Books

Drawing the Dark Journeys of Drifters

Tim Lane, cover of 'The Lonesome Go' (all images courtesy Fantagraphics)
Tim Lane, cover of ‘The Lonesome Go’ (all images courtesy Fantagraphics)

For a digest of comics stories and intricate, free-standing illustrative work called The Lonesome Go, St. Louis artist and writer Tim Lane profiles familiar, typically unshaven folk: bar flies, train-hopping drifters, biker types. His subjects aren’t often shackled to homes or jobs, and in turn, Lane doesn’t weigh them down with backstories or peripheral details. Travel and highways are frequent motifs — everybody’s moving. There are buses, boats, rail lines, gas stations, pickup trucks, and long road trips. Lane’s weathered characters lumber in and out of motels and half-empty saloons on these big, black-and-white pages; they slip suddenly into surreal predicaments, where the pen strokes prove elastic and unpredictable.

Page from Tim Lane's 'The Lonesome Go' (click to enlarge)
Tim Lane, page from ‘The Lonesome Go’ (click to enlarge)

Published by Fantagraphics, The Lonesome Go deviates little from Lane’s previous collection, the Ignatz Award–nominated Abandoned Cars (Fantagraphics, 2008). A bigger page size means more breathing room in the new book, but in both volumes, Lane breaks up his gloomy, first-person-driven graphic accounts of wandering loners and street hustlers with bursts of prose, photography, colored work, or faux full-page ads, re-creations of the sort that ran in vintage magazines or in old comics. Lane’s styles span florid scratchboard-like figures, brash underground- and zine-styled sketches, and controlled brushwork indebted to the comics industry’s now-revered artists of decades past. He pays tribute not merely in the oddball nostalgic ad reproductions, but in precise illustrative techniques and by enriching his panels with graphic design flourishes (his freelance portfolio includes magazine work for The Believer and Wired).

Page from Tim Lane's 'The Lonesome Go' (click to enlarge)
Tim Lane, page from ‘The Lonesome Go’ (click to enlarge)

Colossal typeface crowns Lane’s title pages in The Lonesome Go. The bulky, carnival bill–styled letters that introduce snow-blanketed madness in “The Passenger,” for example — a chronicling of what unfolds when an errand-bound man is sidetracked by pills and boozing buddies — are the kind that popped from the panels of EC Comics, the pre–Comics Code purveyor of crime, science fiction, horror, and more. When Lane’s comics don’t remind us of Charles Burns’s polished portraits, we can detect EC’s mark on the blacked-out barroom interiors and anxiety-ridden faces of The Lonesome Go. Shadows fall on close-ups of Lane’s drifters, and his orderly hatching or masses of fussy micro dashes build out curves in cheekbones or crowd foreheads with age lines. Wally Wood and Jack Davis, who worked as EC staff artists on titles such as Weird Fantasy and The Vault of Horror, are revered for having employed similar practices at drafting tables in a downtown New York City office in the 1950s. Lane also offers page foldouts, a device favored by some independent comics creators that was reversed to “fold-ins” by the creators of Mad, the satire magazine also produced by EC publisher William Gaines.

A fold-out called “Myth of Jack Presents: A Rough History of How the Military-Issued Harley Davidson WLA Liberator Changed American Culture” is a marvel of design. Lane’s fluency in portraiture, page layout, lettering, and storytelling is on display, as deep contextual details are crammed into tight panels and captions. The history lesson here — a WWII-era Harley Davidson motorcycle’s evolution from military transportation to a lofty, permanent perch in popular bike culture — is overrun with diagrams, technical drawings, an inset one-page comic, and more, with barely an inch of dead space to spare. This page ran a year ago in the newspaper-sized comics anthology Smoke Signal. Gabe Fowler, owner of Brooklyn’s Desert Island comics shop and Smoke Signal‘s publisher, turned me onto Lane’s work when he handed me the debut of Happy Hour in America, Lane’s DIY serial comic. It’s reproduced in The Lonesome Go.

Tim Lane, page from 'The Lonesome Go'
Tim Lane, page from ‘The Lonesome Go’

Part one of Happy Hour‘s “Belligerent Piano” marries abstractions, film noir–inflected train yard episodes and curt text. Like many of Lane’s other stories, fairly anonymous lugs dig cigarettes out of weathered coat pockets between beers, ball their hands into fists, and scrap in alleyways. One can’t help but grow frustrated with a degree of sameness between comics owing to The Lonesome Go‘s indistinct character types, but it doesn’t weigh too heavily on the whole. Lane’s copy is lyrical but spare for “Belligerent Piano,” a melding of detective fiction and choppy Beat Generation–type prose. “The track line was a cemetery of dead animals decomposing under the hot early afternoon sun,” reads a caption. Lane nods to the Ramones and David Ruffin throughout the book, and quotes Jack Kerouac. Astral Weeks provides the soundtrack for multi-parter “In Another Life,” which trails a backpacking misfit through varying landscapes and psychedelic encounters; the story is peppered with depictions of a young Van Morrison.

Tim Lane, page from 'The Lonesome Go'
Tim Lane, page from ‘The Lonesome Go’

A line from Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper” prefaces The Lonesome Go and sits nicely alongside Lane’s own words: “Hey, somebody out there, listen to my last prayer, hi-ho-silver-o, deliver me from nowhere.” The verse is cribbed from 1982’s four-tracked Nebraska, a spooky, dark, folk-powered set that plays like nothing else in Springsteen’s catalogue. Stories of rural killing sprees and sleeping “where the pines grow wild and tall” are among the record’s bare offerings, seldom framed in more than harmonica and acoustic guitar. Outside of The Lonesome Go‘s intellectually lightweight, pornographic misfire called “Meat,” there are parallels to be drawn between Nebraska‘s well-crafted, unlucky nomads and those in Lane’s comics.

Tim Lane, page from 'The Lonesome Go' (click to enlarge)
Tim Lane, page from ‘The Lonesome Go’ (click to enlarge)

In “Hitchhiker,” the author uses shadow and negative space to powerfully evoke a stormy drive. Black lines streak the ran-lashed windshield between syrupy white trails, while the dark interior roof sets off the faces of driver and passenger, both illuminated by the dashboard lights. Pensive conversation yields a cataloging of recent troubles from the stone-faced guy behind the wheel: a divorce, the death of his son in a “freak accident.” His regrets load the narrative captions: “I shouldn’t have mentioned it. But sometimes you say things to hear them said; to hear what they sound like; to find out if they’re still true.” Lane caps this chilling yarn with tangible closure; when the book’s other sequences aren’t similarly adjourned, they burn for five- or six-page stretches of unconventional panel grids and hallucinatory splashes that writhe with energy. Lane manipulates the form masterfully at every turn, and consuming the rhythmic, open-ended copy and scarcity of conclusion in The Lonesome Go often left me feeling dizzy. But it’s probably nothing that a long road trip wouldn’t fix.

Tim Lane’s The Lonesome Go is published by Fantagraphics and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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