For his third release from Birdcage Bottom Books in under a year, Twin Cities cartoonist Lance Ward is once again going the autobio/memoir route, but taking more of a “long view” than he did with his tightly-focused graphic novel Blood And Drugs and it short companion/epilogue publication, The Truth Behind Blood And Drugs. Specifically, he’s going back to his childhood, beginning his ruminations at age 11 when he lived with his soon-to-splintered family in the soul-dead “exurb” of Forest Lake, Minnesota — a place that, trust me, anyone is lucky to make it out of in one piece, mentally speaking.
It’s debatable whether or not Ward managed to actually do that, of course, although he seems stable, amicable, and definitely on a creative “hot streak” in recent months, a fact for which we should all be grateful — but getting to “here” from “there” has been no easy task for the suddenly-prolific artist, and while there’s very little by way of either of blood or drugs to be found in Flop Sweat #1 (the first of what promises to be at least a six-issue run), you do come away from this mini with a pretty clear understanding of how both came to feature prominently in his life, as well as why.
All that being said, if you’re a Ward “newbie,” this ain’t a bad place to start. Presented in lush full color, the immediacy of his slapdash-style, loose and sketchy illustration is arresting and would frankly both feel false and lose a good degree of its impact if it were more polished and professional. Ditto for the economic scripting, which likewise privileges the nearest thing memory can approximate to authenticity above, say, literary style, and again not only does the job, but lends to the work the raw power it needs to be truly effective. I would surmise that most readers of this site have read a literal shit-ton of autobio comics in their time, with the absolutely ubiquitous sub-genre of “childhood memoir” looming large in that reading history, but you’ve seldom seen it executed this well, with this level of resonance.
Which probably — and understandably — would lead one to assume that what we’ve got on our hands with this one is a litany or tragedies and travails both large and small, and that’s partly true, but not entirely. Yeah, there’s familial disintegration when his alcoholic father flies the coop and his mother descends into an endless internal pit of anger, bitterness, and despair that she externalizes with devastating results; there’s the requisite economic hardship that tragically almost allows follows in the wake of abandonment; there’s school bullying and social banishment — hell, Ward even does a terrific job of reminding readers why “first-world problems” such as having to wear off-brand shoes as a kid can lead to quasi-permanent psychic scarring. But —
Being nothing less than a master of pacing and narrative flow at this point in his career, Ward knows just when and how to intersperse his darkness with the occasional small blip of light, whether that comes in the form of relating vignettes that describe the solace he finds in reading comics and, eventually, drawing his own; the temporary sense of accomplishment and respect he feels when being cast in a school play; the sheer, unmitigated happiness he derives from riding an old bike around and, perhaps most crucially, the important interpersonal connection he slowly forges in his budding friendship with fellow outcast George, the child of a fundamentalist Pentecostal family whose customs and practices the young Ward (and probably his older self, truth be told) can’t begin to fathom, but whose generosity of spirit he absolutely values and appreciates.
Still, it’s mostly a series of “one step forward, two steps back” events here, and almost any progress Ward makes flies right out the window when his mother hooks up with a burly loser named Jim, who is nothing so much as an endless stream of belittlement and low-grade psychological abuse made lumpy flesh. Where things go from here is likely to be unpleasant (even if — spoiler alert! — Ward somehow manages to survive it all), especially considering that by issue’s end our budding anti-hero is firmly in that “acting out” phase that’s an interminable enough thing for even well-adjusted young teens to go through, but I flat-out defy you to bail out on the rest of the series after having read this debut installment. Ward is operating at the absolute height of his powers to date, and with only one issue under his belt, he’s already created one of the best ongoing series out there right now.