Sex Can be Dangerous: Ask Ted Rall

Posted by on May 31st, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Ted Rall says he wrote his coyly entitled graphic memoir The Year of Loving Dangerously (128 6×9-inch pages, color; NBM ComicLit $18.95) partly as “a reaction against the fey, pathetic archetype that defines so many other cartoonists’ personal narratives in which guys declaim their masturbatory nerddom to an uncaring world” with “relentless portrayal of unattractive qualities and male insecurities often combined with extremely beautiful and technically accomplished artwork.”

In his Foreword to The Year, Rall continues quoting the nimble Elif Batuman, who wrote in The London Review of Books: “Some graphic novels give you the impression of being stuck in conversation with a self-hating man who constantly harps on about his most unappealing qualities, less in the hope that you will protest — if you do, he will start arguing with you — than to make you feel shallow for not liking him.”

Batuman, note, says “some” not “all” autobiographical comics. Craig Thompson’s Blankets and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (to name only two of numerous exceptions) prove that one’s own life can inspire masterworks of the cartooning arts. But for every masterwork, there are two or three books awash in slow-moving sequences picturing ponderous self-absorption to the exclusion of all else that might be interesting — other people and personalities, for instance — produced by adept drawing talents who, alas, have found nothing to say, and they say it at great length (all those desultory sequences) in order to be able to draw a lot.

The Year of Loving Dangerously is not one of those. Rall, as we learn almost immediately upon picking up the book, is scarcely a put-upon loser who writes an autobiography about not having sex: His autobiography is about how he survived a bad patch in his life by having sex, repeatedly — night after night, at first with women he’d just met who wanted a sexual partner for the night (or for the next week) and picked Rall, perhaps because of his child-like physiognomy: they wanted someone to mother as well as someone to fuck them.

Rall says he also wrote the book as an indictment of our way of life with its implicit favoring of the privileged (and we are all privileged in this way) to show “how easy it is for anyone—even a white male attending an Ivy League school—to fall off the merry-go-round of U.S.-style laissez faire capitalism” into “dire financial straits” and bleak homelessness. As he did, through no fault of his own, in the spring of his junior year at Columbia University. But I suspect it was more the first motive than the second that resulted in this book.

Anyone who has read one of Rall’s other autobiographical efforts — My War with Brian, for instance, a record of Rall’s campaign to avenge himself upon a bullying classmate in high school, which he does by nearly killing him — is acquainted with the cartoonist’s penchant for raw mercilessness and unpitying candor in the service of an overwhelming reluctance to avert his eyes from even the most embarrassing self-revelations. And so we have the inevitable masturbatory interlude (inevitable because this book is about a male at the peak of his sexual prowess and he can’t be screwing someone 24/7) during which Rall discovers a “bump” on his survival equipment. It turns out to be acne not gonorrhea, but Rall dutifully records his visit to a doctor who conducts a biopsy to be certain. The lancing of the offending boil is not depicted, but it wouldn’t have been a violation of the tenor of the book if it had been.

It was a wart, however, not a boil, that precipitated Rall’s fall from grace that year, 1984, in his Columbia University career. A wart on his chest had grown into an artery, which burst, spewing blood all over Rall and his bed. The week he spent in the hospital was finals week, so he missed taking his exams. Three of his professors declined to let him take make-up tests, so he was suddenly on academic probation, and when he received a D in a partial differential equations class the next semester, he was expelled. He was perforce evicted from student housing, and he lost his job, thanks to a vindictive co-worker who accused him of stealing (he didn’t — this time). Suddenly, with less than 24 hours notice and only eight bucks in his pocket, Rall a 21-year-old kid with little experience, so far, of the cruel outside world, finds himself without a place to say, no money and no income, and, seemingly, no reasonable prospects for the future. His consuming preoccupation is to avoid sleeping outside — to avoid dreaded “homelessness.” “Survival” in this book doesn’t mean “to continue to live”: it means not sleeping outdoors on Manhattan’s streets.

And then, spending half of his last money on a slice of pizza, he is accosted by the attractive woman sitting at the table opposite him. She takes him to a movie and then to her apartment, where they enjoy a night of carnal bliss. Rall, as usual, thinks about it: “Under normal circumstances, the evening would have been perfect: the movie, the sex, Melissa. She was smart and funny and pillowy. Yet the experience had been queered by the inconvenient fact that I was desperate. I needed a bed. To get one, I needed to be charming and funny and giving. Would I have fucked Melissa three times before going to sleep had I not wanted her to consider inviting me back? Would I have gone down on her as enthusiastically? Probably — even as a boy, licking pussy had been my first sexual fantasy. On the other hand, I didn’t have much of a choice. Because I needed her, it was impossible to assess whether I actually liked her.”

No matter. Rall has discovered a way to survive — the “sordid practice of using sex in order to survive” (in order to sleep indoors). “I was essentially a rent boy,” he says: “I had sex for shelter, clean sheets and, if I got lucky, food.” He never admits to his bedmates that he is destitute: He pretends to have a day job, saying, as he raids the fridge, “I might not have time to go out for lunch today — do you mind if I make myself a sandwich?”

