Thursday Comics Hangover: These bottoms are the tops

Next week, editor J.T. Yost will debut his new comics anthology, Bottoms Up! True Tales of Hitting Rock Bottom, at the SPX alternative comics festival. In his introduction, Yost identifies the book as a labor of love, an “attempt to humanize addiction through real stories told by actual addicts.” The book features a wide array of contemporary alternative comics talent, including Seattle cartoonists Tatiana Gill and Max Clotfelter.

Addiction stories can be formulaic, in part because audiences intimately understand every rise and fall of the narrative. If things are looking good for the characters in the story, astute readers know that the next decline is just around the corner. Yost’s decision to focus only on the worst possible moments is canny: all the buildup and false promises of traditional recovery narratives are trimmed away, leaving only the central pivot of the story.

The definition of “rock bottom” varies wildly from artist to artist. Some of the moments are funny (the protagonist of Clotfelter's story realizing that the woman he slept with has a full-back tattoo of the Confederate flag and the words “Dixie Bitch”) and others are horrifying (Matt Rota’s long story “That Summer, Way Back” involve a heartbreaking case of animal neglect.) Others, like Victor Kerlow’s “The Big Joke,” depict rock bottom as an abstract emotional state — the complete falling-apart of ego as depicted by a body slicing itself into meaty slivers in an almost-overdose.

Not all of these stories are autobiographical; many are anonymous tales told to the cartoonists, who then interpret the stories in their own styles. Daniel McCloskey depicts one man’s account of a near-suicide through the lens of Taylor Swift’s single “Shake It Off,” and the story blissfully skirts the line between bad taste and good comics. Adam Pasion’s adaptation of another anonymous storyteller’s descent into digital voyeurism somehow manages to portray the creepiness of the addiction while not feeding the reader’s prurient interests. Two of the stories involve imaginary pets. At least one involves regrettable hot tub sex.

Even if you’ve never woken up from a blackout haunted by a familiar gnawing fear in your gut, you’ll likely find a reflection of yourself somewhere in Bottoms Up! There’s no single thread through all of these stories except that most basic human failing: our frustrating ability to let ourselves down, despite our own best intentions. There’s something incredibly comforting about reading a whole book of failures — funny failures, sad failures, tragic failures — told by people who lived to tell the tale.