I Love Led Zeppelin
by Ellen Forney (Fantagraphics, 2006)

Fair warning: there's nothing about Led Zeppelin in this collection of graphic shorts. But it is very much about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, among other topics. And it is very, very good.

Often labeled as an "exploration of alternative lifestyles," Forney's Eisner award-winning collection takes a Pekar-like look at life through terrifically drawn vignettes that tackle a variety of subjects, from how to do morning yoga, kick heroin at home or roller skate backwards. There are other subjects of a highly sexual nature, so this comic comes with a "for mature audiences" recommendation.

The pieces range from confessional to instructional to autobiographical, and every single one of them put a smile on my face. It's obvious Forney has a wide-ranging intellect that is fascinated by many things, which is why you'll find a one-off about her adorable Scrabble-playing grandmother alongside a piece about Forney's brother wearing make-up for the first time, and an utterly hysterical account of Forney's "date" with author and feminist writer Camilla Paglia. There are also instructions for how to reattach a severed finger, swing on a trapeze and be a successful call girl. Then there are her collaborations with not a few famous individuals, among them Dan Savage, Margaret Cho, Kristin Gore and Sherman Alexie.

Deliciously wry and highly witty, Ellen Forney, to quote Chekov, "writes what flows freely" from her soul. And, like Pekar and Chekov, Forney is not a coldly detached observer but a writer and artist with a unique view of the human spirit. Forney is absolutely an observer of humanity, and a very heartfelt one at that. Her curiosity about darn near everything takes you into some interesting places, such as alligator gazing, what it's like doing drag for the first time and modern-day blacksmithing, all without once losing that wonderful sense of exuberance. Like Pekar, she has taken average lives and turned them into mediations on human behavior, of which she is an avid student.

Although some reviewers have labeled ILLZ as an "alternative" comic, I see nothing but normal, everyday life limned by a spare, witty writing style and richly layered black-and-white artwork (with one full-color page). Forney's view is humanizing without being existentialist, humorous without being too chipper, and overall very real.

Whether you call them nonserious monologues or humorous encapsulations, these "shorts" are like a bubbling cauldron filled with people who love, lose, engage in politics, fight cultural misunderstandings, experience adolescent nightmare rites of passage and offer lots of how-to advice. There is such tremendous diversity in this brilliant hodge-podge that it's well worth reading more than once.

review by
Mary Harvey

30 April 2011

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