Jonathan Ames Gets Real in a Graphic Novel
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For Jonathan Ames, writing himself into his own work is standard procedure. The Brooklyn author has recounted his neuroses and sexual misadventures in nonfiction essays, and peppered novels, such as “Wake Up, Sir!” and “The Extra Man,” with characters that share his self-destructive tendencies and fascination with transsexuals. With “The Alcoholic,” his new graphic novel published by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, Mr. Ames has finally given a form to his literary avatar.
Told mostly through flashbacks, “The Alcoholic” focuses on Jonathan A., a moderately successful writer who turns to binge drinking to cope. His life is full of curveballs, which range from the early death of his parents to rejection by his best friend to the loss of his job at an elite girl’s school (for an ill-advised orgy with his students). Enlivened by illustrator Dean Haspiel’s noirish drawings, the book is both humorous and heartrending, an exploration of the need to make sense of a senseless world.
Mssrs. Ames and Haspiel, both Brooklynites, have known each other socially since 2001, when Mr. Haspiel introduced himself at a book signing. “Dean kept pushing for us to collaborate,” Mr. Ames said. “I didn’t really have a background in graphic novels, but I was intrigued because I had always liked R. Crumb’s work with Charles Bukowski.”
The two met with Vertigo editor Jonathan Vankin in 2005, pitching the idea of a six-issue miniseries about a souse on a long bender. “I was really into the idea of ending each issue in a cliffhanger. We see the alcoholic hanging from a fire escape or running down the street in his boxers,” Mr. Ames said.
He relented to DC’s desire for a standalone graphic novel, but decided the book would have to look back to Jonathan A’s early years for some perspective. It took six months for Mr. Ames to complete a draft, which was then turned over to Mr. Haspiel, who had worked with celebrated comics writer Harvey Pekar on his autobiographical graphic novel, “The Quitter.” “Making comics is about choosing the iconic moments and Jonathan took to it intuitively. He provided a lot of detailed visual information, and would toss me a nice action sequence every few pages,” Mr. Haspiel said. “Even though this was basically his life story, he had very little ego about it.”
So where does Jonathan Ames, the writer, end and Jonathan A., the character, begin?
The flesh-and-blood author is vague: “I classified it as fiction to give me room to be creative. But it’s completely emotionally true. I’ve felt all the things I write about or I imagine that I will feel them someday.”
Visually, Jonathan A. certainly resembles his creator: the same strong jaw, pronounced nose, and receding hairline. But does Mr. Ames share his character’s dipsomaniacal tendencies? “Alcohol and the subject of addiction is something I’ve been looking at most of my adult life,” Mr. Ames said.
Mr. Ames’s graphic novel comes at a time when novelists are blossoming in the medium. New York Times best-seller Jodi Picoult (“Nineteen Minutes”) completed a memorable run on Wonder Woman last summer. Stephen King oversaw the comic-book adaptation of his Dark Tower series, and Michael Chabon has written for “The Escapist” and “Justice Society of America.” “Comics have reached a level of critical esteem — museum shows, Pulitzer Prizes — which writers always crave,” said author Jonathan Lethem, whose 10-issue limited series “Omega: The Unknown” was compiled in a hardbound edition earlier this month. “And it’s a way for us to get out of our shells. The majority of what I do is remorselessly solitary; being able to collaborate is a tonic.”
Mr. Ames sees the trend as generational: “We all grew up reading comics and now as adults we feel a sense of nostalgia for them. Or at least we’re comfortable with the form.”
Next year, Mr. Ames may have yet another pop-culture doppelgänger out there. His short story “Bored to Death” was optioned as a pilot for HBO, with Jason Schwartzman starring as the author, a detective-fiction writer who thinks he’s an actual gumshoe. “I’m putting out all these weird versions of myself. Maybe it’s some manifestation of the fact that we all have multiple selves,” Mr. Ames said. “We’re all different people with everyone we meet. I guess I’m trying to figure out who I am.”