The second in a series of posts examining my favorite pamphlet comics of the decade
Young Liars #16, by David Lapham. Published by Vertigo/DC Comics, August 2009.
They don’t sell pamphlets at Borders.
It’s a major reason that serialized monthly comics seem to be on the way out, this inability to crack the major corporate book chains. So it makes a dry, desert-y kind of sense that one of the best pamphlets of the decade would channel as much righteous rage as possible at the big box stores that are so predominant in modern America. Plenty of people, plenty of potential readers, live in towns where they can only read comics from Barnes & Noble, after all. The town this issue’s story centers around is one of those places: Freedom, Arizona, population 897. One of those 897 is Ronald, a small-minded, slightly strange fellow who runs the town’s sandwich shoppe. He’s got all the loaferish, satisfied complacence of your average American hick – he likes his tiny patch of ground all right, and he doesn’t care what else is out there as long as he’s got what he sees. But two new arrivals in Freedom – Brown Bag, a Wal-Mart-style outlet store, and Lorelei, a dangerously sexy woman – end up being the total destruction of the way of life he was so OK with.
This issue’s story works on multiple levels, so first the obvious. Young Liars #16 is a great primer on how corporate expansion sweeps away small towns. It’s got the cause-and-effect storytelling, the emotion, the human interest – it’s almost like the comics version of a Michael Moore documentary. You feel for Freedom’s people, and Lapham takes extra pains to make them seem as small as possible in the face of the enormity of Brown Bag’s power. All they need is the offer of money, and they curl up like dry leaves. This comic says something about the times we live in, and it leaves much more unsaid. It’s an ideological time bomb, provoking the reader to think more and more about the subjects it broaches. What they used to call “thought-provoking”.
Lapham is hardly content with his devastating exploration of modern America, though.
In comes Allegory on page 12, the walking sex bomb Lorelei sweeping into town just after the new superstore goes up. She’s vice president of Brown Bag, and functions throughout the rest of the story as the personification of corporate evil, ruining Ronald’s personal life just as the new outlet ruins his shoppe.
Ronald’s characterization is dead-on perfect. He’s the man up against things too big for him to even fight, let alone win against, and his mixed acceptance, humiliation, and rage is visceral. His scenes with Lorelei are especially good – she nakedly functions as the trashy appeal of American capitalism, dressed in next to nothing, flirty, calculating, and he can only soldier on through her seductiveness, taking small victories in spitting on her sandwich as he makes it or watching her undressing through a window despite the price these actions will exact later. It’s like Nabokov in parts, like Swift in others, viciously clever; Ronald and Lorelei could easily fill up a few great graphic novels.
But Young Liars was first and foremost a personal series, as tangential and winding as a sack full of tall tales and as bizarre as the pull of bad drugs. Part of the series’ unique charm was that it was impossible to tell what was really happening and what was just fantasy, as the same events played out over and over against different backgrounds. It had an at times indecipherable internal logic that obviously meant a lot to its creator, and certainly did to its small cult audience. It’s appropriate that #16’s most affecting layer of meaning is the one that casts Ronald as Lapham himself, the small comics auteur with a creator-owned book that goes head to head every month with sales juggernauts like Thor and Spiderman. Ronald’s sandwich shoppe goes belly-up after the superstore opens their own sandwich counter:
“They had a $2.99 meal deal. Sandwich, drink, chips. And a cookie. How do they do all that for $2.99?”
Reality is knocking at the door of Lapham’s small personal comic, now, as the $2.99-priced Young Liars was being pushed off the stands by more commercial, less inspired fare. And when Ronald’s sister tells him that the only reason his shoppe went under was because he “put three dollars of meat on every sandwich” as opposed to the cheapest possible amount, it hits hard. It hit even harder last June, when news of Lapham’s series (the one that gives you your three dollars worth of creativity with every issue) had recently leaked out from DC/Vertigo: it was to be cancelled in two issues, and Lapham was moving on to the uniformly terrible Wildstorm imprint for a series of video game-adaptation comics.
Ronald ends the issue pleading with the girl who gave him his first and only sexual experience to remember him, to tell him who he is after his idyllic world has been set to flame. Maybe she doesn’t remember him, maybe she does and won’t admit it. Either way, the outcome is the same. She is the potential reader, and Ronald is Lapham, and she isn’t buying what he’s selling, and yes, it is too late.
Then, the end:
“I got a job at the Brown Bag. Sporting goods department. They made me a manager.”
The commercial failure of Young Liars should fall front and center in any explanation of the pamphlet’s own failure. Vertigo again failed to promote an incredibly creative, intelligent comic, instead putting an unprecedented advertising push into the vapid, unoriginal Vertigo Crime line of hardcover graphic novels. If the publishing imprint that bills itself as the face of intelligent, new, creative mainstream American comics couldn’t save a series that personified all those adjectives, just because it was competing with other pamphlets and not graphic novels, how could there be room for any pamphlets but those featuring cash cow superheroes? Young Liars was a series that deserved so much better, that showed us something new for comics to be before it fell victim to an uninterested public. This issue has everything that made it such an indelible read; unforgettable characters, crackpot conspiracy theory, skillful world-building, truly deep meaning, and a thick, swampy surrealism that puts Daniel Clowes in the shade.
But it was one of the final issues of a series whose cancellation had already been announced, a series dead in the water. As that, Lapham’s story takes on an almost mythical dimension; a metafictional rebel yell, screaming out at everything wrong with the market forces that govern the comics industry. This issue is a blazing streak of brilliance scored across a medium that is content to push mediocrity. Lapham was going out, but he wasn’t going before he got his jabs in at the system that screwed his series. Young Liars #16 is an object lesson in human rage at the inhumanities that govern our lives, as right and brilliant and perfect as a big fucking loogie in a rich bitch’s sandwich. At least they couldn’t cancel this.