Cole, Allison. Never Ending Summer. Alternative Comics, 2004.
Autobiographical comics are a rather large genre. Once you get past superheroes, they may be the biggest genre in English comics, from old standards like Crumb and Pekar through Eddie Campbell, Julie Doucet, John Porcellino, to newer creators like Jeffrey Brown and James Kolchalka. Allison Cole’s first graphic novel (from the winter of 2004) Never Ending Summer can be added to that list as a relatively successful freshman outing.
The first and most striking aspect of Allison’s work is her characters’ appearance. She draws people like ovular blobs with arms, legs, and faces that often consist only of two dots for eyes (example pages here). Each individual is given some differentiating feature such as bangs (the protagonist, Allison), teddy bear ears (her boyfriend), glasses, a ponytail, or facial hair. This can get confusing in scenes with lots of characters, and one of the main problems with this book is the way that often the visual images are all that differentiate the characters (too many appear, are given names, and provided no real traits at all except the occasional dialogue). Regardless of the identification problems (less troublesome for a more limited cast) these abstract characters work amazingly well as stand-ins for real people. The idea of paring down these characters to the barest of features is fascinating and a slightly more sophisticated version of stick figure comics.
The backgrounds are also done in a minimal style, but one that is slightly more detailed. Everything is drawn with a uniform line that serves to outline and delineate furniture, buildings, items, etc. No shading is used and almost no solid blacks are to be found. A straight edge must also be used as a number of very straight lines are used to draw buildings, windows, and doorways. The drawings give us enough information without distracting from the simple characters.
The story is divided into three sections “June”, “July”, and “August” to tell about one of Allison’s summers. She works in a comic book store; her boyfriend goes home and unexpectedly right to Australia for an internship. The rest of the story plays out her feelings about her absent boyfriend, romantic entanglements (hers and her friends), and some day to day things (parties, drinking with friends, listening to music).
I don’t feel that there is enough of the day to day in this book. The events seem too carefully culled, leaving us with only significant moments that suffer from lack of daily context. One of the things that I really enjoy about Jeffrey Brown’s autobiographical work is the detail, the repetition, and the no holds barred facade. Those are the things that to me make autobiographical work stand out from fictional work with the same type of content (relationships mostly). Also, unlike fictional works, autobiographical work really has to be about the characters, and I don’t feel close enough to the characters here.
The end of the book has a rather uplifted epiphany to it that at first felt out of place but on rereading brings out a kind of under-thread to the story. While the book is on the surface focusing on the girl/boy romantic elements there is another thread about Allison’s interests in music which leads to the conclusion of the story.
There are moments that show a slide into a more dreamlike fiction. Walking on the beach with some friends Allison has a little fantasy of popping a balloon shaped like the head of her now ex-boyfriend. A few times in the book Allison’s thoughts are illustrated inside thought balloons, a trope that I quite like.
I’m curious to see what Allison Cole does next. Her art style is interesting and pleasant to look at, and I hope she moves away from autobiographical stories to something else or at least gives us more next time.