Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Why Won't You Come Over Here? We Got a City to Love." : Forgetless

People love New York. It's true. There are even t-shirts available that proclaim that very statement, complete with a big red heart to symbolize all that juicy love. It's a city of dreams, of hustlers and playboys, chorus girls and rockers, artists and writers, all of whom are probably waiting tables as you read this. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, according to Frank. Sinatra, that is, but you knew that. It's a city where you can famously get anything you want at any hour of the day. You can order Chinese, a new sofa, and a bag of marijuana, and have them all delivered to your doorstep at 3 A.M. by a bike messenger who's studying Romance Languages at NYU. New York City. There's nothing you can't do, according to Alicia. Keys, that is, but you knew that.

People hate New York. It's true. There are even t-shirts available that proclaim that. Well, actually, they read "Yankees Suck", but that's pretty much the same thing. It's an equivalent, The Bronx Bombers being such a symbol for the city. New York is a dirty, dense, over-crowded urban tangle of concrete and garbage piled in endless mounds on every street. The summers are thick with sticky humidity; the winters clogged with dirty, befouled icy slush; the air throughout the canyons reeking of urine regardless of season. There is never a moments peace in New York City, as the streets and sidewalks remain crowded with cabs and delivery men, dropping off furniture and Chinese food at all hours of the day. Rents are impossibly high, only the trust-fund generation can live comfortably, and all the artists and writers, chorus girls and rockers, are forced to wait tables and live in studios in Queens with three roommates apiece. Most people are so rent-poor they spend their time feeling beat down, trapped, that there's nothing they can do.

New York City is complicated. Peoples' feelings toward New York often are informed by the fantasy of NYC, the televised image of endless flickering re-runs of Seinfeld and Law & Order, Sex & The City and Friends. They feel the pulse of the city in the endless looping mixtape of indigenous music; the wail of a Charlie Parker alto solo that gives way to the simmering strum of Bob Dylan that leads into the dissonant drone of the Velvet Underground that begets the three-chord blast of glue-sniffing Ramones that births the post-Modern nostalgic ennui of The Strokes. New York exists in all five senses, for better or worse. You can smell the city, taste it, even. There is a taste in the winter in Mid-Town that is unmistakable, almost disgusting, yet oddly comforting, because despite the funk of it, it's New York. It's home.

Art that attempts to deal with New York so often embodies these complications. The City inspires it. It inspires contradictions and hypocrisy. A New York comedian will travel all the way to Los Angeles to produce a ground-breaking sit-com about New York, with references and insider humor, and film it all on open sets of one-sided flats in a soundstage in Burbank. Another show will be filmed on the very real streets of Manhattan, will itself, also, be filled with insider humor and references, and will take over the cultural landscape with it's fairy-tale romantic vision of the modern dating rituals of well-heeled professional women. Neither will be completely realistic. Both will be more uncomfortably honest than was probably originally intended. Both will polarize, spark passion and revulsion, and serious, often hyperbolic debate. It's the City that does it to them.

Darla Danberry loves New York. Darla Danberry is a teenaged girl from South Jersey who wears a garish red faux-fur Russian ushanka and white leather 8-hole Doc Marten boots. She designs clothes, has a gay male BFF named David who spins, records that is. He DJ's in playgrounds because he's a teenager, too. They both have a friend named Leigh who, well, doesn't say much of anything. She's just there with them, an anchor of chill to keep the group together. They're childhood friends who've grown up together in the 'burbs of the Big Apple, and have all internalized the common malady of kids raised in Jersey, that of inbred inferiority combined with grandiose ambitions. They're wannabes. They wannabe creative, famous, and most importantly, free. They wannabe free. They wannabe older so they can get into the big club nights, run their own parties, live the televised fantasy of New York. They are kids with Big City DREAMS, in all caps. They've drank the fairy-tale Kool-Aid and on the side of the bottle are the letters N-Y-C.

