Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.


Memory is inherently subjective and unpredictable, but memories of childhood are particularly treacherous. Looking into the past, it's always tempting to impose order on chaos, and to presume the presence of adult values and understanding in inchoate minds that once found such things utterly alien. But captured accurately, without the interference of adult prejudices, childhood experiences can be both entertaining in their misconceptions and insightful in their simple candor. In his 1994 comic-book series Brooklyn Dreams, newly available as a hefty graphic novel, comics writer J.M. DeMatteis appears as an adult narrator, hosting a series of flashbacks to the childhood and adolescence of a boy named Vincent Carl Santini. As seen through Glenn Barr's elastic, caricature-prone art, Santini's coming of age in a rundown New York neighborhood is a kaleidoscope of confusion, fear, hostility, and boredom. DeMatteis begins by openly discussing the subjectivity of memory and the limitations of perception, but as he immerses himself in his story, his own subjectivity takes over, and Barr's art takes up his cues. In DeMatteis' fictionalized history, a threatening dog is the size of a building, an angry father's head blows up like a balloon ready to burst, and, during self-conscious moments, giant eyes are everywhere. It's typical comics-style visual metaphor, but the material itself–a history of angst, drug use, internal seething, rebellion, familial discord, an arrest, and a series of philosophical breakthroughs–is far less typical. DeMatteis isn't as deep or insightful as he'd perhaps like to be. Like his best books, Moonshadow and Mercy, Brooklyn Dreams tends to wallow in fuzzy, new-agey navel-gazing even as it's attempting to be profound, but here he weaves some surprising and touching anecdotes on his way to an anticlimactic climax about an acid-trip epiphany. Still, Barr's playful and intense stylistic stretches make Brooklyn Dreams a fascinating ride. French illustrator Marjane Satrapi isn't nearly as experimental with the art in her graphic novel Persepolis, the story of her coming of age in Iran during the '70s and '80s, but her story is as concrete and informative as DeMatteis' is internal and self-important. Satrapi begins her autobiography at age 6, when she wanted to grow up to be a prophet, and as she progresses through her childhood, documenting Iran's political shifts and external conflicts, she's ruthlessly straightforward about her own skewed perspective. As a child, she misinterprets and overinterprets, especially when her friends and schoolteachers feed her ideology, which she self-righteously preaches to her political-activist parents. In the background, the Shah is exiled, the Islamic Revolution takes place, political prisoners (some of them friends or relatives of Satrapi's family) are captured and tortured, killed, or released, and societal mores change rapidly. In Satrapi's personal life, her parents attempt to teach her values that will outlast the fluctuations. It's a fascinating memoir, both for the historical perspective and for the author's candor in revealing her own process of growth. Satrapi's simple, fixed-perspective linework nicely evokes children's art, but it lacks the visceral appeal of Barr's elaborate phantasmagorias; by the same token, DeMatteis' cosmic maunderings seem overblown and egotistical when compared with Satrapi's down-to-earth reportage. But while they come from different cultures and different directions, both books serve the same purpose, providing lucid and absorbing insights into the subjectivity of youth and the processes and pressures that transform it into the perspective of maturity.


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