Advance Review: Couch Tag will be released on December 20, 2013
It’s a weird thing, being a kid. At an early age you become aware of so much of what happens around you. But even while you’re aware of everything, your view of reality is also completely distorted. Events that you may see in retrospect as being completely wrong or bizarre seem perfectly normal when you’re a kid.
For me, looking back, the strangest thing was the casual way that everybody accepted my mom’s chronic depression as if it was just a normal, everyday thing. My parents were both second-generation Jews who grew up in crowded apartment buildings in Brooklyn where all their family members spoke Yiddish and some spoke nothing but that language. But my dad was a hard worker, and was able to get himself out of the old neighborhood and into a nice semi-suburban house in Rosedale, Queens – the last town before suburban Long Island. Looking back on my childhood, I remember it as being pretty bucolic. I had lots of friends, and all of us read comics and rode bikes and did all those things that pre-pubescent kids did together back in the day.
But little did I notice that right under my nose there was craziness happening. My maternal grandmother was desperately stricken with late-stage diabetes that rendered her blind and dulled the nerves in her feet and hands. Meanwhile, my mother was afflicted with a crippling depression that made her fall into crying fits with little or no provocation, and would cause incredible emotional stress in our household. All that trauma seemed normal at the time – didn’t everybody’s mom scream at their dad for an hour every night about absolutely nothing? That was a given, inescapable fact in my family life, so how could it not be a normal thing in other peoples’ lives? (Looking back, it seems obvious why I loved the power fantasies of super-hero comics so much, especially the whole idea of puny Bruce Banner turning into the muscle-bound Hulk as an expression of his id.)
I mention all this not because I feel like unburdening myself before a group of strangers, but because that’s the type of memories and thoughts stirred up by Jesse Reklaw’s outstanding new memoir Couch Tag. Like my memories, Reklaw’s memoir is an attempt to make sense of events that were impossible to understand at the time: his parents’ profoundly dysfunctional marriage, divorce and separate lives, and how those events and other complex turmoil shaped his approach to the world.
Couch Tag is a collection of five interconnecting stories. The first, “Thirteen Cats of My Childhood”, sets the pace of this book. In it, Reklaw slowly introduces readers to his family through the simple device of introducing us to the long line of cats that Jesse and his sister adopted over the years. First there was Black Star, who was run over by a car, then Black Star II who was absorbed into the wild. There were kittens that died shortly after being born, and cats so skittish they ran away and other cats that were just plain mean.
The notion of all these cats, who are mostly indifferent to people and impermanent in the house, becomes a metaphor for the dysfunction in Jesse’s family. Through the prism of young kids with cats, we meet Jesse’s father, a former drug dealer who misses his old pursuits despite relative success in the construction industry. Jesse’s dad was extremely restless – in the first two dozen pages of this book it seems the family moves a half-dozen times – and extremely volatile. He would work himself into moods, especially when drinking, and make the house a living hell. At other times, for instance when nursing an ailing kitten back to health, Jesse’s father seems the picture of middle-class domestic happiness.
It’s this deep tension that gives Couch Tag its real power. Reklaw shows an incredible memory for the knowing detail in this book, especially in the way that his dad is both an incredibly destructive force and occasionally a positive force – if for no other reason that his father’s abuse shapes Reklaw’s life as much as my mother’s depression shaped mine.
Though this book is very serious and dramatic, there are real moments of levity and charm in it. For instance, “The Fred Robinson Story” tells about Reklaw’s friendship with his pal Brendan and the adventures they get involved in. They played cards, made prank phone calls, TP’d peoples’ houses – all the silly things that bored teens and tweens might get involved with in the days before the internet.
But Jesse’s and Brendan’s cleverest pranks happen later in this chapter: when they come up with a cool Batman logo to put over the signs that display on dead-end streets, the boys have a really great time wandering their area playing pranks on people. But that’s nothing compared with the fascination that the two take with Fred Robinson, a random stranger who they find in the Sacramento phone book to whom they send boxes of junk, comic strips and all kinds of similar things. It’s a clever gag and I wish I’d thought of it when I was their age, because I would have been telling that legend for the rest of my life. The prank blazes hot for a while, as the boys have their fun, then cools down as one goes overseas. But the “Fred Robinson” stories become part of the boy’s shared vocabulary anyway, a great set of anecdotes that they could share every time they get together.
Most of this book is drawn in black-and-white. It’s sometimes presented in a clean-line style, sometimes in in a much more painterly style, with loose charcoal-style brushstrokes and more impressionistic lettering. That painterly style is on display in black and white in the tale of a teacher accused of sexually harassing a student, and later in color in the final 27 pages of this book, a clever sequence called “Lessoned” that takes has one letter of the alphabet as its theme.
Where the black and white pages in this style feel muddy and hard to read (Were they created in color and then published in black and white, I had to wonder), in these last pages the color is an ideal accent to Reklaw’s presentation, showing a subtle veneer of Jesse’s emotions (or his drug use) as he presents the events that sum up the deeply moving tale we’ve been reading. The painterly colors and impressionistic lettering style move Reklaw’s memoir away from the emotional realism of the previous chapters and into a more three-dimensional portrayal of his emotions that brings a deeper level of perception to the memoir he’s sharing; when we see blue and red paint strokes stray outside the panel borders in the page called “Phlegmatic”, we can now feel the emotions that w
e were told about previously in the book.
It’s a remarkable ending for a few reasons: first, that the more impressionistic style brings perhaps the only appropriate ending for this story. And maybe equally importantly, this ending stands as a culmination of Reklaw’s artistic ambition in this book: by now showing readers how he feels, rather than telling us, he’s demonstrating that he’s emerged into his own creative force as a cartoonist, moving away from his parents’ influence – and the influences of his artistic heroes – and into his own potential as a creator.
I can empathize with the difficulty of moving beyond the persona that your parents help create for you, of trying to make your own way, carve your own path that feels independent of the depression or turmoil that you saw all around you during your early years. But of course, we can never move beyond our influences. We can only try to accept them, accept who we are and move on with our lives. In creating this outstanding and memorable memoir, Jesse Reklaw has moved into his own life while accepting the influences that helped shape him. In doing so he’s creating an outstanding graphic memoir.