It strikes me that, true to the title of Peter Bagge’s entry to the world of graphic novels, should you make time to absorb this often ponderous commentary on identity, you might find yourself wondering whether, if in another life (in which you avoided it), you’d really have missed anything. I did.
Unsure if I’d just been at all entertained or just subject to a commentary crucially lacking in clear comment, I flicked back through the pages to see if there was anything I’d missed before committing to an opinion. Which became that I hadn’t.
Let me be clear that from the get go it’s obvious that Bagge’s visual work in Other Lives is vibrant and engaging. But while he animates the alternate lives of the four main characters with two-toned aplomb, the panels’ dialogue is less accommodating, unashamedly slinging sentences forth with little room for the subtlety an investigation into the self would favour.
If you’re precious about your words and narratives as I am, you’ll find this vexing from the outset. And if you’re not, I’d wager you’ll still find it increasingly distracting if not truly irritating by the climax.
When Vader Ryderbeck, the story’s central figure, meets Otis Boyd, the character who ‘definitively lives with his mother’ but also might/might not be working for the Feds, sentences and conversations are progressed through wild changes in tone and odd leaps of communication (and reader faith). This would be less detrimental if, as this suggests, Bagge actually had plenty to say, but by the midway point it appears otherwise, even despite the bolding of words in nearly every piece of dialogue.
Unfortunately, this isn’t down to temperamental printing presses either. Do I understand the occasional need for bolding in emphasis? Yes, though I don’t often agree, but occasional it must be to avoid cutting deep wounds in a fledgling plot, as it does here.
Along with Vader and Otis, we’re treated to equally emphatic speech and tone changes by Vader’s easily excitable other half, Ivy, and the gambler/gamer Vader went to college with, Woodrow. These have some connection to each other, and to both Otis and Vader, but fine pictures aren’t enough to hold the whole together and deliver what, with these four corners of the character spectrum on hand, could have been a far more engaging and entertaining whole.
From introduction through development and to resolution, there are some mild points of interest in each of them, but nothing ever really ignites. Vader’s journey is one littered with family secrets that, while providing a competent backstory, fail to capture the imagination. Otis’ situation is handled somewhat heavy handedly, failing to properly illuminate what could have been an interesting study in the psychology of self.
Meanwhile, Ivy is an ultimately one-dimensional (and not even a particularly entertaining one-dimensional) creation, while Woodrow’s flip switch tells a story of extremes without any comment on how it came into being.
As you might expect by now, my opinion is that none of this ends in even a near-enthralling whole, and I’m not exactly sure what the key reason is that it doesn’t ever really work. Perhaps it’s the format, this being Bagge’s first venture into full-blown graphic novel territory. And if that’s the case, perhaps it’s also that the subject matter doesn’t work for someone reputed to be one of America’s top satirical cartoonists.
Is the duality of the self something that should be handled over 128 pages by a satirist for his first venture into this landscape? I can’t answer that definitively. But with Peter Bagge’s Other Lives, even if it is visually attractive, it’s ultimately let down by not fulfilling a promising premise.
Other Lives is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.