February 2006

Carrie Jones

nonfiction

Perfect Example by John Porcellino

Depression is very hard to write about. It affects each person differently, it is woven into life's pattern so subtly it is hard to tell when the illness begins and ends. It is slippery, encompassing and subtle. Teenage depression is even harder to write about because feeling unstable and unsure is a part of most people's pasts and is often shrouded in other, more topical miseries.

John Porcellino tackles his own depressed teenagehood in Perfect Example. The book is set during the last summer before college. Like life, not much happens in this book, but also like life, everything that came next spiraled out from his summer of driving around, crushy romances and skateboarding. Porcellino shows not only what happened, but why and how it felt. He shows us his friends, his parents, his deadly boring neighborhood. He describes parties, shows and sad solo time. Every once and a while an adult Porcellino interjects to shows up to give us some "actual thoughts" from 1986, such as "I bet everyone in college listens to Husker Du!!" Those reflections are few, and provide some much needed interpretation of the mundane events that fuel this story.

As in Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man, Porcellino is at his best when he tells other people's stories. On a trip with his sweet, bespectacled friend Mark, John meets Mark's grandparents. Mark's grandpa busts out an old lap-steel guitar and tells the story of hearing the weird, beautiful sounds that the instrument makes on the radio. The search to find one and what happens after are detailed in wordy, cute panels that last a little over a page. John is embarrassed by the old man's attention and the story ends there, after a nicely depicted moment of silence that follows most unexpected moments of closeness. This little story works in a way that the rest of the book doesn't. Breaks from his day-to-day routine (both in the comic and likely in his life) allow Porcellino to escape the necessarily vague language of a depressed life and tell a story.

The book itself is simple and beautiful. Each panel is drawn with clean lines and stark yet evocative tableaux. It is interesting to watch Porcellino experiment with his drawing, often leaving floating heads and awkwardly contorted bodies under the words, and in no way distracts from the story. These comics were drawn between 1994 and 1998, with the major chapters drawn between 1996 and 1998. In the ten years or so since these comics were written, did Porcellino have any new thoughts on that time of his life?

Perfect Example captures the confusion and pain of many people's teenage years very well. But this memoir lacks perspective and interpretation, without it, this story could be anyone's, making Perfect Example more like a static document than a good story. At the end of the book, Porcellino provides an extensive resume where the picture of a tumultuous and unique life emerges, as well as an ability to creatively describe life events. So why does Perfect Example feel so anonymous?

Perfect Example by John Porcellino
Drawn & Quarterly
ISBN: 1896597750
144 pages