“Comics, Online Dating, and David Sedaris” by Wesley Sun
I love online dating.
My website of choice is OKCupid—mostly because it’s free, but also because it seems to attract a quirky, geeky, eclectic sort of crowd. It’s also fascinating to me to read how folks choose to describe themselves, see how people try to sell their best qualities, and discover the kind of online persona singles like to project. And here’s what I’ve learned from the single ladies of Chicago: chicks dig David Sedaris.
A disproportionate number of women on the site are big fans of David. Seriously, they love this guy. I don’t mean they list a few of his books under their favorites. I mean they like him categorically. In fact, it’s less common for me to stumble across a profile that mentions one of his books than it is to find a young woman proclaiming loudly and proudly, “I’ll read anything by David Sedaris!”
So naturally, wanting to improve my chances with the gals of OKCupid, I went out looking for a Sedaris book. And naturally, being a comic book writer, I picked up Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modern Bestiary. Why? Because although it’s not a comic, it’s something quite related to it: a series of narratives in words and pictures.
I realize this review isn’t very timely. Squirrel came out two years ago, and the interwebs are in no short supply of reviews, praise, and critique of it. However, I’m not sure anyone has bothered to examine it in terms of how the book works in terms of its form, rather than simply with reference to its content. The book, in fact, has two authors—David Sedaris, the writer, but also Ian Falconer, the illustrator. And it’s this interplay between text and image that I’m most interested in.
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is an obvious riff off of Aesop’s fables. The book itself is a collection of 17 vignettes—all featuring animals engaging in all-too-familiar human social situations, and all featuring one or two pictures to help tell the tale. The premise alone was enough to grab my attention, especially since Falconer is probably best known for his work on Olivia the Pig—also an animal-based story in words and pictures.
The difference, of course, is that Olivia is intended for children and Squirrel is pointedly aimed at adults. The juxtaposition is without question intentional, and is put together to great effect. Like Sedaris’ story of a self-conscious hippo with singing leaches in her rectum, Falconer’s pictures often made me do a double-take, as my mind tried to reconcile the obviously cartoonish cuteness with just how fucking gross it was.
My real worry is that the relationship between these words and pictures never reached their full potential. Comics excel at making these two elements work together, and I was disappointed to see Squirrel fall short in this regard. Sure, it’s effective to stick an intriguing drawing next to a good piece of writing, but what makes Squirrel less of a comic book and more of an illustrated book is that the words and pictures seem to function more independently than cohesively. I’m not interested in reopening the well-worn debate over what makes a comic a comic, but I will say that the most effective comics have the words and pictures working together, such that the text gives information and creates an effect that the images can’t do on their own—and vice versa.
Some of the worst comic book writing shows up when text simply describes what a good picture already should. For example, when the hero announces out loud what he’s already doing. “Thank God I dodged that bullet just in time!” Captain Obvious proclaims as he dodges a bullet just in time.
At times I’m afraid Falconer’s illustrations are merely the pictorial equivalent of bad comics writing—simply drawing what Sedaris is already saying, without adding much. They’re great drawings, but they’re merely in service to the text, rather than flourishing on their own. And not once did the illustrations lead the storytelling, with the text playing back-up.
In fact, Sedaris has remarked that part of the reason he enjoyed writing animal stories so much is that, for him, there’s just not much to them visually. “I liked that everybody knows what a squirrel and a chipmunk look like,” Sedaris once said about his book. “So you don’t have to describe them. So you can just cut right to the chase.” It’s telling, I think, that he chooses not to overly describe his characters because he thinks they’re commonly understood—not because he has a talented illustrator to work with. It makes me think Sedaris didn’t collaborate much with Falconer on the look and feel of his characters, and even less so on their placement on the page.
Take, for example, “The Judicious Brown Chicken.” In it, we follow the hapless misadventures of a naïve and homophobic chicken with a steadfast belief in providence and immanent justice. As she is raped, abused, and mocked, she maintains her own sense of spirituality and self-righteousness by insisting that everything happens for a reason—and that everyone gets what they deserve.
After observing a snake swallowing an egg, the chicken becomes perplexed since the unhatched chick couldn’t possibly have done anything to deserve its own death. The egg’s only crime, she realizes, was being brown and roundish. The story ends just as it dawns on the chicken that she too is brown and roundish—“and at that moment the farmer’s wife came up from behind and grabbed her by the throat.”
It was one of the stories I enjoyed most in the bestiary, but I was confused as to how the words and pictures were intended to work together. The only picture came first, and as you can see from the image above, Falconer is illustrating the very last moment in the story. Was I intended to read it knowing the chicken would eventually get her eye pecked out and have her neck wrung? Based on the picture, was I supposed to assume she would be choked to death by a man and then be surprised when Sedaris tells me it’s the farmer’s wife? Or, instead, was this simply a matter of the writer and illustrator not collaborating, resulting in a visual spoiler and an inaccurate drawing? It’s really hard to say.
Still, in other ways the elements come together quite well. Squirrel is effective in combining the chillingly real-world behavior of its characters with such an obvious fantasy world. The example from Sedaris’ writing that comes to mind involves a narcissistic, power-drunk rabbit who bludgeons to death dozens of woodland creatures before finally chewing off the horn of a magical unicorn—because he wouldn’t check his weapon at security. In an NPR interview, Sedaris confirmed my feeling of déjà vu when he recalled getting inspired by a TSA bully at an airport. “I just looked at her and I thought, ‘I’m gonna turn you into a rabbit,’ ” he said.
This portrayal of human realism against an obvious fiction works very well with Falconer’s illustrations. Often, Falconer employs a mixed media effect with his work in Squirrel—using photographed human hands to interact with his drawings. So while the placement of pictures and prose in the Brown Chicken story seem to me a misstep, the picture itself does engage with the narrative quite a bit.
In his illustrations, every time Falconer gives us a glimpse of a real human hand, we get a sharp reminder that these animal characters are utterly human too—despite their whiskers, wings, and hooves.
Unfortunately, I sometimes felt the overall project of the book would get lost. As I understand it, the whole point of telling animal stories is to draw an allegory, but there were places where the book lost its own symbolism by being too on-the-nose and literal. For example, a racist joke about a black snake eating watermelon is intended to be an allegory for … well, presumably, a racist joke about a black person eating watermelon. Nothing was particularly clever about it, and the illustrations were about as ham-handed as the text. That seems different from a story a few chapters later wherein a parrot is cast as an unscrupulous journalist who doesn’t repeat back everything he’s told.
I really enjoyed Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, although I think it had its fair share of missed opportunities. Since Sedaris is clearly offering adult-themed stories using storybook conventions, I see why he’s less interested in comic book-style storytelling and more interested in making an illustrated book—but even as an illustrated book I thought it failed to come together in some places. Overall, it was a very enjoyable read—darkly funny and even holding moments I found deeply profound. I’ve chosen intentionally not to talk about my absolute favorite story—“The Motherless Bear”—in hopes that you’ll pick up a copy and read it for yourself.
Based on Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk I’m likely to read more of David Sedaris … although I should say that at the time of this writing, my dating life really hasn’t improved any.