104 pgs. B&W | $10.00 | W / A: Summer Pierre
Confession: I am a total sucker for stories about music, music fandom, and the way a really great song can change your life—the kind of sort that watches the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity on an annual basis, for instance. It is probably no surprise, then, that a book with a title like All the Sad Songs jumped out at me as I walked the aisles of this year’s Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Md. The inside front and back covers even include handwritten lists of songs running the gamut from classic punk to folk to riot grrl. I was powerless to resist.
Best known for creating diary comics (which she collects under the title Paper Pencil Life), cartoonist Summer Pierre’s first long-form autobiographical work opens in the present day as Pierre, suffering from writer’s block, goes digging for her old treasure trove of mixtapes. “Like a lot of people my age,” she writes, “I regard mixtapes like holy relics that once had the power to narrate my life.” The tapes send her reeling back to her college days in the mid-‘90s, where the serendipitous discovery of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville sends her tumbling down the slippery slope from casual fan to music obsessive, desperately seeking new artists and using her new musical arsenal to craft countless mixtapes for every mood and situation. Individual songs and tapes and the emotions they evoke are explored in a thoughtful, pensive manner that hits all of the the-way-a-really-great-song-can-change-your-life sweet spots. “How is it that a song doesn’t have to be specifically about you,” she ponders, “but through some mysterious combination of words and melody, it feels like it is?”
If all that All the Sad Songs was was Pierre’s insight on her (frankly impeccable) taste in music, it’d be a pretty great read. Fortunately, the book goes well beyond that. Pierre’s musical epiphany gets her to pick up a guitar, transforming her into a singer-songwriter ensconced in the Boston folk scene. But things change during a brief but intense relationship with a manipulative boyfriend. Something within her breaks—breaking her enjoyment in listening to music and her ability to write songs, leaving her to drift through a series of relationships that each get destroyed by her own anxiety. Throughout it all, music is there, evoking in present day Summer the emotional rollercoaster she once survived.
Many graphic memoirs get by on the strength of their plot. All the Sad Songs succeeds on the strengths of its insight. While there is a plot that moves the book from A to B to C, the machinations of the plot (as interesting as they are) are merely the bed upon which Pierre explores the nature of memory, the often frustrating task of developing an identity as a young adult, and how to healthily move beyond heartbreak. As a long-time comics diarist, Pierre is familiar with exploring the inside of her own head, so the narration is not so concerned with the “what” of what happened (though she communicates that clearly) but with the “why,” the “what did it mean to me then,” and the “what does it mean to me now.” It’s these keen, relatable observations that make the book sing.
Pierre’s art leans toward simplicity without sacrificing effectiveness. Her characters are drawn with a minimum of lines, pie-faced people whose genericness only enhances their recognizability and relatability. But when the work calls for more, she brings the craft: the book is packed with loving recreations of mixtapes and album covers, with favorites by the likes of Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, Hole, Tom Waits, and more recreated almost photorealistically. The actions of people are captured in traditional rectangular panels while the effects of music break apart the panel borders to dance across the page. In the post-breakup section, Pierre finds inventive ways to capture her anxiety, including a powerful two-page sequence of her figure as an outline, the page soaked in black spare the anxious white energy emanating from her core. The blend of simple characters and layouts with formalist experiments really brings the emotional rollercoaster Pierre is recalling to the fore.
And did I mention the music? The loving recreations of Pierre’s tantalizingly eclectic mixtapes will have music obsessive readers amped up to listen to the albums and songs that had such a deep impact on the author that their energy soaks into every page of the story. I hope someone has compiled some of these playlists on Spotify. What a wonderful trip through that era of music it would be, even if digging through it would take a hundred times as long as it takes to read this brisk graphic novella. The songs and the book they inspired are part of a piece, and there’s as much emotional catharsis in reading All the Sad Songs as there is in hearing a song about heartbreak at exactly the right time. Sad songs, as they say, say so much. | Jason Green