There have been lots of signs out there that Sam Alden’s star is rising fast, including a place of honor in last year’s Best American Comics and the anticipation surrounding the release of It Never Happened Again (not to mention winning last year's Ignatz Award for most promising new talent, which is probably what I should have led with). In 2013 he serialized Haunter with Zack Soto’s Study Group, which has been publishing some of the most exciting webcomics around, and earlier this year published a beautiful fable, Wicked Chicken Queen, with Box Brown and Jared Smith’s Retrofit Comics, dedicated to preserving the art of the alt-floppy.
Alden is young (at least from where I sit in the cosmic timeline) and like many talented young cartoonists, his vision as an artist still outstrips by a few steps his voice as a storyteller. But the gap is closing fast, at least from the evidence supplied in this first book. It Never Happened Again collected two long stories, “Hawaii 1997” (originally published online at Alden’s tumblr site) and “Anime.” Telling the story of a childhood encounter with an elusive love-object in an unchaperoned moonlight romp, “Hawaii 1997” sparkled online, working perfectly with the vertical format and unscrolling like a filmstrip entirely made of paper and pencil. Bound now in the book, the story feels flatter, easier, and the art moves and shimmers less than it did online. Its final gesture feels like the stuff of creative writing seminars, and usually the kinds of ending that don’t, frankly, survive the workshopping. I found myself in fact going back to Alden’s website to remind myself why I found the piece so captivating in the first place, and its failure to fully translate to book form strikes me as worthy of further inquiry as we all of us try and learn more about the unique affordances of the various media and mediums in which we publish and read comics in the 21st century.
But “Anime,” which felt very much built for this volume, made me forget any deflation I experienced in re-encountering “Hawaii 1997.” “Anime” is a mature, nuanced character study of a young woman seeking salvation from her sense of alienation (with her community, her family, her job, her life) in an obsessively planned trip to Japan. Born Janet, she has renamed herself “Kiki,” the first stage in what she hopes will be a much more profound transformation. Borrowing her new name from the classic anime Kiki’s Delivery Service by Miyazaki, in which a young witch discovers a new community and a new sense of self after being transplanted to a world far from her home, our Kiki hopes for an equally magic adventure and, finally, a sense of home and belonging. In the first half of the story we see her dogged preparations—saving every penny she earns peddling tourists around town, teaching herself Japanese, and most important, watching all the magical girl anime she can get her hands on.
The second half—largely wordless—describes her experience in Japan. Not surprisingly, the real world has a hard time measuring up to the fantasies promised by Kiki or Cardcaptor Sakura. Without giving away too much of the resolution, suffice it to say that by its end the reader is not sure what to wish for Kiki. Torn between loathing and identification, we are suffused with an ambivalence that effectively calls into play our own attachments and pop culture-inflected fantasy lives.
As is clear from the pages reproduced above, Alden does all of this with what might at first appear to be pencil roughs, the kind of lines a cartoonist might use in thumbnailing a longer narrative. This is especially the case in “Hawaii” where the lines are at times so brusque and seemingly cavalier as to tend towards abstraction—perfectly capturing that first psychedelic experience of late childhood when all the structures and rhythms of normal, everyday life seem to fall away, exhilarating terrifying at once. In “Anime” Alden brings more nuanced shading to his panels, but the work remains entirely in graphite, a tool that seems at his hands suddenly to have been criminally covered over by generations of inkers. In Alden’s hand, the pencil line has a timbre we have heard too little in graphic storytelling.
Since the 2013 Ignatz award at SPX was based on part on “Hawaii,” it is “Anime” that carried the burden of revealing whether that promise was going to be realized going forward. And “Anime,” his best work to date, more than stands up to the considerable pressure a young cartoonist faces when declared “most likely” by his profession. This is a volume, and a cartoonist, that in every way lives up to those expectations and sets us up for beautiful things to come.