Saturday, 1 November 2014

Book Club Report: A Discussion with Sam Alden on It Never Happened Again

Longing and Belonging

I'll always remember the day I was first introduced to comic books. One of my dearest childhood memories was walking (6 blocks exactly) to the independent video rental place near my family's house in Quebec City. It was a cold but sunny spring day and my grandmother took me there to get one comic book. She was over for the weekend and wanted to encourage me to read in English. My entire family is French. I went to a typical French school, and the English language was not commonly spoken in that part of town, or even in the town in general. She understood the value of learning a second language, even though she never learned one herself. She knew I enjoyed cartoons and figured that I would at least be interested in the medium of comic book.

I must have been no more than 6 years old at the time. We got there and I stared at a single spinning rack of comic books for a while. One comic book felt huge. There were so many to choose from. What was I supposed to pick with all of these 18 choices? I browsed and I picked a Batman comic. I will never remember which one it was, but I will always remember the feelings it evoked. Walking home, my grandmother holding my hand, the sun landing on my cold face and also importantly, the feeling of paper on my fingers. It was the first comic I remember reading and it became an important part of my life. I will always be grateful to my grandmother for it and to my parents who supported this addiction. It changed my entire life. 

This moment was a revelation, both important and fleeting. It happened once and my life was changed forever. I have been chasing down this moment for the past twenty years. Hoping to relive that first high, yet I have never been able to fully recreate it. I'm talking about this because this month, the Ottawa Comic Book Book Club read Sam Alden's It Never Happened Again, and Sam kindly agreed to meet with our group to discuss his book. 

Sam Alden by Sam Alden
Sam Alden is a 25 year old cartoonist and illustrator from Portland, Oregon. He has previously written web comics, comics and graphic novels, which include Haunter, The Man that Dances in the Meadows, Backyard, and many more. Hiw work is generally published online first and printed afterward. His comic Wicked Chicken Queen published by Retrofit Comics, won an Ignatz Award for Outstanding Comic at SPX a few weeks ago

Fleeting moments
It Never Happened again collects two short stories, Hawaii 1997 and Anime. The first is the story of a Young Sam Alden who is on vacation in Hawaii. He goes out one night to see the beach and the stars and meets a girl. The second is the story of Janet, a girl who feels out of place in her hometwon and plans to visit Japan, where her favourite fictional anime character lives to find her place in the world. The themes of longing and belonging are very much present in this book. The Young Sam will spend the rest of his life trying to find the girl, or some version of her, always yearning to recreate this moment. Janet wishes to recreate the experience of Kiki, or even become Kiki as best as she can. She is also looking for a place where she can belong, a goal she may never achieve as the anime paradise she wishes to reach is as fictional as her idol. 

Sam was kind enough to tell us the genesis of Hawaii 1997 and how it was a stepping stone to his current style of drawing. Drawn on notebook pages during a flight back to the U.S, this comic came to life as a sort of personal challenge and as a way to fight the boredom of air travel. The style that came through was, and is, still very distinctive and appealing and Sam embraced it. This took him away from his previous style, a sort of Craig Thompson emulation, and into his own distinctive creative style. We are all the better for it. This book shows Alden's style evolving. The use of pencils is so raw that, as a reader, you try to avoid touching it for fear of scratching or smearing the pencil marks. The look is fantastic and you can find stunning passages nearly everywhere. Of particular interest, when Young Sam puts his head underwater (above) or the map of the unknown town in Japan (below)

In Transit
Language also held an important role in the book. Janet's only silver lining in her otherwise bleak story is when she is complimented by a local man on her mastery of language. We were wondering if language had any influence on Sam's writing. It did in some ways, but not what we were expecting. Language in Anime serves to further reinforce Janet's feelings of isolation. She does not fit in her hometown, she does not fit in in Japan, and even worse, there, the foreign language isolates her from the community even more. This experience was similar to Alden's own trip to Japan when he was younger. The language barrier kept him at a distance from his environment, never quite fitting in. 

Isolation, and the search for a place where she belongs
We were also surprised to hear Sam talk about what influenced him to write this story: a similar trip to Japan with his then-girlfriend as a young adult. Nothing went as planned, not that he had planned much, and the whole fiasco became a real catalyst to the man he grew up to be. Writing Anime also forced Sam to adopt a different point of view on his experience. Our discussion then turned toward gender. By writing a female protagonist, Sam often wondered whether the characters felt true enough. In a way, he distorts his experience and projects them on a woman. In this regard can the text be read as true, as authentic? The group (which consisted that evening of over 80% of women) felt so. 

The theme of longing are present, so is another recurring theme in Alden's work: Haunting. The community Backyard is haunted by the wolfchild, the woman is haunted by The man that dances in the Meadows. In this book, Young Sam will be forever haunted by the memory of the girl. Although it didn't appear that Sam did this consciously, the idea that people are haunted by memories, feelings and even their own mind is a recurring theme in Alden's books. The author did confirm that he does not believe in ghosts.

Finally, we were very interested in hearing about Sam's process in writing for the screen and for paper. He explained to us that he had always intended Hawaii 1997 to be printed. The movement of the kids running translates very well online as well, but that was not the primary goal. The pacing and movement also works on the page as it was intended. The Anime story was also conceived for the page and it truly shines this way. He constantly works to improve the layout and searches to find an optimal pace for the story, both for the online/Tumblr audience and for the page. His new webcomic Hollow tries to integrate those two elements. It will be interesting to compare the final results.

Gazing at the unreacheable wonders of the universe

We were lucky to have such an interesting conversation with a talented young comics author. Not only did it help us gain some perspective and knowledge on It Never Happened Again, it allowed us to learn much about his process and his thoughts on making comics. Much like Young Sam's search for an ineffable girl, or my quest for this very first comics experience, our group will keep looking endlessly for a similarly enlightening discussion on graphic novels. In the meantime, we will value our discussion with Sam and recommend everyone to seek out this outstanding work. 

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