Simon Gärdenfors is an asshole. That is not to say I don’t envy him. He has recognized and embraced (like Toby Young and Tucker Max) the fact that being an asshole extravagantly, publicly, and in a confessional mode can get you laid, make you money, and most importantly create around you that aura of low-level notoriety increasingly necessary to survival in the current age. The 120 Days of Simon—Gärdenfors’ third long-form comic, but the first to be published in English translation (by Top Shelf, who Isaac persuaded to send me a review copy)—stands as both record of Gärdenfors’ life as a minor celebrity and fulltime mooch, and as a principle mechanism by which he can continue to be so. The central conceit—let’s say stunt—of the book is that Gärdenfors, already somewhat known in Sweden for his cartooning and rapping for the group Las Palmas, advertised on his website for volunteers to house and feed him for a night or two. He then travelled around Sweden for 120 days without staying in the same place twice, or the same place for longer than two nights, or going home, with the avowed intention of turning the experience into a comic.
(More assholes after the jump.)
The thing that potentially obviates criticism of The 120 Days of Simon is the baldness of the stunt. Gärdenfors makes little or no claim to profundity, to morality, to any higher purpose than self-promotion. There are moments when he mentions turning 29 and facing an identity crisis, and there’s a sort of half-hearted love story in there, but the reader knows from the title of the book that this going to be an exercise in solipsism and—because of the pun on de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom—possibly some depraved libertinism. To complain about Gärdenfors book on the basis that it is self-serving and shallow is kind of like complaining that your soup is too wet. But it does prompt the question of why you would want to read it.
To be fair, I did not find The 120 Days of Simon boring. It is just over 400 pages long, and even though each page only features two simple panels, that means I still willingly read 800+ panels of it over the course of an evening. The book is extremely appealing as an object, roughly the size and heft of a mass-market paperback novel, with an attractively designed purple, black, and white cover on non-glossy textured cardstock. Gärdenfors’ style is simple, based on blocky Duplo-looking characters, made of thick lines and hunks of black. I don’t think it’s ever beautiful, but has some very strong layouts. Each page has a one-up, one-down panel structure, every panel exactly the same size, with large black borders which encourage consideration of each page as a diptych. I found some of the combinations, particularly of interiors with land- or city-scapes to have a nice “built” look, possibly suggested by the aforementioned Duplo-like quality of the characters, the regular block nature of the panels, and the incorporation of the buildings.
And my general interest in the meat of the story—watching young guys behave like scuzzballs—is generally fairly high, because I can frequently sympathize with their skuzziness. I’ll admit that I feel a mix of revulsion and vicarious excitement when Gärdenfors details, with the fastidiousness of someone who wants all of this on the record, his hookups with various girls, and his consumption of various drugs. The 120 Days of Simon has a favorable blurb by Peter Bagge on the back, and the best bits of the book do suggest the Bagge’s Buddy Bradley stories from Hate.
But The 120 Days of Simon isn’t as funny as the Buddy Bradley stories, or as well drawn, or as keenly observed. Moreover, as fun as some of it seems, there is something slightly depressing about that fastidiousness with which he draws and itemizes every wild thing he does, aware the whole time that it is material for the comic. This seems, in a peculiar way, much sadder than Gärdenfors’ vague racism (his fear that he is at risk after a death threat from a girl he fuck’s brother because maybe he comes from an “honor culture,” for instance), sexism, or his general selfishness. Unpleasant, selfish protagonists can be pretty entertaining, after all, and Gärdenfors wishes us to know that he’s aware of this. We see him reading Woody on Allen (which is, I’m guessing, a translation of the Swedish title of the book Woody Allen on Woody Allen). But the way in which Gärdenfors presents the things he does seems like a kind of checklist of depravity, without almost any sense of why this matters, leading me to feel that Gärdenfors sees the list itself as the purpose. This might be interesting as a spectacle if the things he did were weirder or more depraved (along the lines of de Sade, maybe), but as it is it seems like fairly standard stuff for a young European. Trainspotting claimed hallucinations—and awkward interactions with the parents of the underage girl you've just slept with—for the mainstream years ago.
In terms of artistic lineage there’s a feeling of diminishing returns. Gärdenfors claims Woody Allen, one of the brilliant troublesome assholes of the postwar generation, as a forebear, but in his compulsive listing of shoddy sexual encounters he more closely resembles one of Allen’s inheritors, Nick Hornby. But while Hornby at least tried to deal with the compulsion to list as a kind of problem, the emotional insulation of a man-child, Gärdenfors in turn seems entirely comfortable with it as a mode of expression. It is at this point that I think I should mention Aleksandar Hemon’s review of Daniel Wagner's A Movie ... and a Book. While Hemon aims his rant squarely at the laziness of writers and publishers who create books merely as fodder for Hollywood, his claim that the “significance of Wagner's scribbling is that it is exactly what you end up with if publishing and fiction writing become a pursuit of cheap hipness and movie rights,” might just as well apply to Gärdenfors’ comic if you substitute “minor celebrity” for “movie rights” (or not). That perhaps makes it sound like I really hated The 120 Days of Simon. I didn’t. Gärdenfors has developed a well-crafted cartoon language for himself, and I’d like to see the stories he tells in future. But I would prefer if those stories weren’t about him.