It gets, you read a lot of books, sometimes you think maybe you’ve seen it all. You read a good book, you get swept up by it, even at the same time as you recognise the mechanics and the way a person works to achieve the effect they want. Rare indeed are the books that confront the sense you have developed of yourself as a reader, asking you questions about how you judge worth and assimilate information. It Never Happened Again, two stories from up and coming comics artist Sam Alden, is in its own way one such book.
Alden’s art is deceptively rudimentary. It would be easy to pick up It Never Happened Again, look for a second and dismiss it. Alden’s art is not immediately beautiful. We are in the world of nuance here. If you immerse yourself, you see, in glimpses, what Alden is showing us and you’ll catch details that reveal how interesting a writer he is. Part of this comes from the fact he works in pencil. You glance and you think, these drawings look like they were produced by a child. In ‘Hawaii 1997’, the first of the two stories, about a nocturnal childhood experience Sam had, this is exactly the point. In ‘Anime’, the second story, the art and the narrative are more complex. We are being asked to make judgements for ourselves. Alden is not doing all the work. He is creating spaces for us to engage and think. Imagine. But the art is the place we enter It Never Happened Again, the art is what will enchant or alienate. It won’t be for everyone. But those people who engage with Alden and what he does will love him. There are depths here, depths to be plumbed.
So. ‘Hawaii 1997’ we follow Sam and his family on a holiday to a resort in Hawaii. It’s night. He sneaks out. Stands in the water, looks up at the stars. Dips his head in the ocean. Meets a girl. An exquisite game of shadow stamping ensues. It is a deliciously realised experience. We are with him. We can see how much this means and has gone on meaning. We all of us have times that we hold on to, as years pass by. It’s a largely wordless series of pictures, it’s scrappy, rough at the edges, there’s a hastiness to proceedings, a galloping dash, it’s a story that reads as if written running down a hill. ‘Anime’, on the other hand, is as we have said a little more sophisticated. Its intentions are not so easily intuited (although, interestingly, the difference between ‘Anime’ and ‘Hawaii 1997’ will send you back to ‘Hawaii’ because the story of a child is obviously being drawn to reflect the world the child sees – it’s subtle and clever and real). ‘Anime’ concerns a slightly overweight girl whose obsessions seem to push people away rather than bring them close and her first visit to Japan, which possibly doesn’t live up to her expectations (or maybe leads her to re-evaluate her expectations in favour of a real-er experience). Again, there are great details acutely drawn (the wordless reactions of her colleagues as she sits at the bus stop and raves about a TV show), humour drawn from the gentler end of the Clowes’ spectrum.
It Never Happened Again is my first experience of Alden but it’s sent me off searching for more and there is a lot available online, enough to make you see how interesting Alden is. Reading Alden I get the same feeling I get when I first started reading John Porcellino all those years ago. Which is to say, you can glimpse the potential in a writer to do something really interesting. You can glimpse (and hope) that here is a writer that you may well be following assiduously in the years to come.
Any Cop?: If you consider yourself a serious graphic novel buff and read for more than just straightforward beauty or superheroes, It Never Happened Again comes highly recommended.