Minis Monday: Liz Prince’s I Swallowed the Key to my Heart

Posted by on August 16th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Self-published; B&W; 24 magazine-sized pp; $5

In Four Squares, the compilation of daily autobiographical strips she did with Tim Finn, Joe Quinones and Maris Wicks, Liz Prince generated the self-portrait that was least concerned with immediate appearance. Visually, her cartoon shorthand was cavalier with surface niceties, trimmed and sketchy to the point of being under-drawn. But more to the point, she didn’t seem worried about first impressions, or even necessarily those that linger. She appeared comfortable with wrinkles, mixed signals, complexity and tension; where others in the quartet depicted the communal aspect of swimming at Walden Pond, she rendered herself as the hold-out (“Dunk your head.” “No.” “Do it!” “No.”). The very next day, at a rooftop party, Wicks focused on the cacophonous harmony of a sing-along; Prince provided a panorama of details from skinned knees and picture-taking to pissing over building’s edge sans hands.

Prince revels in the satisfaction of immediate appetites and is perfectly willing to present herself as aggressive, even prickly, all the while maintaining a guarded sense of hope for more subtle fulfillment: One strip’s internalized narration runs “As I passed a stranger on my walk to work, // unprompted we gave each other the evil-eye// ‘Take that, you fucker.’ That guy was probably my soul mate.”

We see her clearly as someone comfy, or at least quite familiar, with her disposition and internalized sense of navigation. She’s not interested in sugar coats. Nor, be it known, is she to be trifled with lightly. When the tables are turned on a pesky monster in Duddits, a jam comic done with Wicks, it is Prince who does the swiveling.

Such tendencies stand her in good stead when it comes to the presentation in her longer autobiographical comic I Swallowed the Key to My Heart. Though Prince, in a disclaimer, explicitly refers to the potential pitfalls of the genre, she herself appears to be a reliable chronicler and interpreter of an evening’s bumbling romantic comedy (she might just as well have warned about the potential of alcohol to alter perceptions and color recollections).

Even without any introduction through earlier comics, we’d recognize Prince’s commitment to fidelity. I Swallowed opens on New Year’s Eve 2006 and sloshes into Day 2007. Prince parties in celebration and in frustration, fending off and pursuing flirtatious interests during the extended two-front social festivities. She faithfully records the ebb and flow of schemes and boorishness, cross-purposes and betrayals, passive-aggressiveness and aggressive passivity, insipid dialogue and inspired remarks along with one stretch of stultifying discussion in which all parties coordinate how to make it from one site to the next.  If you’ve been around this particular block and sober enough to remember it, you’ll recognize a great deal of the roles and scenes in this multi-act performance, regardless of your gender. How fondly you remember them might be another thing entirely.

The virtue here remains Prince’s unembellished depiction of a night in the life. A less scrupulous historian would have excised or fudged the second round of courtship horseplay on artistic grounds. A less faithful transcriber would have shied from the period dialogue that dates the otherwise timeless go-rounds. Actually, there’s a worse danger, in that the talk can veer dangerously close to cutesifying the proceedings, especially there in the climactic tête-a-tête. But with the acceptance that Prince is documenting rather than doctoring, it might be anticipated that a certain degree of sentimentality would come thoroughly mixed with the booze. As a direct consequence of such acceptance, when the evening’s end completes a circuit and offers meaning to the book’s title, the less tumultuous gratification feels genuine and earned. It is not to be suspected as storyteller’s contrivance or convenience.

all images ©2010 Liz Prince

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