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Good Read Column for May 25, 1998

Minimum Wage

By Bob Fingerman
#8 of an ongoing series
Fantagraphics, $2.95

(of a possible five)


All right, all right, this has been out for pretty long to be "this week's" good read. I had just about decided I'd waited too long on this one and would catch this comic the next time around, but there's a rumor going around on the 'net that it's going to be canceled (or at least "put on hiatus"). Now, I know my little corner of cyberspace isn't exactly in the same league with Yahoo! (hell, it's not even in the same league with Bianca's Smut Shack), but I wanted to urge everyone to order the next issue right away, and maybe we can avert catastrophe here.

Of course, I feel somewhat like a hypocrite making that plea, since I recently ignored a similar plea from fans of Joe Chiappetta's Silly Daddy. The difference is, I recently bought two or three issues of Silly Daddy and I just didn't like them much. It's not that they're not good - every criticism I've seen of Chiappetta on the newsgroups I have a good argument to refute. It just doesn't do anything for me, personally. It's sort of like Acme Novelty Library or the work of Dan Clowes. I can recognize the talent there, and if I had money to buy stuff just to support the kind of comics I think are important, I'd be buying them. But they just don't turn me on.

If you feel that way about Bob Fingerman, read no further. If you think the whole idea of "slice of life" comics is stupid and think comics are supposed to be about superheroes, or at least spies and detectives and high adventure and women with big gazongas, why don't you go play a video game? But if you've never heard of Minimum Wage, or you've heard of it but never actually saw it on the shelf, read on and discover why its passing would be a sad thing for the comics medium.

Before going any farther, I should point out that this is an adult comic. There is nudity and sexual situations and language that would probably make it an R as a movie, and by the standards of the comics industry should make it unavailable for sale to anyone under 18 (21 in some jurisdictions).

Bob Fingerman's comic is about real life. I don't know if it's about his real life, although since his main character is named "Rob" and draws comics one would assume that it is semi-autobiographical. But not necessarily the open-wound honesty of a Seth or Chester Brown, just a guy following the first directive of damned-near every Creative Writing teacher/seminar/book/article in history: Write What You Know.

What Fingerman knows is life, particularly life on the fringes of "polite society." This issue, (#8) opens in a strip club, and it's clear that the various characters are not exactly typical middle-class suburbanites. The running theme this issue is an incident about halfway through: Rob and his fiancee, Sylvia, are mistaken by some ignorant bigots for homosexuals. Early in the comic, before this happens, Rob and some friends are joking around and one of them calls the other two "homos." After having "Fag" yelled at him by not one but two separate passing motorists, Rob describes the incident to his friend Jack. Rob admits that "the word 'fag' is bandied about pretty casually among all of us, but I don't think any of us mean it as a put down on gay folks. It's grade-school playground banter."

"I doubt you'd feel that way if you were gay," points out Jack, whereupon Rob calls him a "yid," and complains about political correctness, and Jack counters back with "you closet Jew." They go on to other subjects, but on their way to get something to eat, a passerby angered by Jack's attitude calls after them, "Fags!"

"Remind me to retire that term," says Rob.

This is a human moment, a true moment, and an optimistic statement about the real ability of human beings to see themselves and, just possibly, change for the better, at least in small ways. Spread out over several pages, it sneaks up on you, the final statement having much more power in the comic than I can convey here. And yet, it's also a small thing. It's not a Great Revelation. It's not an Author's Message hammered into our heads. It's subtle, and wonderfully real, and all the more effective for NOT being made a big thing, but presented as easily and naturally as walking down the street. Just like real life.

It's astonishingly sad to realize how few moments like this there are in even most "alternative" comics, much less the ones following the exploits of the costumed hyperactive crime-fighters and universe-savers. This sort of presentation, this sort of subtlety, these kinds of revelatory character development and real growth of personality, are standard stuff in modern prose fiction. Long comics stories dare to call themselves "graphic novels," yet few comics can even sit beside the average contemporary short story, as far as insight into the human condition is concerned. Even the best comics are usually consumed with Big Issues and Big Problems, a holdover from the medium's long domination by superhero stories, where every month the heroes have to save the world.

But this one issue has half a dozen such moments. One of my favorite comes when Rob and Sylvia are walking and Rob says "What an incredible day. This is my perfect weather. Mid-60s with a light, cool breeze."

"It's still a little chilly," says Sylvia. "Twenty degrees hotter and we're there."

"Ucch. No," insists Rob, "this is perfect. Right now."

Sylvia turns him around, touches his face and says, "No, no, see? This isn't a Rob is right, Sylvia is wrong situation, see? This is a subjective, opinion-based discussion, yes? If I say it's chilly, to me, it's chilly, you follow?"

Rob says he understands, but you know he'll do it again. People can learn, they have the capacity to change, but they don't always get it the first time. Especially with men and their need to prove themselves right. (I know because I sometimes have the same problem.)

This is a marvelous little comic. I only discovered it recently, and I still haven't caught up on the early issues (there's a "graphic novel" that I believe was originally published that way but might collect some self-published issues, and a "Book Two" that collects the first five Fantagraphics issues, which is dandy for me 'cause the first one I have is #6). The three I've read are all uniformly excellent, full of believable human foibles and real affection between the characters - not just the two leads, who obviously love each other, but Rob's often verbally abusive friends as well. Although he may be retiring "fag," Rob and his friends will no doubt continue to "diss" each other, but it doesn't mean they like each other any less.

(Art, Steve. Say something about the art)

Fingerman is an accomplished cartoonist. His characters are broad caricatures done in simple lines, but everybody has their own face, even background passers-by seen only in one panel (like the first panel of page 8, for example). Sylvia's "butch" hairstyle (which helps cause the bigotry) is part of her personality, but her face is distinctive enough we would know her in a blonde, curly wig. The cartoony art doesn't at all detract from the realism of the stories, in my opinion. After only a few issues, I feel I know these people as people. One of the reasons the "Remind me to retire that term" line works so well is the look on Rob's face when he says it. This is NOT a prose story with illustrations.

I'm hopeful that the rumor is just a rumor, or that the "hiatus" is just an official recognition of the fact that, since his other work keeps him alive and he has little time for this comic, Minimum Wage will have no "schedule" but just come out when it comes out (he did only two issues in 1997). I would hate to see this comic go away, and really hope that its sales increase someday to the level that Fingerman can make a living off of it, and devote all his time (well, all his working time, anyway) to the adventures of Rob and Sylvia and their friends.

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