Picture this: An animal or plant — or maybe even an ovum — talks. Sometimes to itself, but more often to another of its kind. The idea is simple, but the execution is smart and almost always funny in Scott Semegran’s collection of 140 four-panel comics drawn between 2004 and 2008, Mr. Grieves.
Named after one of the most beloved songs by Boston indie rock legends the Pixies, Mr. Grieves recalls its namesake by boasting a nonplussed pessimism about life, death, and friendship.
The first panels set the tone: two cats, one white and the other black, stare straight at the reader. “I hate black cats,” white says. “I hate white cats,” black says. “I hate you,” white says. “I hate you,” black says. Pause.
White: What are you doing tonight?
Black: Going to Little Italy for dinner.
White: Really? I love Italian food.
Black: Me too.
White: You have such good tastes.
Black: You too.
White: We should hang out more often.
Black: Why don’t we hang out more often?
White: Because I hate you.
Black: That’s right. I forgot.
In the following strips, snakes, horses, a child and her pets, and many, many primates volley similar exchanges over topics such as marriage, office politics, financial pressure — the classic stuff of middle class ennui, essentially.
Yes, I’ve just described a formula. But with Mr. Grieves, Semegran has hit upon a tone that works with his otherwise sunny and familiar worldview. A hundred installments into the book, more and more panels begin to feature a single isolated animal or person thinking silently to itself. This is where Semegran’s essential joke — the one about boredom dishevelling our larger perspective — begins to pay its greatest dividens. In Mr. Grieves #105, the white cat from the first comic returns as a ghost peering over the shoulder of his owner, who is still mourning the loss. “I’m sorry I yelled at you that time you shit on the couch,” the owner says. “I didn’t realize you were sick. My bad, really. Take care, puss-face. Amen.”
Like many lyrics Pixies’ frontman Black Francis wrote, the refrain “I believe in Mr. Grieves” has inspired a prism of interpretations. Listeners from a younger generation can hear the song, read Semegran’s comics, and look at some of the other winsomely bleak bits of media floating in the cultural waters from the year “Mr. Grieves” was released in 1990, and trace this sarcasm-laced lineage (which includes novels by David Foster Wallace and Douglas Coupland; and movies by Hal Hartley) to the time the comic launched 14 years later .
To that younger reader, who got all their Nirvana CDs and Ghostworld books as hand-me-downs, a pattern is easy to discern and a category begins takes shape. Call it “post-modern” or call it “Generation X.” But I think a more useful label for this recently bygone era of depressive humor is “American Droll.”
Today, American Droll’s defining cause seems maybe too obvious to accept at face value: it was born of a much less urgent time than we know today. The products of American Droll came from minds formed before the (second) Bush years, when life’s stakes weren’t as clear as they became for creatives who came of age in this century, among these wars and within this austere economy. Drollery, after all, is a kind of luxury in its own right.
In both the song and the comic, Mr. Grieves embodies a way of looking at the world that’s time seems past. It’s still funny, sure. But this comic’s main relief might come in the way it shows us just how small its gently smug brand of angst now appears in our zeitgeist’s rearview mirror.
Reviewed for IndieReader by Andrew Stout