One of the most perplexing epistemological questions that enters the human mind is: “What’s next?” For those of us who try to derive some sort of meaning about our lives, thoughts about tomorrow (and the future, generally) are enough to elicit palpable feelings of anxiety and woe. When we think about the stages of our lives, we see the natural progression of how we got to where we are now: x happened, y followed. But in the moments where we can’t reflect and simply have to trudge our way through the miasmas of disappointments—whether they are professional, relational, or internal—knowing that we can’t compromise our core beings is essential to moving forward, no matter how bleak the path ahead looks.
I don’t intend these thoughts to verge on the morose, but I couldn’t help think of them while reading Joseph Remnant’s new graphic novel published Cartoon Clouds (Fantagraphics). Remnant, whose previous work includes illustrating Cleveland, one of Harvey Pekar’s last projects, is the rare auteur (this is Remnant’s first graphic novel that he has both written and drawn) who creates stories with a grand vision of the quotidian injustices of life, who can manipulate the picayune details of eyebrow raises, mouth curls, and forehead furrows into character traits of great consequence. Indeed, Cartoon Clouds is a testament to the art of the subtle, as well as a bold thesis about the inanities of the millennial experience.
Cartoon Clouds’ central character is Seth Fallon, a recent art school graduate with an undeniable early-Robert Zimmerman air about him, who wrestles mightily with the next stages of his career. While his fellow art school friends and acquaintances seem to have all the luck scoring well-placed internships or having the ability to pursue their dreams as professional artists, Seth struggles to pay the rent. His sardonic and dour weltanschauung, as well as his uncompromising visions of his place in the world, make him a difficult person to be around, yet people still special qualities about his art and admire his career aspirations. Consequently, his other friends Allison (who has romantic feelings towards Seth), Jeff (his layabout roommate), and Kat (Jeff’s girlfriend and an ersatz art-promoter who thinks of gimmicky themes for art shows), vacillate between sympathy and pity for him, becoming increasingly intolerant of his negative and defeatist attitudes about art in general, the pettiness found in the art world, and the phoniness of those that inhabit that realm.
Seth’s story is endlessly relatable for anyone who has struggled to make a name for themselves. At every turn, he has to interact with condescending authority figures explaining to him why he’s good, but not great, or why he has to undermine his intended career to make ends meet. There are the regular indignities of learning that he would have to work overtime for an unpaid internship with a prestigious contemporary art museum, people calling Seth’s art derivative, and the constant reminder that student loan debt is an unforgiving mistress. For all of his talent and training in the realm of fine art, Seth finds himself working at a burrito joint to pay the bills.
While reading Cartoon Clouds, I could feel Seth’s every frustration with life. In my own way, I’ve been in Seth’s shoes and I’m sure many of my generational cohorts have been as well. There is nothing more humiliating than languishing in the purgatory between being a dependent student and going out into the world as an independent adult, all the while having spent years in school, working hard on honing talents or becoming an expert in a particular field only to graduate and be rejected from every job you applied to, to see friends who have the means or resources to get jobs and/or significant others they don’t deserve, or just see your potential squandered. It is in exploring these aspects are where Remnant’s work shines. As a reader, I can’t help but sympathize with Seth’s existential quandaries about his place in the world because I’m still seeking it myself.
And that really gets to the humanistic qualities of Cartoon Clouds. Just as clouds are transitory by nature, slaves to the elements of wind and moisture, so too are people fettered by forces that greater than us, forces we don’t understand. Even though we try to manipulate fate in our favor, we don’t always succeed. For Remnant, the story of Seth is the search for the idea of purpose (though, I believe Remnant is ultimately agnostic on what this means exactly. But, then again, aren’t we all?). And just as Seth never finds closure, neither do readers, at least on a physical level.
Ultimately, what Remnant crafts with Cartoon Clouds is a delicate meditation on working through the malaise of despondency to never look back, to keep moving forward even though the path ahead is horrifying at best and hazy and worst. Such attitudes are universal but will have immediate and long-lasting relevance for millennials who will recognize their struggles in the avatar of Seth Fallon. And with singular artistic senses in which many of the masters of the indie comix form have been imbibed, Remnant works in harmony with his keen sense of pacing and composition to create a work that has a pathos that stays with readers long after the last page is read.
Fantagraphics Books, 2017