Editor’s Note: This comic contains adult material and themes. Correspondingly, this review is SFW, but not for kids.
Okay, maybe it’s not the diary of an insane clown, per se, but upon opening it you might think you’ve picked up the notebook from Se7en. Scribbly handwriting, pictures of insects with tits, some kind of dog.
Kidding though! Creative types always have craziness of some kind, which is why we like what they make. Schadenfreude. That’s what the Germans call it when an artist tries to get paid for their work, right? (No offense to artists, I have a few in the family.) When Barbara Neibart set out to make Wild Life, it seems she leveraged her own neuroticism to great effect. What she’s made is a journal of her thoughts on her divorce, recent sexual escapades (sexcapades?), along with her fears and hopes and insecurities, all the while interspersing these thoughts with doodles of animals and insects and naked people. Most of them with tits.
It’s a journal reminiscent of more mainstream authors like, say, Erma Bombeck, who made a living making lighthearted comedy using women’s problems as their source material–though with a modest quantity of self-loathing thrown in. From my perspective a lot of it was somewhat accessible–I mean, having the opposite body parts makes it difficult to relate to a woman going through a divorce, sagging boobs and menopause, but for the most part I felt I could empathize, if only in an abstract way.
Some of the stories she writes amusing, though without the sex they might sound like Reader’s Digest comedy (I mean, bugs giving out dating advice, you know.). Other stories are a bit funnier and less tame, like her dilemma over how to prevent used condoms from getting dragged all over her driveway by passing dogs. But then, I like this more because Barbara’s peeling open her brain to show us what races through her head as she deals with her problems. She lets her guard down and lets us see all the hand-wringing and brain-wracking underneath, and it can get you to sympathize pretty easily. That might help you understand and enjoy her jokes better.
I do really like how she’s integrated bugs as an allegory for relationships. When you think about it, human relationships can be really weird, and sometimes it seems like insects know what they’re doing, even when they’re gnawing each other’s heads off after sex. She seeks solace in knowing that the biosphere has different ideas on what makes a relationship good- some animals are monogamous, some animals screw and die right after. Maybe we’re weird because one person menstruates and carries babies and the other one’s role is to just stick the key in the ignition, and maybe bugs are the ones who got it right. At any rate, her knowledge on insects provides a fascinating avenue for seeing how she copes with her stress.
I wouldn’t call it a traditional comic book or graphic novel, since the pictures don’t really tell much of a story by themselves, but it’s certainly a graphic work. The illustrations give us insight into the author’s state of mind. By now it should be clear she has a thing for bugs. They’re in lingerie a lot, too. Sometimes she’ll draw other animals and people (in lingerie) but mostly she sticks to bugs. I like how she uses them, in that you can tell her mood from what she draws–the example coming to mind of a beetle she draws shortly after a breakup, describing its protective shell as a not-so-subtle allegory for her own vulnerability. The goofy faces and proportions these doodles have serve to undercut the sensitive material and numb the emotional impact as she details breakups, her feelings of sexual inadequacy and her fear of social obsolescence.
The drawings themselves look more like doodles than standard graphic novel fare, so they’re not too extravagant. Light lines and simple shapes give it a very cartoony feeling, and the watercolors give it an appealing look. Very appropriate for a journal. Even with such a simple style that often looks like scribbles, though, she’s not afraid to blend her colors and do some decently complicated shading, transitioning from light colors to darker ones seamlessly when she wants to. The art does an excellent job, then, of conveying her hidden skills–certainly she could bust out a landscape painting if she wanted to, but this is mostly just a low-impact workout. Bright, colorful, goofy. I think those three words encapsulate the style perfectly.
It might seem derivative when you break it down into its component parts, but together it’s a nice read. Sometimes the most interesting stories are the things we scribble on to the page when we’re winging it. Looking into Neibart’s brain proves to be a good use of stream-of-consciousness narrative and provides some good gems. In this day and age I think sex humor is a bit overplayed, but don’t let that stop you. I recommend it based on taste- if it strikes your fancy, pick it up.
TL;DR: Barbara Neibart has taken a personal journal and turned it into a graphic novel of sex, humor, bugs and fear, and has made something at once relateable and amusing.
A review copy of Wild Live was graciously provided to Spandexless by the creator.