Jonathan Ames plays an anti-superhero
in the graphic novel The Alcoholic
by JULIET WATERS
The Alcoholic, the first graphic novel written by Jonathan Ames, is the story of a chronically drunk novelist named Jonathan A. The parallels between author and fictional character are many and obvious.
Jonathan A. attends Yale. In his early career, he develops a wardrobe that consists pretty much of slacker variations on the Tom Wolfe white suit. He shaves his head as a pre-emptive strike on premature baldness. When he wants to cheer himself at readings, he’ll pull out a crowd-pleaser essay called “I Shit My Pants in the South of France.”
According to Wikipedia, Jonathan Ames went to Princeton. I saw him read that same “shit my pants” essay in 2003, when he came here for Just for Laughs. He was bald, and his suit was pale seersucker.
I don’t know if Jonathan Ames ever woke up from a blackout to discover himself in a station wagon getting a blowjob from an octogenarian dwarf. Or whether he’s been fired from a private girls’ school in Virginia for succumbing to the offer of a back-to-school orgy. Or whether he then found himself on a bus back to New York, wearing only one shoe. But it’s a good guess that he’s also an alcoholic.
I found myself just as intrigued, however, by the parallels between Jonathan A. and Spiderman. Both are orphans who live in the big city and depend on the unconditional love of a kind aunt. Both have a signature suit, and dome-like heads. Both have a double life: Peter Parker/Spiderman, Jonathan A./Drunk. Both have lives largely determined by a fate of blood chemistry. Both, in their daily lives, would tend to fall under the rubric “mild mannered.” Both have a deep but star-crossed connection to a childhood love: Peter with Mary Jane, Jonathan A. with his best friend Sal, who keeps Jonathan at a distance to deny Sal’s homosexuality. And finally, both have kick-ass illustrators.
The Alcoholic is destined to become a classic, and Ames owes a large part of this to the graphic skills of Dean Haspiel. There’s something irresistibly resonant about Haspiel’s style, especially in Jonathan A.’s early years as an ordinary self-loathing teen. Anyone who came of age in the ’80s will feel massive waves of nostalgia for the Marvel aesthetic (which Haspiel cultivated working as an assistant to Bill Sienkiewicz on New Mutants and Elektra: Assassin) and the self-conscious author/poseur persona Ames cultivates. Who doesn’t remember someone who used “fear and loathing” for pretty much every article he wrote in his high school journalism career?
Ames is a gifted writer. But with great power comes great responsibility, and he’s just not up to the job of being a serious talent. He is, however, willing to sacrifice the huge amount of dignity it often takes to be seriously funny. Alcohol brings out the good-time raconteur in him. But he’s also highly allergic. Haspiel gets ample opportunity for pen-and-ink puke scenarios. Jonathan A. also develops a bad case of irritable bowel syndrome, thus the scene where he gets kicked out of a cab in France for taking a “caca dans ma voiture comme un chien!” Ames is brutal on Jonathan A. He wakes up naked in a vomit-filled garbage can, dumped there the night before by a gay coke dealer after being coaxed into a striptease.
And that’s the comic part of the tragicomedy. There’s the loss of his parents, killed in a car accident just after his graduation from Yale. And there’s the day he accompanies his neighbour to an emergency morgue on September 11; her husband was at a meeting in Windows on the World. For all its campiness and high-calibre nostalgia, The Alcoholic is not a lighthearted book. It’s a sad and often lovely story propelled by honesty more than wounded narcissism, a story that feels both complete and to be continued.
THE ALCOHOLIC BY JONATHAN AMES.
VERTIGO, HC., 136 PP., $22.99.