In a story, likeable characters exist, in part, so we as readers have a place to anchor our sympathies. Without such bright and shiny figures to latch onto, a well-rounded fictional world can feel as messy and chaotic as reality.
But what if the entire world contained in a fiction is likeable? Which way do we as readers navigating the story steer our rudder?
Immanent likeability is both the hook and curse of Scott Semegran’s work, which flits from prose to comics to hybrids of the two forms. In his book Modicum, goofy stories bump up against curious single-panel comics, which, in turn, hand off to thoughtful essays, and finally wind up at the feet of some laugh-out-loud comic strips.
The book is a best-of selection of bursts of whimsy from the Austin-native’s prolific output throughout the 2000s. As such, it’s also a good introduction to Semegran’s casual charm.
The comics are more successful than the stories, however. Semegran’s drawings are crisp and lend a dryness to his observations about such topics as parenting and minor everyday embarrassments. In both the comics and prose, humor abounds even as punchlines are often absent. A frequently used strategy for Semegran is to introduce an amusing theme — a little girl whose precocity often results in another dead pet, say. From this premise, Semgran spins variations with no obvious escalation of stakes.
Even Semegran’s sophomoric lapses — like the occasional fart joke or not very deft deployment of phallic sight gags — all seem part of the same voice’s winsomely hit-and-miss riffing. Modicum reads like a funny co-worker on a roll.
But for a writer and artist, the problem with rooting your worldview in your essential amiability is this: there might come a time when your attention turns to matters that are more grave, as Semegran’s does in the last third of Modicum during an essay which argues in favor of men crying. Such sudden earnestness is diluted by the format the author established dozens of pages before. His message hits with the same kind of thud that “serious” posts often do on a mostly frivolous platform like Facebook or Twitter. In these moments, if the book were a physical space, Semegran’s abrupt shift from jokes about boners to heartfelt confession might clear the suddenly silent room.
All of which is to say the ethics of good prose and resonant comedy are different from the talents required to be the funniest guy in the office. From the artist, art demands an inner toughness, a willingness to place being liked very near the bottom of his or her priorities — an anchor, in other words, without which author and reader alike can find themselves out to sea, miles adrift, oceans apart, and grasping rather hopelessly for a reason to fight the undertow of bad faith.
Reviewed for IndieReader by Andrew Stout