The problem of waste is a funky thing. Due to the law of the conservation of mass things do not just simply disappear. All that stuff we use, all that stuff that holds that other stuff? It has to go somewhere. Derf Backderf frequently points out in Trashed that just because our refuse vanishes once place curbside it’s rarely ever gone.
A few years back I read the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer and it instantly riveted a place on my list of all-time favorite comics. Backderf’s seminal work is intricately personal but dutifully distant, a memoir that examines an acute singular evil in journalistic detail. In an almost ironic way Trashed is an inverse of that in that it strives to expose the tiny transgressions of an entire planet.
I’m fairly centrist on environmental issues, and by that I mean I pretty much go with the flow on things like recycling and cutting carbon emissions but I’m not optimistic we can get millions and billions to reverse the trend of consumption and expansion. Compared to Backderf I’m sunny like Apollo.
The former political cartoonist makes sure to let you know that Trashed is a fictional story but he also reveals that like My Friend Dahmer he had a close relationship with the subject material when he served as a garbage man in his twenties. Backderf produced a few short stories around the concept over the years but he explains that the more cohesive it became he more it filled out with made-up details. The protagonist of this “new” Trashed is J.B., a standard young dude looking for enough scratch to live on his own and afford a beer now and again. When he finds a job with the local municipal garbage crew he figures it’ll be short-term gig but his continued employment speaks to a certain level of self-loathing.
The story line and characters of the work are in no way the draw. It’s a pretty sparse affair though I wouldn’t say unsuccessful. Backderf’s style possesses a certain wit and twang, a tone I’ll admit I sometimes find grating, and that’s certainly exists among J.B. and the rest of the mostly male cast. A Midwestern charm is fused into the setting, The Village, but latched to that are the annoyances of middle America and humanity in general. Cynicism is wrought throughout, in the prose, in the main character’s outlook, in the fate of the side players and especially in the copious amount of garbage.
That’s the book’s prime appeal: well-researched and clearly illustrated trash facts. The highlights are definitely the narrative portions that detail the dizzying numbers regarding our output: An average American produces 1200 pounds of trash per year; There are around 2000 landfills, many others closed, and some swell beyond 2000 acres; New York City spends two billion annually on trash collection and part of that cost is shipping all of it to a whole different state.
The creator’s pencil work is as it ever was, drastic and misshapen but nonthreatening and almost comfy. His veteran abilities show in the story’s pace and emphasis on objects and texture. This is a slippery, stinky, sloppy, squealing and sardonic comic and it’s evident in the art. The informative sections are concise and I love the analytic mind in terms of showing us how cool the machinery is. The workmanlike effort shows up again and again in the rendering, from the rolling hills of trash bags, to keeping us privy to every creak, bang and vroom of the garbage truck, Betty.
My favorite aspect of Trashed crosses the character-driven aspects with the factual elements. Garbageman is the sixth-most dangerous occupation in the USA! That’s a crazy statistic, and even more are some of the anecdotal bits like the proliferation of maggots, ornery and odd citizens, foul fragrances and laborious loads.
Backderf states the facts plainly and is passive in his condemnation. We use a lot of shit, it’s built into our economy and our lifestyles. It would take a massive revolution to buck the trend of throwing away appliances when one replaceable component breaks, or switching from paper and plastic kitchenware and cleaning tools to reusable products, or not pissing in bottles and tossing them along the highway (a putridly fascinating epidemic).
Though it’s not as powerful as My Friend Dahmer this graphic novel is likely just as haunting and much more important. The basic moral is simply “Don’t be an asshole”, a sentiment that has been a running theme in Derf Backderf’s career. This comic is an excellent in executing the intersection between personal and informative, a flirtation with creative non-fiction, however the fictional element is basically a framing device and generally doesn’t work. Outside of Magee, the totem to hipster culture, the people of the Village are not compelling and that prevents the work from hitting a high literary note it’s awfully close to achieving.
The success of Trash is in it’s delivery of pertinent and shocking information. This book should be distributed in high schools and colleges simply to get people to understand the scope of things. It’s not just an American problem, people worldwide are tossing away the runoff of their lives and finding clever ways to hide it. It’s not the worst problem in the world but it’s certainly on the list and steadily climbing.