Sara Schmidt hates New York. Sara Schmidt is a college-aged quote-unquote model living in downtown Manhattan who doesn't seem to like much of anything, except a particularly bad late-night talk show host, oh, and killing people. For money. That's what she really does for a living. She's a model ostensibly only because she's signed to one of the many random model agencies that populate New York; in actuality she's been hired by a shadow agency, that apparently also deals in low-budget downtown pornography, as a covert assassin. Sara is essentially heartless; taking the demeanor of cool-as-ice aloofness of your average urban hipster and typical too-cool-for-school teenager to a ruthless extreme. She won't just make fun of the clothes you wear or the music you listen to, she'll stab you sixty times with a knife. Without blinking. She's a disease, too. She infects her roommate Sonia, also a wannabe model, and recruits her into the little group of killers. They're wannabes, too. They wannabe on the covers of Vogue, supposedly. Really, it seems, they just wannabe making money while staving off boredom.

Then there is Derrick, a college-aged prankster, aimless and shuffling, who loves New York so much he copulates with it, literally. He has sex with inanimate objects - buildings, espresso machines, mops - and films it, posts it online. He is an internet star, his videos garnering hundreds of thousands of hits a day. In the city built by men such as Carnegie, Morgan, and Rockefeller, a city that celebrates the ideals of self-actualization, therein enter Derrick, the self-made celebrity, thrusting away in a crack in the Empire State Building. Most people feel screwed by the Big City; Derrick returns the favor.

This group of dreamers and schemers coalesce during the final night of the most famous party in New York, Forgetless. This is the story of Forgetless, the five-issue mini-series by writer Nick Spencer and artists Scott Forbes, Jorge Coelho, and Marley Zarcone. This is the bizarre, complicated, hilariously sick mess that is and is of NYC, and if it all sounds like it's too much, the truth is that it's not even enough. Five issues barely contains this story, one so full of life and vitality, that even it's most ludicrous moments ring with resonant truth. It's that uncomfortable artistic contradiction rearing around again; this is truth dressed in the most unbelievably ridiculous fiction.

Everything here is truth, stood on it's head a bit. Struggling artists exasperatedly cry out every day 'who do I have to kill to get some recognition around here?'. Well, Sara and Sonia take that to heart and push it to it's logical conclusion, literally killing their way through Manhattan for prosperity and consumer goods. Perhaps killing isn't your thing. Maybe you'd prefer to sleep your way to the top. Well, Derrick seems to have that strategy down cold, except the objects of his rutting are not people in powerful positions who could reward him his sexual favors with career advancement and money, but the very objects and consumer products that are generally seen as the end result of fame. He is screwing your architecture and all your mod cons, and creating his own fame. These three people have figured out that the system is theirs to break apart and make for themselves. Unfortunately, what they wish to make for themselves is only themselves. The end product is narcissism. So self-absorbed are they, they barely know how to communicate with each other, dealing instead through text messages and Twitter posts, FaceBook status updates and Flickr albums.

The story of Darla, David, and Leigh is the real heart and soul of this book. These three are the inverse of the above group, and they are a nostalgic throwback to innocence wrapped up in an outward package of street-savvy wiseacre-ness. Darla Danberry may rock the sarcastic 'tude of a teenaged hipster, but she bears none of the aloofness. She is intelligent, clever, and in possession of the type of passion that probably makes her the target of scorn by the "cool" kids in her Jersey high school. (Cool kids always hate anyone who displays any kind of real passion.) She's friends with David because he, too, is driven to greater things, passionate about music and unashamed to wear his heart on his sleeve. These are the types of kids who feel put upon by a society that doesn't seem to want to help them out, so they learn to fight their way through it. They may scheme a little bit - sell a step-mom's dog through Craigslist, use the money to procure fake IDs - but they never do anything out of heartless malice, and everything is meant to serve the grand ideal of a greater, more noble purpose. Whereas Sara and Sonia find their way to Forgetless to perform a nefarious deed, Darla and David are fighting their way through the exclusive velvet ropes because inside be their dreams.

