s hard to tell how much Little is exaggerating these events as opposed to just naturally extrapolating what it would be like for a man with no home, no love, no money, no insurance and no place in society for him to exist in. For as unlikely as the horrors of Borb’s life are, once you don’t have anything how much can you expect anything good to happen?

The Comedy...
Stripping his character of everything except for the clothes Borb is wearing, Little creates a world without love. More than just the absence of the love of another person, Borb’s existence is devoid of the love or caring of any external forces, call it “nature” or “God” or whatever you will. Dedicating the book to “the guy with the shopping cart who lived under the Culver viaduct at 2nd Avenue and 10th Street, Brooklyn, circa 2009-2011,” the cartoonist puts us into the shoes of this character and that’s probably not a place where any of us have been before. Addled mind from booze and drug abuse, Borb is practically a babe in this world that is at best completely indifferent to him. He loses his teeth, he breaks his legs, he sets his shelter on fire, he sees people he once knew in a completely different life and yet he keeps on going. Each day, he gets up, drinks his way through the hours and then finds someplace to sleep to do it again tomorrow.

The cruelty of Little’s story is just how meaningless it all is. Borb isn’t “just some homeless guy” everywhere he goes but that’s what his life is summed up as in the end. Along the way, there are people who notice him, who try to help him and who try to harm him. And yet ultimately, all of that doesn’t mean a thing. The promo blurb for Borb compares him to Voltaire’s Candide, the man who believed in “the best of all possible worlds.” For Borb to be like Candide, Borb would need to have some kind of expressed worldview or some type of reaction to the world around him. Borb actually appears to be more like the Biblical Jude, without the love of a God to protect him. Jude was tested because of his faith but there is none of that in Borb. 

And the Tragedy
As Little draws the book to resemble old comic strips, the structure of the book keeps heaping one bad event on top of the last one. Trapped in an uncaring existence, Borb keeps on going but why? What is there to his life than the next bottle of liquor and the next place to sleep. As his own actions have taken away the good things in his life, the strip nature of this comic shows us bits and pieces of just what he's lost and what he dreams of. For as much as it may be an uncaring universe, Little doesn’t absolve Borb of any responsibility for his current state. We see how Borb plummeted into the life he had and along with him we see what Borb has lost. If the world is loveless, there’s also a vacuum of love in Borb’s existence. And it’s an absence that comically fills Borb’s days with the constant struggle just to make it through another day.

Borb is heartbreaking and frustrating. It’s funny and tender but it’s also harsh and damning. The book doesn’t blame the world for what has happened to Borb but the book also doesn’t let Borb or his fellow humanity off the hook for the events on nearly every single page. There are probably many ways to read Borb, from nihilistic to freeing and Little leaves it open just enough that probably neither of those readings is completely right or completely wrong. It’s hard to find love or grace in a world where those things just don’t exist and where that void drives so many of the darkly amusing things that happen to Borb. The universe doesn’t care and Little nudges us to wonder why it doesn’t.