The Webcomic Overlook #216: Look Straight Ahead
I read Derf Backderf’s graphic novel My Friend Dahmer not too long ago. It’s an almost sympathetic look at Jeffrey Dahmer, one of Mr. Backderf’s classmates while growing up. The signs of Mr. Dahmer’s decline are obvious. He’s a heavy drinker. He does an impression of a person with cerebral palsy to entertain his classmates. He is into strange hobbies, like dissolving the bodies of tiny animals in acid.
What makes Mr. Backderf’s portrayal to be a little sympathetic, though, is that he points out that the other students he hung around with were almost as bad. Dahmer wasn’t even the most off-putting student Derf knew. In fact, Derf’s story wasn’t picture perfect, either. He pulled horrible phone pranks and messed with the yearbook. He mentioned substance abuse wasn’t so weird in his school in the 70′s. He and his friends even formed a Dahmer Fan Club, which aimed to imitate Dahmer’s weird performance ticks.
Derf really believed then, that before Dahmer’s terrible first murder, he was a guy who could have been saved. That slight glimmer of hope is what the main character in Elaine M. Will’s Look Straight Ahead is reaching for. After one of Jeremy’s psychotic breaks, his friend cut ties with him. “You do realize that now everyone thinks you’re going to start shooting the place up?” he says. It’s a horribly lonely spot, but Jeremy realizes that unless he gets better, his friend might be right.
When we are first introduced to Jeremy, he is alone. He’s walking next to a snow-covered highway. He doesn’t seem to be wearing anything warm, only a hoodie. He collapses in the snow. And then … he is transformed into a toy that looks to be made of clay. Fun Tak Man. After which we get a peek into Jeremy’s days in school. It’s not very clear what happened. Is this a flashback? A flash forward? A hallucination? As you read on, you come to the realization that the story won’t provide easy answers.
Although we see Jeremy with a friend, we get a sense that he’s incredibly isolated. Even his friends he never feels total comfortable. One, for example, is dating a girl he has a crush on, and that makes things very awkward for him. Thinking about it too much causes him an unbelievable amount of personal torment. Ms. Will illustrates what Jeremy imagines, where he literally turns into a puddle of goo. Look Straight Ahead will frequently employ this technique, switching between imagery in the real world and the world as Jeremy sees it.
The rest of the students, though, seem to think a freak. They persecute him because he’s a sensitive artist. His paintings are defaced. In a horrible act of bullying, one of the popular kids knee him in the crotch.
Or… did he?
The incident is the turning point of the comic. Jeremy’s boiling with rage, and in class he smashes some flasks to blow off some steam. This doesn’t go unnoticed. At home, Jeremy’s chastised by his parents. He insinuates that the bullies wanted to kill him. He snaps at his parents, that they never take his side, and the kids will never get caught because they’re the popular kids. We’re inclined to take his side. After all, we did see the whole thing happen, right?
This is immediately thrown into doubt with subsequent scenes. Jeremy hears a noise outside his house, and he’s convinced that the bullies are back, and they’ve buried a bomb in the yard. This is clearly untrue. Yet Jeremy goes out to the yard and tries to dig up the bomb, yelling at his father at the same time about why he won’t believe him. This time, it’s pretty clear that what Jeremy’s seeing — and what we’re reading — isn’t necessarily reliable.
I imagine that Jeremy’s trials and tribulations are taken from Ms. Will’s own struggles. In her “About” page, she admits that she’s had mental problems of her own. “I had suffered an actual mental breakdown in 2002 and had been devouring every book related to mental illness I could lay my hand on ever since, so I certainly knew my way around the subject.”
It feels authentic, too, since many of the side characters feel real. While Jeremy’s father yells at him a lot, we learn that it’s because he knows of no other way to reach him. We learn that Jeremy’s had episodes like this in the past, and his dad thinks that the only way he can reach Jeremy is by raising his voice. To Jeremy he’s being cruel. From the dad’s point of view, he’s frustrated. Nothing seems to work, and even the latest treatments seem doomed to failure. He’s tired and weary and he does what he does out of responsibility and love for his son.
The doctors, too, are very relatable. They don’t actively try to reason Jeremy out of his visions. Rather, they patiently try to help him arrive at a solution in trying to get better. When the doctors don’t succeed, they don’t lay any blame on Jeremy, but rather sit down within again to talk things out. It seems real, and I have no problem believing that this is how mental problems are really treated.