These stories form the beautiful duality that is the great paradox of New York City. It is a city that appreciates hard work, even forces it upon the citizenry - (a San Francisco psychiatrist once warned me, upon my telling her of my want to move back to New York, that New Yorkers live, on average, five years less than residents of other major American cities. I've not verified this, but instead of putting me off the idea, it caused me to move up my move date. C'est la vie.) - all with the unspoken promise that that hard work will be rewarded. But as any hardcore hustler, and hip-hop mogul, will tell you, the hard work can take many forms. And the city rewards just the same.

Writer Nick Spencer weaves these tales with effortless skill and shows off a remarkably powerful knack for dialogue. Every character has a unique voice, a specific cadence and vernacular that makes them full and unique. They are not a group of "youth types" out of Central Casting, whose sarcastic dialogue could be entirely interchangeable. Each character speaks words natural to them, to their experiences. Spencer has done an outstanding job of writing very real people and by doing so, using them to ground the surreality that surrounds them. The situations don't seem as bizarre when read in context because these people are so genuine. It causes the parts of the story that are sick and depraved to ring even more frightening, while the parts that show heart and zeal shine with true hopefulness. That he gives all these characters, to varying degrees, some form of "happy ending" at series end, is a true testament to Spencer's deftness.

The art of the book is equally accomplished and yet stylistically mixed. Scott Forbes brings a clean quality to his pages; a thin line weight and shiny surface that gives Sara and Sonia that gaunt under-fed model look. He provides a world where backgrounds are sparse color fields blurred around the edge, as if large-scale Rothko's have been hung to form stage flats for sets. This allows the bold expressiveness of his characters to pop even more.

Jorge Coelho's work is far more detailed and carries with it the essence of underground comics in that it provides a cartoony veneer to very realistic settings. He draws the majority of issue #4, which centers on the story of a certain talk-show host as he tells tale of his sexual activities involving online personal ads and a Koala suit. His work fits this perfectly; certain panels having a mid-60's MAD Magazine vibe to them which accentuates the deviant tone of this chapter.

The true stand-out art star of this series would be Marley Zarcone, who is responsible for drawing the entirety of the "Jersey" story line. It is an absolute triumph. Her storytelling is seamless and flows with a graceful ease, never once losing momentum. Her characters crackle with living energy; she has given each one a soul that is unique to them. Zarcone's real success is Darla Danberry. Darla is the engine that moves this entire series; she is a stand-out figure whose personality looms large on the city landscape, and Zarcone fills her with blood and guts, humanity and verve, right down to the David Letterman-style gap between her two front teeth. Spencer gives some of the funniest and sharpest lines to Darla and Zarcone sets about to match the pose, posture, facial expression perfectly to drive each witticism, each barb, each deft turn of phrase deep into the skin. By stories end, Darla positively lives and breathes as surely as a person standing next to you on the subway. I can't imagine reading too many more characters stronger than she in comics this year. Darla Danberry is my new hero, and Zarcone and Spencer stand as the hero-makers.

There is a famous book, by a famous British author, that's famously about two very famous cities. It opens with a very famous line about the contrasting nature of these two bustling metropolises. In one city, things are going quite well, one might even say it was the best of times. In the other city, not so much, perhaps described depressingly as the worst of times. This is really the everyday existence in New York City, and perhaps you would have had to live there for some time to fully understand that. Then again, a certain sit-com about a Jewish comedian on the West Side was originally thought to be too New York-y, too Jewish, and it went on to conquer the world. When a work of art, regardless of medium strikes the right notes, it transcends location and time, transcends the boundaries of ethnicity and geography. Forgetless is a New York story, through and through. It vibrates with the very rhythms that propel that city and it's populace every single wonderfully lousy, god-forsaken day. It recognizes the heartbreak of the City, laments that which is seemingly missing, like an amputee forlorn over a lost limb. Yet it celebrates the ability for New York to provide redemption, hope, and even miracles at any given moment. Serendipity isn't just a candy store, it's a way of life. In a City of dreams. In a City where anything is possible. It's 3 A.M. Your dream is here.
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