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Scablands
posted March 5, 2015
 

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Creator: RL Crabb
Publishing Information: Self-Published, Softcover, 192 pages, 2014, $19.95.
Ordering Numbers: 9781312304109 (ISBN13). You can order it direct here.

imageThis magazine-proportioned trade paperback -- think of the first Love and Rockets trades, or books by people like Mary Fleener -- shifted to the top of my to-read pile when I was recently assembling my books for a cross-country move. RL Crabb is a proud member of the alt-comics generation, son-of-underground-comix division. His works are much more reminiscent of 1970s undergrounds than they are of the works that surged to the forefront in the 1990s, but this was a very rich vein of comics-making through the 1980s and into the 1990s, with Weirdo its flagship publication. Crabb's work appeared in that magazine and also in Snarf and Rip Off Comix. I know he lived for a time before my arrival in Seattle's Ballard house with two cartoonists working out of that same roughly conceived-of tradition, Pat Moriarity and JR Williams. I think of him as a comix and newspaper cartoonist 'tweener, possessed of an appealing style but not one to have made a lot of sustained work over time.

You can imagine my surprise, then, digging into what is an overarching narrative made up of several anecdotal vignettes. The comics in Scablands seem to come primarily from a time before his period in Seattle, but they also jump to several years before that (Northern California) and again all the way into the 1970s (Atlanta). There are also side trips from the focused narrative involving a series of repo-man jobs into, for example, a book about a 19th Century Native American mystic from the same, beat-up, small-town Washington corridor in which he now finds himself lifting cars, an individual whom Crabb treats as both an ideal and at times a comic foil. Connecting everything is this delicately-realized state of mind of a man and a post-hippie generation coming to terms with a shift in lifestyle brought about by age and economic reality. Crabb has to learn to let go of certain conceptions of himself that he never seems to have seized onto in the first place. What we experience is less a mid-life crisis than an extended letter of mid-life consolation.

I really liked the art work. Crabb seems more comfortable as a writer than as an artist, which makes the visuals flourish more frequently than the core of his narrative. Crabb simplifies the elements of his scene work but also exaggerates the individual set pieces; it's like watching actors play against stenciled background or outsized stage sets. His depiction of self is sort of hilariously nondescript; more often than not Crabb's self-identified stand-in looks slightly damp, like he walked in 40 seconds after a rain started. Despite what seems like a limited range in terms of style there is a definite and appealing break between the fantasy material and the "real world" stories. Crabb has a natural sense for where to place blacks to drive the eye and move the story along; he's also not afraid to sharply change his rhythm for a change or more through radically different page structures. Given how many breaks there are in the story everything holds together very well, in part I think because of the blunt comforts of the imagery.

I'd love this book simply for existing; luckily there are enough reasons I can also like it on merit alone. After flailing around the country and falling back in time, Crabb's final transformation is so matter-of-fact and so incremental that it's wholly believable. I'd love to see him get from this time in his life to where he is now.

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