By Darryl Ayo
By Sam Alden
Sonatina Comics, 2013
24 pages, $5.00
I bought this comic book and my buddy asked me “what’s the deal with this ‘Sam Alden’ anyway?”
1. God damn that fella can draw.
Everything in “Backyard” is drawn beautifully. The titular backyard, also the front and interior of the house. The hippies who reside there, the city, the rain, the sunlight. This is a lovely comic. Sam Alden draws what I wish I was drawing and I am writing out of a sense of professional jealousy and personal frustration.
2. Who is who?
Anne is the main character’s name which I deduced from process of elimination during the House Meeting Scene in the middle of the story. Anne has a mostly-shaved head with some kind of bangs situation in the front. I like her, she seems tolerant to a point of personal failing.
Then there is “housemate” who has glasses, facial piercings, a tattoo on her shoulder and apparently no name.
Then there is “boyfriend” who is nervous about…
…”Molly,” the slow seep of tension within this cooperative community.
There are other housemates but they aren’t important. They are decoration.
3. Into motion.
It took me several passes to recognize that Anne is the character in every scene. That’s why her distinctive hairstyle is important, it is a latching-on element that functions in much the way a name would function. It identifies her. However, in many cases, she is obscured by distance or rain. Which is why I had difficulty at first isolating her as the Same Character.
Molly, of course, is often referred to by name because she is the Topic Of Conversation both spoken and implied. I call characters and plots like this “weather.” They influence the other characters and the narrative momentum by their presence and their nature alone. Molly and characters like her operate independently of wanting things for other characters or wanting things from other characters. They exist apart and while they can be acted upon, they create the most interaction simply by being different and existing.
Anne’s boyfriend (or whatever) is interesting because he is the only character who makes an attempt to suggest that perhaps the others ought to pay more attention to what is happening with Molly. We know that he is a new part of Anne’s life through the conversation they have about “what’s up with Molly.” We also learn that Molly’s devolution happened very recently and rapidly. Since the boyfriend is a new element in Anne’s life and the life of this commune, he needs basic historical facts explained to him (and thus, us, the readers). Things that happened before the characters’ eyes are taken for granted but for a newcomer, gaps between social normalcy and abnormal behavior must be filled. “Boyfriend” is the reader’s decoder key to this puzzle.
4. Mechanics of storytelling.
“Backyard” is told in a series of brief vignettes, short scenes. Anne is in every scene but is not the “star” of every scene. Anne is present enough that the comic can be argued to be from her perspective.
Molly factors into most of the comic’s scenes but smartly, Sam Alden has some scenes which 1) are about Molly, 2) are about something else, yet Molly appears, 3) do not include Molly at all. This sliding scale of weight given to the strange element of the narrative balances “Molly” against “the rest of Anne’s life.”
The structure of the vignettes is interesting because the pace varies to hold onto reader interest. There are ten scenes:
Scene 1: (3 pages)
Scene 2: (2 pages)
Scene 3: (2 pages)
Scene 4: (2 pages)
Scene 5: (4 pages) house meeting!
Scene 6: (2 pages)
Scene 7: (1 page!)
Scene 8: (1 page!)
Scene 9: (1 page!)
Scene 10: (6 pages!!) the tale ends.
That pacing in the second half really helps to propel the narrative momentum because as a reader, one would get comfortable with a particular rhythm. Plus the 4-page house meeting scene is not just physically longer than the previous scenes, it’s also the most information-dense scene. Those staccato one-page scenes shortly after (with a tonal transitionary two-page scene) help keep the reader motivated by providing shorter beats and thereby driving the story faster. Driving the narrative past the things we are expecting and presumably, the pace of these scenes matches a sort of jumping forward through time since we know a lot of things already. We don’t need too many repeating story beats because most of these characters are living a fairly normal existence. Plus, showing “other things happening” indicates the relative gravity of various other elements. The more information is in a narrative, the less important each kernel of information is. In this way, Anne’s life is fairly rounded, even throughout the bizarre element that Molly represents.
Seeing all of these elements, weighted differently and spread out in such a way shows to us, the readers, how people like Anne and her housemates can completely accept and ignore something so strange as Molly’s transformation.
The narrative ends with its longest scene, a six-page scene which brings everything to a single point: a point where Anne (and the housemates) can no longer ignore what has happened to Molly, where the reader is also dissuaded of whatever illusion that “this might be okay.” It is the longest scene of the comic and it is definitely “the point.” But we needed all of those other scenes, especially the non-Molly scenes to bring us to that point emotionally. If Sam Alden wanted to just tell a story about a weird thing happening in the rain, this comic would have been six pages long. But all of those other scenes played the part of magician to distract our attentions, fill our heads with a full world and a living community to bring the real weight of The Event: not only did a Weird Thing Happen In The Rain but the weird thing Will Force The Characters To Confront Their Previous Life Choices.
Namely ignoring problems.
5. The details.
Sam Alden cares a lot about the specifics of what he is drawing. There aren’t “trees” or “porches” or “blankets” or “plugs.” There is “That tree,” “That pillar,” “That quilt,” “That plug.” Every object, environmental element, prop or set piece is explicitly something which exists, apart from others of its genus.
6. The airplane.
There is a cute little design element on the inside cover of an airplane flying over the city. It acts as foreshadow for Anne’s parents’ impending visit. It’s also a nice piece of magic because said parental visit is not the point of the story. Misdirection!
7. The 180 degree principle.
Some of the longer conversations in the story could have read more cohesively if Alden approximated the 180 degree principle. It’s a filmic idea but it works for comics as well. The idea is to keep your stationary characters in the same positions relative to the audience perspective so a character on the right side of another stays on the right side of that character. And vice versa. The house meeting scene is kind of chaotic and while that is the narrative point of that scene, it needn’t be visual chaos as well. Frankly, if I hadn’t reread the scene half a dozen times, I would not have comprehended a good portion of it.
8. Off panel.
During the house meeting scene, I found myself completely thrown when the conversation drifts to characters who are talking but are not seen together. I think that Housemate Alma and Anne have a good argument which is lost because it gets disjointed with who gets shown or not shown in those panels.
While I get that there is a point to drifting toward Molly who is outside, it is a choice that lessens my comprehension of the surface tension of that scene. As a reader I understand that the “important” part of that scene is to hint at the creepy underside of how Molly strains the group but I want the surface details of the conflict to matter as well. Explicit and implicit conflicts could have balanced more evenly in that scene.
The story is over and I’m pretty sure that this is all there is. I’m glad to have read it and it makes me nostalgic for living in a cooperative community. I’m not sure if this comic will hold all of the same meanings for people who have never lived in similar communities but who cares what those people think?