Don’t look now, but it appears as though toiling away with too little recognition for far too long is finally paying off for superb cartoonist Anya Davidson, who is having something of a “moment” in the (admittedly rather insular) world of “alternative” and/or “underground” comics. Her strip “Hypatia’s Last Hours” was one of the standout entries in Kramers Ergot #9, the handsome hardback collection of her Band For Life web comics from Fantagraphics was one of the best-reviewed titles of last year, and she’s now followed up those successes with the release of her new long (-ish) form original hard-boiled crime/period piece Lovers In The Garden, yet another distinctive release to see the light of day under the auspices of the Retrofit Comics/ Big Planet Comics co-publishing venture. Set smack dab in the middle of New York’s 1970s heroin epidemic, this comic definitely wears its Serpico-style “police thriller” and blaxploitation influences proudly on its sleeve, but rather than wallowing in storytelling standards of days gone by instead filters them through a decidedly singular artistic lens to come up with a truly unique and instantly memorable reading experience.
Edgy (a term I generally despise), gritty (ditto for that), and at all times authentic, this story of most-likely-doomed souls plays itself out via a means of Tarantino-esque intersecting vignettes focusing in brief on the lives of Vietnam vets-turned-hitmen Shephard and Flashback, art dealer/crime lord Dog, ambitious undercover cop Coral Gables (love that name), mob enforcer Mystic Blue (the hits just keep on coming), and lush reporter Elyse Saint-Michel, as well as various hangers-on rotating in and out of their respective orbits, with each short-form segment inexorably moving its pieces chessboard-style toward a final and climactic confrontation/denouement/heaping helping of karma that will irrevocably shatter lives at best, end them at worst. Its heady stuff delivered in deceptively low-key, “slice of life” fashion, but you can never escape the feeling that things really aren’t gonna work out too well for anybody.
And, hell, maybe they shouldn’t — Davidson’s view toward her characters is never less than sympathetic, but it would be a reach to say there are any genuine “good guys” on offer here, apart from perhaps Coral, who is still guilty of hiding some pretty big secrets of her own and seems to enjoy play-acting the part of smack-seller a little too much for her own good. Everyone is given a surprising amount of depth for the rather short amount of “screen time” each is offered, though, so by the time the shit finally hits the fan, there’s a definite air of Greek Tragedy about the whole enterprise. None of these folks are anyone you’d want moving into your neighborhood, but at the same time you can’t help but feel sorry for each and every one of them for any number of reasons. The gut-punches each of their downward spirals serve up are mitigated somewhat, though, by Davidson’s thick-lined and almost relentlessly “upbeat” art style, awash in vibrant-bordering-on-garish colors, but as much as a strict formalist might feel it all looks a bit “cartoony” for its heavy subject matter, for my part I found the illustrations served as yet another humanizing factor that prevented any of the cast from crossing the line into pure caricature. These are drawings of people, not tropes, and while it would be a lie to call the art in this book “fluid,” it’s nevertheless highly expressive and wonderfully effective.
Stop me now, then, before I run out of superlatives. Intricate without feeling forced, complex without belaboring its own cleverness, Lovers In The Garden is essential reading that will richly reward careful second, third, fourth (and more) perusals. I’d tell you to go out and get it right now, but even “right now” may not be soon enough.