Saturday, July 5, 2008

Son of Slow Jams by David Choe


SON OF SLOW JAMS David Choe (self-published)

When I met my soon-to-be retail sales rep, Tony Shenton, for the very first time at SPX 2000 David Choe’s name inevitably came up over the course of our brief chat. I say inevitably because not only was Choe the cover artist and featured interview in the issue that Shenton was staring at on my table, but also because it was Choe who had recommended me to Shenton (who was already in the artist’s employ) about six months prior. Shenton told me that he considered only two people involved in comics to be true geniuses; one was an essayist/journalist who I knew primarily from a single unfortunate email encounter (and no, not anyone from The Comics Journal), and the other was David Choe. Now flash back a few weeks prior to the Expo: A debate is raging on the always-acerbic message boards, and at the center of the storm is Choe’s eight-pager “Wanton Kill Dorado”, a story that opens with the following observation “It was that time of the year when the sun shined bright and when you rode past certain trees they smelled like cum.” And yet the real sticky wicket had nothing to do with Choe’s interest in bukakke, but rather with the perception that Choe’s story, which features a brazen and obnoxious Korean skateboarder enacting some revenge on a thuggish group of black kids about half his age, was racist.** One wag (a mini-comics creator himself) went so far as to suggest that Choe took a “good deal of care to differentiate grammatically between the groups using currently accepted terms, ‘the Korean’ (capital "K") and ‘the black’ (lower case "b").” Concluding with what seemed like a rhetorical question: “Coincidence, or dangerous stuff? You decide!” (Note that a few sentences down I will take the same “care” in capitalizing “Korean” while leaving “black” in lower case. Hopefully this won’t prove particularly “dangerous” to anyone.)
Of course, nothing conclusive about Choe’s intent or character ultimately came out of the debate; but I must say that it would be incredibly surprising if Choe, who was particularly outspoken in his TCI interview about other artists who he feels perpetuate Asian stereotypes, was in fact committed to perpetuating stereotypes of other races with any sort of malicious intent. For its part, Son of Slow Jams again casually confronts issues of race, although unlike “Wanton Kill Dorado,” racial confrontation is not the focus of the story. Of course a particularly interesting historical footnote to Choe’s commentary on racial dynamics is the fact that Choe is a Korean-American who’s lived most of his life in Los Angeles. And anyone with even the foggiest memories of the LA riots which followed the Rodney King verdict, is likely to remember the exposure of the violent rift between the Korean and black communities in Los Angeles. Especially given that in many cases Korean grocers were specifically targeted by black rioters due to racial animosity and jealousy.
All that said, if Son of Slow Jams truly sucked, I wouldn’t hesitate to say so. After all, Choe himself seems to revel more in criticism than in praise (not that either shapes him). But newsflash for the nay sayers, wannabes: It doesn’t suck!
David Choe is a savant when it comes to inclusion of closely-observed scraps that not only add depth to his characters but also to the chaotic world that they inhabit. This is just as evident in SOSJ as it was in its parent book. Early on there are casual, but detailed, asides, like the one about “Nicky The Retard” wearing a “cheap imitation” of checkered Vans called Coasters which come from Payless Shoes; thereby adding layers to a character who only occupies a single page. Choe also continues to skillfully build his Dixon Ticonderoga alter-ego, always making him more than just a one-dimensional skate punk. For instance, for all his nasty attitude and street cred, Dixon still isn’t afraid to jam to the wistful Irish pap of the Cranberries “Linger”, even if he doesn’t exactly come clean about it to his rap-loving black friends.
Artistically, Choe rummages through techniques and styles like no one else in comics. And while it’s his frenetic, sketchy pen-line that gets most frequent use, there is also the occasional detailed still-life in pencil, heavy-handed charcoals, blurred pages that no doubt draw from the guerilla-Xeroxing techniques of Aaron Cometbus (who’s tutorial on manipulating photocopies is included in SoSJ), and the sporadic manipulated photograph. Each technique used in a way that facilitates Choe’s story, thus not branding him too much of an art school showoff (although he certainly is that).
Another aspect that clearly separates Choe from the pack (as demonstrated in all of his prior works) is his fearlessness and personal honesty (or if it’s not naked honesty, it is at the very least a willingness to portray oneself in a less than favorable light). Of course, this is something of a bastion of the autobio comic. By now chronic masturbation has become less a bold revelation than a tired cliché to autobio-saturated fans. But aside from R. Crumb, not too many cartoonists so readily confront issues of race without proselytizing. Yet Choe’s comments on race are so gleefully tossed off and left behind, that they seem entirely unselfconscious and never calculated with any moralistic

Son of Slow Jams ends in a simultaneously violent, yet strangely joyous and cathartic fight between Dixon and a “truly fucked up girl”, and with a final, mundane, aside from Dixon-- “Later that night I had a steak dinner, with a slice of pie for desert[sic]. I felt much better.” It’s Choe’s way of saying that it’s vastly preferable to live life, to truly experience it, (embracing even its traumas), than to simply be a cowering spectator. And to that end Choe seems determined in all of his comics to engage and involve his readers; whether by challenging their own prejudices and perhaps exposing his own (often infuriating them in the process) or simply by testing the limits of which they’ll laugh at truly cruel humor; or even by trying to turn them on (given Slow Jams sexual content). Thus readers of Choe’s work are less spectators or dispassionate fans sitting back in their seats with a mere expectation of casual entertainment, than active, often prodded, participants, in a rather shaky, sometimes uncomfortable emotional roller coaster that is just getting under way. Troubling or not, it’s always a ride worth taking, especially given that its engineer is something of a mad genius. TCI

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