Red Eye, Black Eye
I read comics so I can experience lives I could otherwise only imagine. Often in comics those stories are fantastic; K. Thor Jensen’s Red Eye, Black Eye, in contrast, is much smaller in scale, almost frighteningly so. Don’t think events steeped in daily life are boring, though. Jensen’s life as captured here is far away from the kind most people live. Several years ago, he lost his job, his girlfriend, his grandmother, his city, and his apartment, so he bought a 60-day all-access bus pass and traveled America, staying on couches.
This graphic novel retells his trip. The 300 pages are divided into nineteen chapters, each corresponding to another visited city. The handbook-sized package suggests an excellent choice to take on a journey of one’s own. The compact shape is easy to pack and the thickness promises many stories within.
The result is a new-generation Canterbury Tales. Everywhere he goes, those he visits with share their own stories, sometimes one that matters to them, sometimes just something odd they heard from a friend. Many of them he’s never met before in person, only online through the internet. He’s looking for guidance on where he should be, but everyone settles somewhere for different reasons: family, a loved one, familiarity. What works for them may not work for him.
Jensen fancies himself a hobo, complete with precepts like “As a hobo, I consider it my duty to ignore the rules of polite society. Also to get wasted.” That’s what happens: people are observed, mostly while drinking, and captured on paper. His interactions with others range from heartwarming (a couple Jensen just met gifts him with a care package for the bus) to disturbing (theft, racism, fear). Jensen’s not above causing some of his own problems. Early on, he tells one host “I’m not gonna be satisfied if I go home without a black eye.” His behavior can be obnoxious, heckling performers, picking fights, and getting thrown out of bars; after all, what does he care? He’s just passing through.
Few of his encounters are deep or meaningful, but together they make up a portrait of a rather interesting choice in one particular life. It’s a collection of retellings of odd happenings, strange behavior, and the general spectrum of weirdness that makes up humanity. As the book goes on and Jensen’s enthusiasm with the new wears off, we begin to share his fatigue. A change is as good as a rest, they say, but a constant stream of new places and faces can be wearying as well.
The art is chunky, reminiscent of other diary comic creators such as James Kolchalka, but events are shown clearly and there’s a good amount of variety, even in sequences of people simply talking to each other. There are subtleties, too. The introduction, establishing the reasons for the trip, is six pages of an impassive Jensen getting bad news and preparing to travel. The last two panels, Jensen in his bus seat, appear the same until noticing in the last, he’s finally smiling. Although predictable, I also appreciated the open ending.
The pages are made up of six-panel grids, reinforcing the journal feel of “and then this happened” without fancy layouts. Heavy blacks create an air of gloom that’s never quite shaken. That’s appropriate; Jensen is, at base, homeless. And as Buckaroo Banzai taught us, you can’t run away from yourself. No matter where you go, there you are.
An online preview is available at the author’s website. Jensen has been interviewed by Tom Spurgeon. Chris Sims and Don MacPherson have also reviewed the book. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)