Thursday, September 25, 2008

Essential Comic Strips: Amy and Jordan

Mark Beyer's Amy and Jordan is a pure expression of nihilism, despair, and misfortune, each individual strip a haiku of suffering starring the luckless, pitiable title characters. It's no coincidence that Beyer's standalone book starring the same duo was titled Agony. This relentlessness makes Amy and Jordan a perfect comic strip to be read as a comic strip; other strips survive or even improve with the transition to book collections, but Beyer's malicious masterwork is best read in small doses. Read too many in one sitting and you risk being overwhelmed by Beyer's outlook, which is so stringently negative it verges on self-parody. Each strip is an utterly self-contained examination of the suffering of Amy and Jordan, a pair of sometimes-lovers who seem forced by cruel destiny to cohabit together despite their mutual antagonism and lack of affection. The horrors that befall this unlikely couple are sometimes perpetrated on each other, but more often it seems as though the world itself is conspiring against them. They are attacked by "demons carrying carving knives," they're poisoned by food gathered in the sewers, they inexplicably lose limbs or are shot, stabbed, and drowned, they're thrown away as trash; just to list a few of the nasty adventures they're put through week after week.

Sometimes Beyer's miniature tragedies have the sting of social and political commentary: the duo are poor, perpetually unable to get jobs, and Amy's degree from "Nothing School" turns out not to be much help, go figure. In one of the most horrifying episodes, Jordan walks down the street, stumbling across an injured bird, an abandoned baby lying in the gutter, and a severed human head, but he can't find the one thing he's looking for: some money to put food on the table for Amy and himself. The strip is a chilling portrait of disconnection, urban blight, drugs, and rampant crime, all of it adding up to the creation of a generation who feel constantly assaulted from all sides, unable to connect with one another. The willful absurdity of the situations is Beyer's warped version of political cartooning or caricature: through all the horrifying imagery, one can recognize the society Beyer is critiquing.

And yet, despite everything, there's a streak of cruel, bitter humor running through Amy and Jordan, and this saves the strip from being just another run-of-the-mill atrocity showcase. Beyer's humor is hard to explain, mostly because nothing about his strips seems all that funny when they're merely described. The humor is there anyway, though, in Amy and Jordan's blunt acceptance of the unspeakable tragedies that befall them, and especially in the odd, distancing way that Beyer presents these vignettes of woe. Indeed, each installment of the strip is an exercise in inventing the most illogical, ludicrous, and distracting ways of telling the supposedly central story. Beyer takes the art of the panel border to such extremes that the borders frequently overpower the actual panels. In one installment, the joke is that the borders have become so big that there is no longer space for the main characters — confined to a tall, thin rectangle where she is barely recognizable, Amy bemoans her fate and then disappears from the strip, leaving the last of these thin rectangles completely white, surrounded by the busy design of the supposed "borders." Even when things aren't quite this extreme, the strip often gives equal space to the non-narrative imagery, and in many strips the story panels alternate with equal-sized panels taken up by design elements and dividers. Sometimes, the story zigzags across the strip, forcing the reader's eye to dart snake-like across the page, as though following Amy and Jordan through a maze. In other strips, the panels are being eaten by fish, or else spiraling downward while shrinking into unreadability, the narrative collapsing into a pit. In one particularly dazzling strip, the panels are jagged vertical wisps that form wings extending from the back of an insect, who actually takes up most of the space that week. Beyer's deconstruction of his own storytelling turns each weekly strip into a dense, torturously constructed poem in which the free-ranging despair of the story sits uneasily within a framework of formal ingenuity and imagination.

Amy and Jordan is not an easy comic to get into. After all, this is a strip that ends one episode with the dubious punchline: "Someday I'll be down there under the ground. Just another piece of rotting meat helping to keep the air pure and the landscape beautiful... I can't wait." Calling Beyer's wit "gallows humor" would perhaps be understating the case. His crude, purposefully ugly drawings also take some getting used to, but his art is perfectly suited to the urban bleakness he portrays. These lumpen, misshapen characters, their heads like deformed potatoes with the orifices sloppily carved out, reflect on the outside what they must feel like inside. Moreover, their simplified, designy appearance — especially Amy's checkered dress and matching checkered hair — aligns them with the outrageous flights of fancy going on outside the panel borders. It's all part of the same ludicrous, horrifying, fascinating vision, the monstrous world flowing from Beyer's pen.

No comments: