Bughouse vol. 1 GN – Steve Lafler

4 out of 5

The descriptive notes in the indicia for Bughouse list, first: music, jazz, and music history. The dedication from writer / artist Steve Lafler reads as follows: “for the aspiring cartoonists of the world… pay yourself in ample time to work your magic.”

For most indie cartoonists working in the slice-of-life style Lafler does, Bughouse’s story of sax player Jimmy’s attempts to start a jazz band and his addition to “bug juice” – the characters in Bughouse are all anthropomorphic insects – would likely put a lot of weight on that addiction. The story would be structured around going off the deep end into drugs, sacrificing success to it, until – in a world of happy endings, at least – coming out the other end.

Lots of Lafler strips have drugs and drink in them, and they’re often portrayed with a seemingly light hand – people freak out, and have fun. But that’s a bit misleading; this is part of the secret sauce that has made Lafler’s work magical indeed: beneath the free-wheeling veneer (or Dog Boy’s anarchy), real things are going on. The surface silliness of bugs and dogs and casual superheroes is lain atop the “reality” of what’s occurring, and the heavy thoughts that come along with that. Characters will often have revelatory flashes during a trip – Jimmy gets to step outside of himself, here, and contemplate the cyclical nature of life – and probably some mind-altering things have been employed in Lafler’s time, so this mix of offhand comedy and serious undertones are not employed for moralizing, rather, it all goes into a pot of a unique brew that just wants to make it clear that all of these things can happen, and they can be funny, or sad, or tragic. The interpretation of that – what you do with your life – is up to you.

So Jimmy is rather haunted by his addiction to bug juice, but also gets free. His friend Slim may not have been so lucky, but the book opens up with Jimmy and one of his bandmates having a laugh over the matter, though not exactly at Slim’s expense. And then we flash back to see how the band and the drug use began, to give that laughter its context. At book’s end, when discussing where the band – and Jimmy – will go next, the final line is “time will tell.” In ultimate Lafler cleverness, we’ve actually already had a peak at that with a flash-forward, but the line still feels true, like all is in flux, and Jimmy has to keep working to live his life.

In the 200ish pages between, it’s all very casual, despite dealing with cops and mobsters, addicts, relationship drama. It’s not exactly laugh out loud, but mirthful – constantly maintaining that slightly parodic edge that’s really only possible when you bump our world into the next one over, where you’re cast as cockroaches and crickets and whatnot.

Lafler’s flow is very loose, which is to the ultimate benefit of the story, but can also make for some cluttered panels – he uses arrows a lot to guide us around the page – and time jumps that maybe skip out on story beats that could’ve been pretty interesting to step through, all also make the changes we witness after those jumps lack some impact. However, it also adds to the very fleeting nature of things which is part of the book’s theme; a reminder that our lives are maybe not overly dramaticized stories about drugs and life lessons, but just moments in history.