Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Comics Review: Other Lives, Peter Bagge

This review was originally published on The Comics Journal's website on April 10, 2010.

Peter Bagge has always had a knack for depicting compulsive and monomaniacal personalities. He never fails to find new variations of the type, and he never seems to repeat himself. One would be hard-pressed to find a Bagge character that isn’t a vivid, unique personality. Best of all, he knows how to play them off each other for maximum impact. There isn’t a better creator of situation comedy in comics (or elsewhere) today.

The four principals of Other Lives are worthy Bagge creations. The first introduced is Javy, a computer-programming whiz and conspiracy theorist, who may or may not be a government agent. He’s followed by Vader, a self-pitying journalist who’s completely hung up over his past. There’s also Vader’s fiancĂ©e Ivy, who’s fixated on two things: their wedding and the virtual-fantasy community website Second World. Her companion on the site is Vader’s friend Woodrow, an insurance adjuster who can’t own up to either his gambling addiction or his divorce.

Several scenes are gems. Javy and Vader’s conversations are witty roller-coaster rides, with Vader’s skepticism butting up against every intricacy of Javy’s seeming delusions. Ivy’s aggravation with Vader’s self-loathing is also well handled. Bagge makes the scenes funny while keeping both characters sympathetic, and he never once condescends to them. The most enjoyable scenes are those with Ivy and Woodrow’s avatars on the virtual-fantasy site. Ivy sees the site as an opportunity to cut loose, and the scenes of her committing virtual mayhem against the other site denizens are a delight. Her relationship with Woodrow is also wryly funny. The two aren’t on the same wavelength at all. One can’t help but chuckle at how they talk past each other in nearly every scene.

Parts of the book don’t work. Bagge’s explicit theme is that the Internet has led to people assuming multiple identities within their lives, but he doesn’t develop it into any greater insight or irony. As such, it always takes a back seat to the character comedy. And the book’s climactic scene feels completely wrong. One expects a comic crescendo as the conflicts between the principals boil over. But there’s nothing funny about it when it comes. Bagge gives us a scene of horrible, wasteful violence that ends with two of the characters dead. One wonders what he was thinking. The shift into violent melodrama is not, to put it mildly, consistent with the rest of the book’s tone. Worse, Bagge doesn’t have the kind of chops necessary to pull it off. There’s no sense of dread as the climax approaches, which denies it any cathartic power. Bagge’s highly stylized art works against the scene as well. The drawings are too abstract to give the violence weight. One wonders if it’s going to turn out to be a put-on, and when it doesn’t it leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.

But Bagge keeps his wits about him until then. He’s been one of the funniest cartoonists around for over two decades now, and Other Lives is a fine example of his work.

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