By the end of the summer of 1984, Rall has three regular “girlfriends”: Amy on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; Melissa on Tuesdays and Sundays; and Rachel on Fridays and Saturdays. By then, he is also about to move into an apartment that he will cohabit with his erstwhile college roommate, the disaster-prone Chris, who has found him a job as a trader at Bear Stearns.

To accumulate the first and last month’s rend required by Manhattan landlords, Rall turns petty thief, stealing signs off the walls of subway stations: They’re valuable souvenirs, and he sells them to collectibles shops. And he conducts other shady dealings that garner needed cash.

Rall’s adventures during The Year are not all sexual — or medical like the burrowing wart. Despite being evicted from his dorm, he manages to get a key to a deserted janitor’s closet, where he stashes his belongings and occasionally sleeps. Also before leaving his dorm digs, Rall has a brush with the campus police about the water-filled balloons he and Chris were lobbing out of their room onto passing automobiles; the book doesn’t make it clear whether his subsequent eviction was precipitated by the balloon bombing or by his expulsion, but if not the latter, surely the former. He and Chris then take a road trip to Cape Cod but get arrested en route for a minor traffic infraction, which turns into a felony when the arresting cop finds Chris’ still warm bong.

“The year of loving dangerously” does not last the entire year. “The year” of the title functions syntactically in much the same way as the same words in the expression “the year John Kennedy was assassinated”: “the year” identifies the time not the duration. Rall’s book regales us with escapades that took place in the year 1984, beginning sometime in the winter and ending around the following Christmas. He was expelled from Columbia at the end of the 1984 spring semester; the period of his extremis consumed the summer.

But even if the dangerous part of the year didn’t last more than a few months, Rall’s memoir is an absorbing account of a horrendous experience. Rall sees it as “a metaphor for the insecurity of capitalism,” and, viewed from his perspective at the time, it is surely that. But it is also a confessional about colossal pride, adolescent arrogance and blind stupidity tempered somewhat by accidental ingenuity. Youth, in other words, being young and making bad decisions and then trying to make the best of it.

Apart from taking advantage of the unanticipated opportunity for sexual service, Rall apparently took no direct action along any line of endeavor that a prudent person would take to solve his problem.

Rall refuses, at first, to ask his mother for money because he doesn’t want to endure her criticism; when he does, at long last, phone her, she hangs up on him. He refuses to apply for any of the numerous part-time jobs posted on campus bulletin boards because the work seems demeaning or doesn’t pay enough. But in his situation, wouldn’t some pay be better than no pay at all?

Rall might have re-considered other options — low-paying part-time jobs, for instance — had he not landed on what quickly developed into a viable alternative — an avocation as a gigolo. Once this solution presented itself, he undoubtedly saw that he could postpone finding other solutions. As long as he was getting by, he could get by. But he doesn’t, today, see himself back then as being admirable in any way.

Interviewed by Keli Dailey at, Rall said:

Look, I didn’t like me back then. I feel like you should not write an autobiography unless you’ve committed fully to the form and that means being brutal and mean to yourself. If people want to read it and say, ‘Wow, you were a user,’ I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that’s true.’ But was I the most evil person ever? I don’t think so; I think there’s worse. I certainly didn’t have anything against any of the women I was involved with at the time. I was just trying to get by. I was a confused kid. And if you come away thinking, ‘Gee, Ted’s the most awesome guy ever,’ that would be strange.

The Year is the first of Rall’s dozen-or-so books that he didn’t draw himself. His publisher, NBM’s Terry Nantier, suggested Rall collaborate with Pablo G. Callejo, who had drawn Rob Vollmar’s Bluesman.

“I had never collaborated with another cartoonist before,” Rall told me, “so I thought the idea was exciting. And I also thought Pablo’s drawing style would work really well with the story I wanted to tell.”

Callejo, however, adopted a manner of drawing markedly different from the woodcut style he used in Bluesman. Working this time in color rather than stark black-and-white, Callejo proves a superb colorist, but his draftsmanship is less persuasive. Perhaps to allow his colors their full, unimpeded pictorial range, he deploys a simple, unembellished outline style of rendering, and the drawings are then fleshed out with color, using Painter. This performance is competent enough and usually adequate but not impressive. His lines seem too frail, and they often waver and fail to delineate clearly. Sometimes he uses a ruler in depicting building interiors and exterior architecture; sometimes not. But in rendering Rall’s New York locales, Callejo achieves a nearly photographic accuracy in capturing telltale details.

Because Callejo lives in Spain, his collaboration with Rall was all long-distance. “At the start I emailed him a ton of photos from that period,” Rall said. “We talked on the phone. I wrote a script that contained detailed descriptions of each panel. When he did pages, I edited and pointed out issues, for example, there were historical inaccuracies caused by relying on photo references that may have been from before or after the 1980s, when things looked different.”

