Strip Joint: Carol Lay

I wish I had gotten a hold of this book when it actually came out in 1998. Because way back then, I was actually really in love with comic strips, the telling of short bursts of story in the strip form. I also used to love the short story a lot more. Not that I despise either form now, but my interests tend to lie in longer narratives that sustain a single story over a period of time/pages. So while I enjoy a story or a strip here and there, what I really want to read is a novel. I feel vaguely unsatisfied or too full too soon with shorter works. Maybe I am getting lazy? Because the shorter burst does tend to force you to think a bit more, find the resolutions right now instead of noodling along with the author for a couple hundred or more pages.

Either way, I’m both glad I read Strip Joint now, and sad that I didn’t read it at a time when I would’ve been more appreciative of its charms. Because it has so many charms. The book collects Lay’s “Story Minute” strip, which (according to Wikipedia) “ran for almost twenty years” in a bunch of US papers. Which is probably why I never got to read it. I didn’t (and actually still don’t) read US newspapers (waaaaaaay too US-centric for the most part). But still, maybe I would have encountered a collection of the strips in a bookstore if I hadn’t left the continent the year this book was published, not to return for a decade. And here I am now, hopelessly unschooled in a bunch of comics history, and working hard to catch up. At least I’m in Toronto where I can get The Beguiling to set me on the right path.

And they always do. I went in, and declared, “I want to read some lady comics!” and lo! Lady comics appeared! (In great piles. So, um, you know, be ready to read more about my adventures in lady comics.) One of these lady comics was Strip Joint, and now we are finally back to talking about the book! Full circle, high fives all around!

“Story Minute” is exactly what it sounds like: a story you can read in a minute. This isn’t the kind of thing to snuggle up on the sofa and get cozy with. I read most of it on quick kitchen breaks to dig up a snack and some tea before getting back to work. So while the kettle was boiling, I read a few strips, the perfect bite-sized chunks in which to read the collection. The stories are so perfectly complete in and of themselves, and generally snarkily hilarious.

Other than a few strips with the recurring characters of Madame Asgar (the fortune teller, and generally acting as the good angel on your shoulder) and Satan (well, you know), each strip is entirely self-contained, with a general format of text boxes of narration above the images, and very little dialogue, which creates a kind of storytelling remove from the action. Reading a strip really does feel like a story minute a library or some place might have where you all sit in a circle and the nice lady tells you a story.

Except for the fact that no nice lady is going to tell you stories like these in a reading circle. In “Human Guinea Pigs”, for instance, scientists are finally free to experiment on humans because there are just so damned many of them. And one behavioral scientist gathers a thousand people in a pen, puts a thousand people with guns in the stands around them, and tells the gun wielders to kill the least desirable person in the pen. “The infirm and mentally ill were always the first to be killed.” It’s not exactly Goodnight Moon.

Most of the strips tend toward a cynical view of humanity, and have us destroying the planet or ourselves in a variety of silly, but thought-provoking ways. Like the potato chip factory worker who collects the weird potato chips in “Unnatural Selection” and ends up making weird potato chip collecting into a trend until no one actually eats potatoes anymore. Or the woman in “Yea Sayer” who feels that no matter how high the odds, you just need that one chance. And she gets it time and time again, until she wants a baby and ends up with five.

With all the cynical takes on the world around us, when Lay does offers up a little sweetness, it’s all the sweeter. Like in “Charmed Life” where a woman works hard and marks her accomplishments with charms on a charm bracelet, but the promise of the heart charm that came with the bracelet goes unfulfilled. Until one day! If this strip were by itself, it would be a little on the gooey side, and grumpy me would be rolling her grumpy eyes. But in the middle of a lot of people screwing it all up in one way or another, it’s a nice reminder that we’re not all asshats. At least not all of the time, anyway.

I really love her drawing style too. Lots of thick black lines, but there’s an easiness to the images, a kind of fluid movement that just pulls the reader along. There’s a cartoony-ness to it, but in a really expressive way, with delightfully exaggerated facial expressions. And true to the old-school comic strip, she never deviates from the same twelve boxy panels per strip, fitting her stories perfectly to the rhythm of these twelve boxes.

Basically, Strip Joint = Fun as hell. Read it while the kettle’s boiling.

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