The Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man by John Porcellino
The title would be fitting for an indie rock record, the publisher is in an
indie rock band and many of the drawings first appeared in a self-published
zine. The author even has the McSweeney's seal of hip approval. But overall,
Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man ends up being more "ho hum"
than "hey-ho, let's go."
Taken as a whole, the collection seems to be about the cyclical nature of life, either the author's or the larger world's. The dedication makes John Porcellino's current state of mind pretty clear: "This book I dedicated to, with love, to mosquitoes, men, women, and all beings; grasses, rocks, fences and sky." The art graduates from messy, hand-drawn panels (most of these are taken from the author's long-running zine, King-Cat Comics) to a smoother style that lacks the superficial intensity of the older ones, but is much more reflective about the subject matter. The older comics detail the methods and motivations of a career in extermination. The wild drawings of bugs, depictions of geographical oddities and anecdotal observations are visceral road tales. The later comics are cause less of a physical reaction--no stings, no stink, no sex--pondering instead the larger questions of living in an ecosystem.
Maybe it's because I just finished Paula Kamen's recent memoir on chronic pain, All in My Head, but the most interesting story in Porcellino's book is the previously unpublished "Death of a Mosquito Abatement Man." It is the most personal and, out of all the stories, gives the largest picture of Porcellino's life beyond the mosquito truck. Charting the mysterious illness that plagued his last year of bug-killing, the rounds of doctors and treatments and the religious conversion that followed, "Death of a Mosquito Abatement Man" is drawn in the clean, simple style of modern Porcellino and drags the deep end of the Diary's pool while keeping us in the story.
A few other stories stick in the mind. My favorite two are "Scott" and "24 Hours," both originally written originally more than 10 years ago. In "Scott," Porcellino meets a cheese-popcorn-eating hobo with questionable mental facilities. You expect something horrible or disgusting to happen, but the two's sedate parting ends up being much more satisfying than an exposed rash or an attempted murder. "24 Hours" charts the inner life of a young exterminator. Guess what: It's really really boring, but the one-panel riff on the litany of driving and spraying transforms the repetitive nightmare into a comic study on what happens when work takes over your mind.
Despite the focus on one subject and the delight of seeing the evolution of one artist's work over time, Diary doesn't feel complete as a collection. The flashes of voyeuristic fun a reader feels peering into another's life are eventually deflated by the slightness of the book, even with Porcellino's charming introduction and the helpful appendix that fills in a curious reader on the timeline of the pieces. The stories themselves are drown out by the larger story of the author's personal transformation, but there's not enough meaty biographical detail throughout to really understand how it all ends up. The book asks you to question your own work and its relation to the larger world through Porcellino's experience. Instead, what you're left with is a desire for him to tell more and more stories about the world (at which he certainly is skilled) that touch the places that this collection never seems to get to.
Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man by John Porcellino