Every so often I find myself in fear of this job. People’s work is given to me on the understanding that I will somehow be able to dissect and analyze a book in a way that allows a reader to better judge for themselves whether or not to part ways with their money. In all honesty, that’s what this comes down to: is this worth the buy or not? That’s not the part that scares me. How someone spends their money, despite what I say, is none of my business. What scares me are books like Self-Obsessed. A piece of art that almost has no business being held in the same echelon of consumable entertainment in the modern publishing ecosystem. I could be very snooty and say things like, well, all art is subjective and blah blah blah. We know that to be false. Tell that to the record executives / producers who can make cookie-cutter anthems in less than an hour. It is garbage and it makes millions of dollars because it is harmless and can be consumed just about anywhere. The same thing could be said about a lot of what has become of the heroes and big money cinematic universes that we have seen grow into industries within industries. This is the furthest from that I’ve gotten to as a reviewer for this publication.
This is a memoir by Sina Grace, writer of Burn The Orphanage and artist for Lil’ Depressed Boy, told using two forms of media. From the very first page you get a preview of the overall aesthetic: short black and white comics with photographs added throughout. All of which focus on a specific events from his life, seemingly using the real names of the people involved. If you really pay attention, it is structured like a traditional book, rather than a comic book. There is a prologue, the central story, an epilogue, and bonus interviews in the back. With 40 pages, it does have the room to do that, and it works well. Without a doubt, Grace needed all of those 40 pages to tell this story. One comic-sized issue wouldn’t work and a mini series would be excessive.
All of these things come together to give this book a very raw and emotional power. There is a very tangible feeling of openness and frankness when he talks about growing up without a father, his troubled love life, his tumultuous relationship with his family, and the deep-rooted issues of what it means to be a man. The comic strips, at first, have some obvious issues with the lettering and the framing of the pages. Over time, they improve in quality, much like any artist would with their craft. Whether this is simply a reflection of his artistic acumen at the time or an intentional device, it reminds me a great deal of Robert Richardson’s cinematography in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. It presents the story with only the pallet he had available at the time.
As far as the overall story goes, it is a touching, meta piece of narrative that primarily focuses on how Mr. Grace deals with coming to terms with topics that any young man might encounter. The parts that are the most jarring are when he literally has to face the ghosts of his own past selves, the composites of the friends in his life, and his father. Ultimately, this is a book about a man whose father abandoned him and how he has dealt with everything life has to throw at him without a male role model. And since his story is not nearly over, the plot does end rather abruptly, but then again so does life.
The bonus content that comes after the story is an interview between Sina Grace and writer Ryan O’Connell about the idea of self obsession. It is an engaging read and I’m happy to say that it is more insightful than indulgent or pretentious. Both people have very interesting points and it makes for a very smooth transition from the comic strips to the bonus materials. After that, you get a series of page-sized artwork from Sina, information from him regarding his future projects complete with art, and a handful of comic strips that feel like a follow-up to the story you just finished reading. Like I mentioned before, it is structured like a traditional novel, so this would be the epilogue and it does a fantastic job of driving home the points that he sets up earlier in the book.
Self-Obsessed is a touching, emotional, raw self portrait of a man coming to terms with his own life using the only means he ever really knew how. Even though it lacks much action, the bold, gritty art fused with the utterly human dialogue gives this book all the punch it needs. I would recommend this book to someone who needs a reaffirmation that comic books can be much more than just popcorn entertainment. Someone who is seeking a cerebral experience that pulls no punches in it’s sullen earnestness and forthright despair. But also an experience that lends a hand in providing you with some optimism in knowing that even through all of that raw angst and frustration, there can be peace. While rough around the edges and hard to take in all at once…
Self-Obsessed earns a heartfelt 8 /10