Page 45 Review by Stephen
"I stop listening.
"I can't deal with answers."
A tender, honest and unsanitised self-expression during which Grace finally begins listening to himself, so starts to find answers and, in doing so, discovers the other thing he was searching for within: his perfect comics project.
There's a telling two-page parallel in which, on the left-hand side, he scrutinises previously drawn pages hanging from a studio washing line, some appended with notes, others linked by thematic threads, anguishing over what he should create next.
"It's gotta be: funny, cool-looking, have emotion and -"
His mobile phone interrupts. It's Date O'Clock. On the right-hand side, he's paying no more attention to the present.
"I try to combat the weirdness of internet dating by going overboard on personal stuff with "strangers" I chat online with..."
Which might be fine if you ask them about their lives as well... and so long as you on no account begin blathering on about your ex-boyfriends.
"I met an ex for lunch today..."
"So am I your sloppy seconds?"
Unable to take the hint (not listening...), Sina launches into a self-absorbed emotional post-mortem on that meeting before sitting up afterwards in bed, on his own, between the empty, upturned shells of his date represented as a toy - a Russian Doll.
"My strategy to overshare really doesn't help me learn more about Dear John..."
Quite. But this is what I mean about unsanitised: Grace is well aware of his own shortcomings, the contradictions between what he most wants to know by a third date but can't bring himself to ask ("Do you feel like I'm "it"?"), and the over-commitment he doesn't want to hear from some others on date two: this sends him running very scared indeed. But I suppose it depends to some extent at least on who asks, and how they ask.
Please don't be fooled into thinking that this is artlessly slapped onto the page as either a careless emotional evacuation or a didactic, I know-best critique of others' behaviour. It's free from guile but it's so tightly structured as a second, vital reading will make emphatically clear.
"Did you not like your ramen?" asks his Dear John date.
"I did! I think I may have a gluten problem or something with starches... 'Evs! Check time!"
On a first read-through one could easily conclude that Grace was so caught up in his own monologue - preoccupied with offloading - that he failed to stop talking and eat: that his supposed gluten problem is just an excuse for that bad behaviour, and his "'Evs! Check time!" was a hurried way of concluded that line of questioning. If you study his face, he's certainly anxious about something.
But this is still quite early on, and earlier still there's a similarly ambiguous end to a conversation at a convention which has been equally well set up in advance. In it he seems to duck a fan's question about what's next on his plate before ducking into the toilet to throw up.
"Must be stress... Yeesh, hope that doesn't happen again."
The ambiguity wouldn't have worked half so well had Grace not preceded the encounter with self-doubts as to which artistic direction he should indeed pursue next, and immediately preceded that question with a convention-floor interview after which he castigates himself for what he perceives to be an evasive answer or at least one insufficiently confident about "the more sexual portions of SELF-OBSESSED".
"Fuck, that answer sucked.
"In a country that prides itself on freedom of speech, I shouldn't have to be concerned about others...
"Like, wouldn't a kid in the closet in Iran expect me to live loud?
"I am unfettered by religion and shame, I should revel in my freedom!"
I can assure you that Grace does revel in it loudly and proudly throughout, encouraged by the likes of fellow comicbook creators Eric Stephenson, Jeff Lemire, Becky Cloonan and Brandon Graham to make both his comic and his craft as individualistic as he wants. He also revels in it poignantly and endearingly in a recollection of an early crush, aged 14, on a 28-year-old teacher which he attempts to pursue with a clumsiness which is ever so cute, online. One AOL chat ends with the teacher signing off:
"Gotta run. Alias is on. LY."
And oh, the high, heart-fluttering thrill, hoping beyond hope that he meant "Love you"!
Then the down-to-earth crash as your hopes are dashed. It signified "Later, yo".
"Ah..." replies Sina in a speech balloon dripping with desolation, a giant heart breaking behind him, "That's what I thought..."
Let's pull back again to the structure and the book's immaculate, yet oh so subtle panel-by-panel composition, however. Between the comicbook convention restroom jitters and RamenGate, we are presented with a page called 'All the times Amber was right...' Amber is his best friend and confidante, his wise woman with unfalteringly fine advice, encouraging and emboldening when appropriate, puncturing his puffed-up delusions wherever necessary:
"And put some weight back on! I don't wanna see any of that anorexic actress B.S. from you!"
The thing is, the first four free-floating examples are given in blue whereas that final sign off is bordered, in pink. It's only on a second reading that the reason behind this far from random artistic decision will become clear. Little impresses me more than such an absence of sign-posting, and there's plenty more where that came from.
I've considered whether such a critical observation itself constitutes sign-posting, but I have at least refrained from critical analysis in this instance, and on balance it seems far more important to impress upon potential readers that what may initially appear to be a jumble of multiple snapshots presented with mixed levels of rendering - either created for this highly original graphic novel or salvaged from sketchbooks, journals or lined notebooks - is in fact a painstakingly arranged, intricate lattice of increasing intimacy.
Diaries lend themselves to observation, introspection and self-analysis if you care to pursue your thoughts far enough. And that's essentially the overt aesthetic: immediate, loose, candid, exceptionally revealing in every sense, and not afraid of being published for public consumption without polishing either the presentation (which would have eroded the intimacy) or the author's personality (which would have obliterated it).
Instead his inconsistencies which we all harbour - his highs, extreme lows, and his self-destructive dating choices demonstrating an initial chasm between self-knowledge and self-guidance - are bared not for his own benefit, but for others'.
Just look at the cover with its attendant, top-right comprehension! It is, both in its sentiment and placement, the very antithesis of veneer.
This is above all about digging beneath the surface in order to help heal, and as such it reminded me in no small part of dear, dear Sarah Burgess (THE SUMMER OF BLAKE SINCLAIR - 3 volumes - and BROTHER'S STORY) whose struggles with sociability, self-confidence and self-worth in the form of her online comics I have long admired and pestered her on several occasions to press into print so that we can place them proudly (as we have this) in Page 45's online Mental Health Section.
For as NOTHING LASTS FOREVER progresses, so it increasingly cuts to the chase.
"Why am I surrounded by love & support and still think about dying?"
Sina is indeed surrounded by love and support, even by his one central on / off ex-boyfriend - prepared to pick him up by car, by hand and in standing steadfast with both arms braced on either side as Sina wibbles aimlessly on about some nebulous future at a party - but it is so often that one feels most alone when surrounded by friends. And, for some like Sina, it is so often that one can feel most empty, remote and removed when in bed with another, during sex.
Please don't judge. You may feel very differently, for we are all unique and complex individuals. Forgetting that is to fail to consider and acknowledge the validity of others' struggles and their very humanity.
"Acclaim doesn't fix depression.
"Therapy, supplements, talking about it, time, medication... these things help."
A comic like this doesn't come round very often, though I do wish it would (Sarah Burgess, you are brilliant and so please take note) and I, for one, relish meeting new people with experiences outside of mine which enrich my understanding of life and of love and of hurdles which I could never stride over nor vault. It's ever so eloquently expressed, even in the silences.
I'd like to end on another high note, the title: NOTHING LASTS FOREVER.
You don't think really believe that Grace is alluding to relationships, do you? Even if he may be in part, it's far more positive than that.