Jessica Abel is a great cartoonist who has an impressive body of work, which includes Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars, Life Sucks, La Perdida, Radio, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures with Matt Madden, and many other titles. Today my recommendation is generally for Jessica Abel’s work (because here at CBC we recommend what we like), but particularly for a collection of her older comics I recently picked up, Soundtrack: Short Stories 1989-1996, published in 2001 by Fantagraphics. This trade paperback collects some Artbabe comics, short fiction, comics journalism, cover art, and comic strips. I’m a sucker for anthologies and miscellanies and Soundtrack is a fine read with lovely art.
Abel’s drawing and writing—whether it be found in her longer narratives, educational publications, or newspaper comics—always looks and feels like a delicate balance. Much of Soundtrack’s illustrations encapsulate both a stylized, sketchy quality and a realistic, natural quality. This aesthetic emphasizes the way in which many of the short stories treat both the intimate, individual particulars of life and the quotidian grind.
Many of the pieces will evoke laughter, some are sad, and some are implicitly political. Many of the short stories remind me of what it felt like to be a young woman full of piss, vinegar, and cheap booze; also to be shiny with artistic aspirations playing music, painting, and working crappy jobs. That is not to say that the comics are adolescent, but rather that they grasp a particular set of formative moments in young people’s lives before the internet. Reading Soundtrack left me with a little nostalgia, but Abel provides so many different tales and nonfiction pieces that there’s no feeling of self-indulgence, just quality storytelling.
A few of my favorite pieces in Soundtrack are “Mile Marker,” “Oh! My Sisters!,” the Artbabe comics, “Punk Pilgrimage,” and “Kek and Poot.” “Mile Marker” contains heavy, driving line-work—much of the very short story takes place in the rain—and its brevity and heaviness feel a bit like the event it narrates. (Read it. I ain’t tellin.) “Oh! My Sisters!” makes me long for the days that I would go purchase zines and comics by Nate Powell and Emily Heiple from Double Entendre Records in the late 90s. “Oh! My Sisters!” inspires me to give 7 Year Bitch/Spitboy/Tribe 8/L7/Bikini Kill tapes to my young sistren and also makes me a little angry and empathetic in a way that feels productive. The words jam together over a narrative that bisects what appears to be a real and imagined response to a sexist jerk. I like to imagine that the whole thing is a “real” response, but it’s all in how you interpret the very clever layout. The Artbabe comics are probably the best-known of Abel’s early work, and for good reason. “Punk Pilgrimage,” a piece of comics journalism on one of Chicago’s few all ages rock venues at the time, captures all the enthusiasm of a bunch of “far-flung suburban kids” coming to the big city for a show. The bowling alley setting is weird and charming, but also familiar to those of us who attended all-ages shows in VFW halls and American Legion posts, slightly defunct restaurants, youth centers, warehouses, squats, and basements. All kinds of basements, readers. Lastly, I have three words about “Kek and Poot”: hell yeah, skategourds!
You can order Soundtrack at your local comics shop because those nice folks almost certainly do special orders. You can also get more information about Jessica Abel and her comics at jessicaabel.com. I personally cannot wait for Abel’s Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the Masters of Radio to come out this August.
Annie D’Orazio is working on her doctoral dissertation, and comics are a big part of it. She also dances, and not just to fight the encroaching hunchback from years of doing research. You can follow her on twitter.