Rall and Nantier may have felt Callejo’s realistic style would give the book a greater erotic impact than Rall’s usual blockhead manner of drawing, and they’re undoubtedly right, but the book, despite its title and the heavy-breathing implications thereof, has very few erotic moments. Mostly, the book chronicles the cascade of Rall’s 1984 catastrophe outside the bedroom, and for that, perhaps Callejo’s woodcut style would have worked better.
With his detailed scripts, Rall controlled the storytelling — panel composition and breakdowns (i.e., tone, mood, atmosphere and pacing). And his mastery of the medium is complete. Much of the story is related in narrative captions, but the accompanying pictures contribute to the whole. The pictures do not simply illustrate the prose: They amplify it. And sometimes they carry the story — in silent sequences that dramatize Rall’s bleak existence. In a couple of places, the pictures act symbolically, representing thoughts or emotions rather than actual events.

Rall refers to the narrative as a “non-linear chronology” — that is, no chronology at all. He skips from one incident in the year to another, but not necessarily in chronological order. This narrative technique is the chief distinction of the book: It turns the story into an extended sort of bull session. The method also masks the duration of Rall’s most desperate period.As I mentioned, Rall’s predicament was at its height for only the summer months of 1984. But Rall doesn’t intend to deceive anyone by this seemingly subversive maneuver: Throughout the book are visual clues about the time. A page of a calendar signals Sept. 15 as the date he and Chris signed a lease on their apartment. The headline of a newspaper Rall is shown reading mentions the notorious “subway vigilante,” Bernard Goetz, who, on Dec. 22, 1984, shot and wounded four youths that he thought were going to mug him on the subway. And when mentioning the incidental perks of working at Bear Stearns, Rall is pictured attending a Christmas party. (The presence of unheralded clues and submerged cues like these and the need to find them for a fuller comprehension of Rall’s story will make this book a welcome addition to the reading lists of college courses in graphic novels for years to come.)

The nonlinear narrative is another instance of Rall’s talent for manipulation. Just as he maneuvered his way through university policies in order to have a place to store his belongings and manipulated women with sexual favors in order to avoid sleeping on the streets, so has he manipulated the chronology of his memoir in order to intensify the drama of his dilemma — to prove that cartoonist autobiographies need not be nerdish or masturbatory, or to prove that autobiography must be brutally honest, unremittingly candid and sometimes painfully self-revelatory. Probably the latter. By manipulating time, Rall piles up minor misfortunes to create a dung heap of personal disaster, which is how he doubtless perceived his situation at the time.

At the end of the tale, Rall has emerged from his catastrophic summer into an autumn of quiet middle-class normalcy. His life is now comfortable. He’s employed, and he has a nice place to live and three admirable girlfriends. The nightmare is over. He has learned how to get by, to survive, but he seems still incapable of genuine personal commitment. In the closing pages of the book, he is on a date with Melissa. They dine out, go shopping, engage in a philosophical discussion, take a taxicab to Rall’s apartment, disrobe and go to bed. Lying in each other’s arms, Melissa says, “I love you.” But Rall fails to complete the litany: He says nothing in response.

We expect that his harrowing experiences of the summer would have changed him. In actual life, the summer of 1984 undoubtedly made Rall himself a better person; but his “character” in the book doesn’t seem to have changed much. He’s still pretty much the same guy as he started out being. He still seems an opportunist, albeit a mostly accidental opportunist. But he’s not a bad guy. He appropriates and sells obsolete electric typewriters, but he won’t steal from individuals: He stops a woman to give her the purse she inadvertently dropped. The caption is a glib justification by way of explanation: “Unlike faceless corporate entities built on institutionalized theft, individual people were strictly off-limits.”

At first blush, I was tempted to think the book lacks thematic unity, a literary value much fancied by critics. If you wanted to write — to create — a story about sex as a means of survival, you might entitle the story The Year of Loving Dangerously. But you wouldn’t include the balloon bombing or road trip episodes: They have nothing to do with sex as a survival technique. But those two seeming extraneous events do pertain to unmitigated candor and to Rall’s conviction that autobiography should not spare its subject, its author. One must include everything, warts (so to speak) and all. And so Rall includes the wart plus evidence of his youthful stupidity. The book’s unity, then, is as exemplar of its genre.

Is this book worth reading? Yes, assuredly. Rall’s is an engaging story, gripping and suspenseful. His predicament is bleak; his solution is startlingly unconventional but, given the circumstances, entirely logical. And his deployment of the resources of his medium is exemplary. Rall may think of the book as “a metaphor for the insecurity of capitalism,” but his readers are likely to think of it as a metaphor for how to survive by the exercise of human ingenuity untrammeled by the niceties of polite society.

all images © 2009 Ted Rall & Pablo G. Callejo

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One Response to “Sex Can be Dangerous: Ask Ted Rall”

  1. […] has been made! The Comics Journal has just given me my first ever positive review. Here’s a peek: At first blush, I was tempted to think the book lacks thematic unity, a […]