I knew, going in, that Private Beach would be, at most a curiosity at this point. Even with the promised new series conclusion, very little can live up to being rediscovered 15 years later. I’m not the person I was when I first read it, back in 2001, either, and now, we’ve had a lot more of these kinds of works, from The X-Files to various charmed young women and weirdness magnets. The idea of a slice-of-life portrayal in a strange setting is no longer unique.
David Hahn was great, though, at creating an atmosphere of weirdness just around the corner. He’s got a slick, polished style that plays well in the high-contrast black-and-white, even if his characters are underdeveloped. Trudy Honeyvan hangs out with twin sisters Sharona and Siobhan Cupkey. They talk pop culture and hold day jobs only because they have to. It’s implied Trudy is either destined for greater things or unaware of how really strange the world is, as she’s followed by men in black and her eight-ball sends her messages.
When I was younger, I wanted to be Trudy. She had great friends and interesting things happened to her. But now, I see how pedestrian and slanted this is. She’s not making many choices — the most significant one is to take a sketchy job where she’s paid for her appearance and doesn’t know what she’s enabling — and her judgment of others is harsh and unsympathetic. It reads as a former nerd’s revenge on the cool kids, by talking them down where they can’t hear.
Reading the issues at the time, the spooky hints were intriguing. All together, now, they don’t add up to much. I found the “conclusion” a let-down, a combination of predictable elements, including mysterious conspiracies and monsters. Trudy’s story is, like Forrest Gump’s, one of random events being forced to mean more by an author looking for proof of significance in a post-religious, post-trust cultural environment. We hope that the weird things that happen to us actually follow some kind of pattern, but we don’t really believe it, so this story falls flat, as the “big picture” is sillier than day-to-day life.
Hahn’s strength isn’t plotting, but portraying incidental conversations and drawing characters. Given how the series originally drifted away, I suppose it shouldn’t bother me that we are shown, for example, one character wandering off in a drug trip, and then we never see him again. Are we supposed to be concerned, or is this just how people walk out of each other’s lives? Or is it simply the inability to tie off all the loose ends in one book?
There are also off-putting elements that I didn’t notice at the time, such as the use of variants of “retarded” and how Hahn likes to draw his female characters in skimpy swimsuits or changing clothes. Now, we have women writing women in comics, and that makes them more realistic. Trudy was created from the outside in, and we have little sense of her internal life or personality. She’s someone to watch, not someone to identify with. For a final personal pet peeve, the combination of black-bordered pages and slick paper makes this the kind of comic it’s impossible to read without leaving fingerprints.
I found Private Beach a time capsule of how comics used to be, but I’m afraid there’s nothing here strong enough to attract someone who doesn’t already have fond memories of it. Still, I was glad to get a chance to remember it, and to admire again the attractive character work. (The publisher provided a review copy.)