So what is Jeremy’s problem? For starters, he takes any insult very hard. At the smallest hint that things are not going his way, his mind fills with vivid imagery. Imagery that tends to be religious in nature. He sees other people as devils and monsters. Every day mundane things become cosmically important. Kit Kat wrappers aren’t just garbage. They’re a sign from above, one that lets him climb a tree that he could never climb before.
He gets the sense that he was called for something. He writes everything down, like a prophet, in a notebook journal with an unreadable language. He’s later tempted by a camel-headed demon, who tries to convince him that what he’s writing are just the ramblings of a crazy person, but Jeremy resists the temptation and stays true to the prophet message.
And therein lies the core of the problem. Deep down, a part of Jeremy doesn’t want to get treated. The drugs do help, but they also take away any sense that Jeremy’s important. Before, he believed that these visions gave him purpose. He was called to create fantastic works of art. When the drugs kick in, though, it all goes away. His inspiration is gone. Jeremy’s unable to piece together his thoughts, and his creations, alive in his mind, fragment like puzzle pieces. And without this sense of art and purpose, Jeremy finds a feeling worse than loneliness. He feels absolutely worthless.
It’s a question that I’ve pondered many times myself. What if, say, Van Gogh had access to the same treatments that are available today? Perhaps he would be more functional. However, wouldn’t that deny the world the artworks he created in a state of mind most would not find ideal? As Joan Osbourne sing in “Spider Web”:
Dreamed about Ray Charles last night
And he could see just fine, you know
I asked him for a lullaby
He said, “Honey, I don’t sing no more
No more, no more, no more
Ray don’t sing no more
He said, “Since I got my eyesight back,
My voice has just deserted me.
No Georgia On My Mind no more…
I stay in bed with MTV.”
Outside of the mental illness aspect, Look Straight Ahead does a great job with defining the familiarity of the setting. I’m not from Canada, but growing up in the Detroit area it felt like it sometimes. So when the characters start talking about Mr. Dressup, and how they always imagined he was immortal (and is so in a way, since he’s still on TV), I felt a pang of recognition. It tapped into fod memories of watching Mr. Dressup on CBC, and also the honest emotion of cherishing the surreal purity of the custodians of our childhoods.
The city in Look Straight Ahead is an unremarkable one. It’s like every town I’ve seen that hovers around 100K. Too small to have any of the cool stuff. Too big to be personable. It may be a town in Canada, but it reminds me of Flint, Michigan, or Gary, Indiana. There a lot of lovely details. Flat skylines full of old brick buildings, fences that are unnervingly even, and highway signposts drive home a partly rural world that is isolated and lonely. Who’d want to be part of that existence when you could escape to a place full of vibrant color and fantastic imagery?
Also, everyone has terrible hair. I’m not sure if this is a knowing wink at a will-known Canadian stereotype, but it’s hockey hair everywhere.
Look Straight Ahead can be a hard comic to read sometimes. You don’t have to have the same problems as Jeremy for many of his problems to strike home. High school is an alienating time for many. I could personally relate to Jeremy’s struggle to make friends and embarrassment over enjoying hobbies that strayed out of the norm. Even the sense of persecution, and the parallel sense that the same persecution doesn’t really exist except in the dark recesses of the mind where you want to will yourself to be someone important. It’s like that Derf Backderf comic: in high school, everyone’s a little bit off.
Unlike many similar LiveJournal-style webcomics, though, Look Straight Ahead does not wallow in self-pity. Jeremy’s arc is one of a journey, and the conclusion, whatever it may be, is hardly preordained. His outbursts may drive everyone away, but we as a reader stick with him because we want him to succeed… even if just to clear our own nagging doubts as to what’s real and right in Jeremy’s world and what is not.
Is Jeremy’s dad right to be yelling at him all the time? Did those bullies really punch him in the gut? Can Jeremy really get his act together without the drugs, and his dream of becoming a great artists merely an unrealistic fairy tale or something that he can truly achieve?
Look Straight Ahead received a nominaton for the Joe Shuster Award in 2011 and was a recipient of the Xeric Award in 2012. Rightly so, I believe. It’s an engrossing story, and a very personal look into the struggles of dealing with mental illness.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)