1956 Book One: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona – Steve Lafler

4 out of 5

I feel fortunate that a friend and comic fan foisted issues of Dog Boy upon me many years back, introducing me to Steve Lafler. He correctly sussed out that the oddball slapstick antics and dips into surreality would appeal to me, and it encouraged me to track down other work by the creator. While I do think I eventually would’ve found my way back to Lafler, as he’d appear in various anthologies alongside other artists I’d come to appreciate, I don’t know that I’d have the same love for his work as I currently do if someone try to introduce some of his relatively more straight-forward stuff on me; “relatively” given the presence of anthropomorphic insects and superheroes, but still, the slice-of-life vibe and DIY look to his work are easy to mistake for projects by much less interesting and amateur creators, and Steve’s interests in jazz and travel are very much not mine. More concisely: if you told me about a comic book dealing with salesmen in the 50s, getting tipsy and hustling for the top salesman spot in their organization… I’d probably put it further down my reading list of things to look in to.

But I was introduced to Dog Boy, and that did encourage to read things like BugHouse early on in my comic education, so as Lafler has continued to produce these little indie gems, I’ve been hyped each time one is announced, and generally very pleased and entertained by the results. 1956 follows suit.

The “slice-of-life vibe and DIY look” I mention are ingrained in Lafler’s storytelling style, and always have been. Maybe that was for drug- or drink-fueled back in the Dog Boy days, but the rambling nature has always been part of the DNA. However, these are purposefully applied tools in the hands of a talented creator: as 1956 stumbles between hopeful model Ramona, salesman Jack, and Jack’s competition for a new top-spot in his company, Susie, Lafler can loosely connect Ramona’s wistful hopes to turn away from street-walking and drugs; Jack and crew’s buzzed tour of some hep jazz spots; and the background moving-and-shaking for the aforementioned top-spot all within the same wavelength. It’s a sequence of story threads that should be a clutter, but moves along seamlessly, and introduces a pretty broad cast in 56 pages who also become recognizable and familiar within the same. The art, also, has that same loose-but-controlled vibe: when Steve is doing likenesses of Coltrane and the like, you can see the formalism that backs up his otherwise stylized, comix look; pages are a jigsaw of panel shapes, but eye-direction is never in question. And the writing itself – and again, this is a trend from the very start of Steve’s career – edges on serious and silly at the same time, keeping an eye on reality while also maintaining an undercurrent tone of the inherent humors and ridiculousness in the day-to-day.

I do think this first book maybe introduces a bit too much in regards to Jack’s business – there’s some interplay with a salesman who’s departing to another company, Cliff, that feels a bit cluttered – but then again, here I am, eagerly awaiting Book Two of a comic book dealing with salesmen in the 50s.