Bringing Comix to Life

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Andrew Zaben wants you to do a little work. Just look at the covers of his three novellas: "Dream Big Dreams," "Queens Blvd.," and the latest, "Tuesday and Thursday" (All Effort Comics; 80pp.; $8.95). The title and price get minimized to a small street sign or upside-down envelope in a panoramic, wrap-around urban landscape of non-descript buildings and streets. Centered on the front are figures that look away from you in distracted or pensive positions. You feel they might catch you staring at them and be annoyed. This unusual, enigmatic design leaves you with more questions than answers, like looking at a snapshot you find on the sidewalk. The stories inside reflect this unusual approach, telling challenging tales of low-key, working New Yorkers of the outer boroughs.

"Tuesday and Thursday" drops us in on Paul Chloe, a thirtyish civil-servant during his mid-week days off. He's a jerk. Arrogant and acerbic, he snaps at his wife and puts down his friends. But he seems more desperate than angry. His moral compass has gone haywire. He shoplifts a can of tuna because "food always tastes better when it's free," but helps an old man who has fallen to the curb. On Tuesday night, after boozing it up with his "pals" he snatches a wad of cash from the hands of an unsavvy pedestrian. Where the book could now turn heavy with plot or philosophy, "Crime and Punishment"-style, instead Paul casually continues his life, flirting with women and planning a vacation with his ill-earned gains. What keeps you reading is the mystery of "why," and the smart writing that refuses to answer the question directly. Instead you get a glimpse into the life of someone who could be your brother-in-law, whose story has as much drama and mystery as any overwrought fiction.

Reading Zaben's oeuvre brings the films of John Cassavetes to mind. To enjoy both auteurs you need to divest yourself of the usual expectation for their chosen medium. Both use minimal plot devices as the seeds to study character and relationships in believable ways. The results are often as disorienting as life. Ever wonder why someone does something, or what, exactly is the relationship between two people? Welcome to Zaben's world. Although his two previous books were more confusing than revelatory, with "Tuesday and Thursday," Zaben has found the right balance between story arc and smart character writing. Like Cassavetes too, Zaben comes up with funny, truthful dialogue. One exchange between Paul and his friend Steve begins with Steve saying, "I'm giving up drinking. ? I was thinking about why I never have money or a job and it's because of the alcohol." "That and laziness," says Paul. "Yeah but the alcohol's easier to quit." "Then why'd you ask me to go to a bar tonight?" asks Paul. "I figure I'll start tomorrow."

Swiping tuna in Andrew Zaben's "Tuesday and Thursday"

Unlike Cassavetes, who relied on the improvisatory intelligence of actors, Zaben does it all himself, including the "performances." This presents the book's biggest challenge: the art. Everything has been drawn with heavy brushes and thick markers, including such normally fine stuff as body hair. The result can either be called bold or crude, depending on your generosity. The stiffly posed characters often seem as inanimate as the objects around them. Faces look identical and show little emotion. This ultimately keeps the audience at a distance, an effect that may very well be deliberate, but nonetheless becomes more of an obstacle than the author may realize.

The pleasures of "Tuesday and Thursday," and from Andrew Zaben's other books, comes from having to do some work. You want plot but the stories are open-ended. You want clear relationships but you don't always know what's going on. You want motivations but you just get clues instead. But as we all know, the rewards you work for are much sweeter than the ones given to you.

"Tuesday and Thursday" can be found at superior comicbook stores