Sam Alden’s New Construction presents two comics that both explore the theme of constructing homes. Or arguably, failures in constructing homes. The first story, Backyard, revolves around a struggling co-op of young people while the second, Household, features a dysfunctional sister-brother relationship.
One of the reasons I enjoy Alden’s work so much is because it’s deadly efficient. Each panel conveys so much information with so little. I’ve read a lot of comics with straightforward narratives that focus primarily on beautifully rendered illustrations and yet, despite all this effort, the images will actually tell me very little. To make up for the paucity of visual information, I am usually dictated to with multiple panels of expository dialogue or internal monologues. To be fair, this is something of a genre convention for biographical comics but too often I find dramatic comics overusing expository text to make up for a lack of visual storytelling.
Alden’s art is often described as evocative and rich in atmosphere, which it is – but it’s also rich in information. I think as comic readers, we have been trained to be lazy, to skim over the pretty pictures and let text guide our understanding. If we linger over images, it’s for our own visual pleasure. That’s fine, but with New Construction, a careless reading is not going to cut it. These stories are not like your typical Hollywood blockbuster where you can mentally check out because all the important plot points, not to mention emotional cues, will be shoved down your throat. New Construction requires your full attention.
You can read on for more details about each comic, but if you don’t like spoilers, please scroll quickly down to the last paragraph. If you want to risk it, I’ve surrounded each section with <spoilers> tags and the text is in grey.
Backyard was my favourite of the two comics because of its density and ambiguity. It’s a complex story that centers around a group of radical activist co-op members who are unable to address the behaviour of one member, Molly, who has taken to living in the backyard and acting like a dog. Even more bizarre than Molly’s behaviour is how the members accept this situation. One of the members however, the protagonist of the story, slowly begins to question the group she is so identified with when her partner, an outsider to the collective, expresses his concerns.
Rendered with confident, gestural linework and bold shadows, you are immediately immersed in Backyard’s moody world. Yet as immersive as it is, the story actually only provides brief snippets into the characters’ lives. Although the visual rendering is more polished than Household, Alden has pared the storytelling to the bones, often starting a scene mid-conversation and exiting it before it ends. To top it off, scenes are often “intercut” with one another, giving the story a distinctly cinematic and somewhat unsettling feeling.
There are also a number of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments in Backyard.
Consider the two scenes briefly juxtaposed below. On the left page, there is a mundane, bucolic normalcy as the protagonist shows her parents the collective’s backyard garden. On the right, we have the grimmer reality of the backyard, with Molly pressed up against the glass of a car window like a pet, observing her housemate getting laid. These two pages would be easy to skim over, but it’s actually very creepy.
One of the darkest scenes of the comic occurs when the protagonist discovers the co-op’s chickens, which have died in the rain, and then is confronted by Molly. We then see the protagonist bandaging her arm. We are not shown what has occurred but the previous panels suggest that she has been attacked by Molly, perhaps bitten. Despite this, her friend completely ignores her injury.
The last two pages are both powerful and ambiguous. After a run-in with the police, the collective finally decides to make a serious effort in helping Molly, bringing her into the house, giving her a haircut and trying to feed her a proper meal.
Here, the panels (note: not in the same two page spread as it appears below) serve as a counterpoint to each other and the story veers into surrealism. Molly’s bob-length hair grows in each panel until it’s longer than her shoulders, suggesting an impossible passage of time. Also note that unlike the other panels with their dense mis-en-scene, Molly is presented in total negative space and in close up – the only background-less panels and closeups in the entire story.
I’ve read reviews of Backyard that suggest this comic doesn’t take a judgmental stance with its characters. While I would agree, I do think there is a statement being made against the group. While their representation elicits sympathy, it is also damning. The group seems to be almost locked into some kind of silent, surreal stasis in the final panel. They are an activist collective – that cannot take action.
These four panels bring the story to its head. What passes in Molly’s drawn out panels? Will the protagonist break her ties to the collective’s warped ecosystem of narcissism and ideology? To such questions, Alden does not provide any easy answers.
Household is a story about two siblings, Tim and Celeste, who have escaped their dysfunctional family life only to find themselves unequipped to create any meaningful semblance of a family or home together.
Alden’s gestural style is pushed to extremes in Household. The rendering is loose and rough; the lettering, although legible, is sloppy. Some panels look like blown up thumbnails. I’ll be honest, if Backyard had been drawn in Household’s style, I’m not sure I would have picked up New Construction. But by using such a fast-handed style, Alden must rely on raw story telling skills – panel composition, pacing, symbolism – to drive the plot. And it’s quite successful.
Indeed, the story is more straightforward than Backyard in its symbolism. Juxtaposed with Tim and Celeste’s doomed attempt at living normal lives, we have two examples of contrived homes and failed families. There’s the family of actors for a dramatic show unfolding on a shooting set where Tim and Celeste work and more disturbingly, a precarious bird’s nest perched atop a ladder, a sort of sad perversion of a natural order. As the sibling’s relationship begins to unravel into incest, the symbolic households – households built on artifice and compromise to begin with – also break down.
Admittedly, at times, I found this use of symbolism heavy handed. For example, on page 137 when the actors on the tv set are exchanging maudlin dialogue about sticking together, there’s a sound boom prominently stuck above their heads. We get it, it’s fake…
What I liked more was how in Household, Alden frequently employs the same 4 panel counterpoint technique we saw in Backyard in which two panels form a parenthesis another two panels, creating more layers of meaning and contrast. Pages 138-139 are a good example, in which Tim’s literal and figurative pounding (sorry, I couldn’t word this more delicately) – whether its hammering at his workplace or having an incestuous fuck in his residence – surrounds two panels in which his coworker is about to bring up his sister’s promiscuity.
Taken as a whole, we see Tim labouring to produce a (play-acted) household, efforts that collapse under the glare of an outsider’s gaze (much like in Backyard) and are perverted by his sister’s sexuality and their incestuous bond.
Household concludes much like Backyard, with our protagonist at a crossroads. We are uncertain if Tim will stay with Celeste when the story shifts to a flashback sequence in which the siblings as children are trapped with their disturbed father. Childhood Tim suggests running away while childhood Celeste asks him to stay with her. Childhood Tim obliges her. The exchange is both sweet and bleak; we know where the two eventually end up. And yet, the ample use of negative space and the closing blank panel leave one with a sense of uncertainty and perhaps, even escape.
I picked up my copy of New Construction at a book launch hosted by The Beguiling. It shouldn’t be very hard to track down.