In a sequence in the comic Household by Sam Alden, the protagonist of the piece feels out of control, has lost the sense of order and structure to the world around him. He is living with his sister, and since he’s arrived she has initiated a return to their history of incestuous dysfunction. He’s a set dresser working on a family drama, and as his home life deteriorates, he starts self destructively placing everything in the wrong place on set. The sequence plays out in two panel pages: books in the sink and them in bed kissing; a doormat on an armchair and them turning over; TV on the stairs and him climbing on top of her. It’s an intense scene that plays like a montage, cutting back and forth between things.Alden’s work fluctuates between naturalistic snippets of dialogue and body language, and fantastical metaphoric devices. Almost always the metaphor is about the loss of control and trying to regain it. In the almost entirely fantasy comic The Worm Troll, a girl goes on a quest to save her dad from death, trying to exert some sort of control over the situation. Look at his Teeth has an older woman being forced out of her job and arguing with everyone that she’s fine, only to ultimately be about aging and coping with life taking away power from her. These aren’t outliers, either. In Alden’s body of work, there are multiple pieces primarily about dealing with death and multiple pieces where a character loses their job.
While all people experience the frustration of limitations and powerlessness at some point or another, it is hard to not consider the idea that a male writer focusing so thoroughly on control might be problematic. It is easier in a way to call it out when in Hawaii 1997 the character of a young boy is suggested to yearn after the stifled fantasy of a girl for years later. But often Alden’s characters are female and yet embodying an entitlement to power that is more associated with male experience. In Patron Saint, a woman is possessed by the violent spirit of Astro Boy and driven into a rage at her jerk boss. Of course, anger is felt by all, and the comic feels real with a female character. But while anger is not gendered, there is a distinct feeling that the character is female because women are expected to be more passive. That the piece is about moving from a passivity that is forced upon you, to action. The narrative of frustration at enforced passivity is very particular to the sort of man who thinks their admirable meekness should not disqualify them from the power of masculinity. It follows the lines of the Nice Guy who does all the right things but society never rewards him with women and success. Passivity can be pushed on both men and women, but for women it’s a series of societal injustices and for men it’s a specific and exaggerated contextual injustice.
This is complicated by The Man Who Dances in the Meadow, another work with a female protagonist who becomes possessed by a destructive masculine force. The character in this comic is on the verge of a move, one that she and her girlfriend both want. But she witnesses the dancing apparition of a strange man dancing in a meadow and is changed by it. He fills her head with sex and rationalization, and it starts to make her sabotage their plans. Her fears about moving filter into obsessive subversion. While I would hesitate to call Astro Boy in Patron Saint a symbol of maleness, this spectral dancing man who is suggested to be a sex offender seems to definitely embody a self-destructive male sexuality. The fact that these women are taken over by anger and lust, two very male-coded emotions, feels meaningful. It’s an emotion dislocated from them, made into an outside force. But in this story the male sexuality leads to passivity more than anything else. The character might be seeking control over her situation, but is going about it through avoidance and distraction. Her passivity feels negative, like she is shirking her duty. Like as if she should “man up”.
A distinct detail about both of these stories is that this masculine force is also the central fantastical conceit. So while other stories might not have as clear a male coded metaphor, most have a fantastical conceit that plays upon the same theme of control and self destruction. Backyard is a story of a co-op household of radical young people, and a youngish girl who lives there. The girl herself is the fantastical element of the piece, because she has recently stopped speaking and essentially gone feral. The piece focuses on the casual dysfunction of their environment which dismisses the troubling nature of this girl’s state, and the eventual moment where they can no longer ignore it. In light of Alden’s other works, Backyard might be able to be seen as depicting the psychological state of a single mind. The main character is a woman again (who acts like the girl’s mother), and she would represent the conscious drive towards idealistically breaking down boundaries, while the girl represents the subconscious destruction caused by this. Boundaries, structure, and order are all facets of a life of control, and the lack of this drives the girl into a place where she falls out of control. So when the woman is confronted at the end of the story with the girl’s wild energy, Alden again is manifesting a need for control as a dangerous force.What about wanting control does Alden view as so dangerous, though? In Sledgehammer, a mother is smashing through the walls of her house to make it into something that didn’t remind her of her recently deceased husband, and her effort to control her life is shown as destructive but not sinister. In The Worm Troll, the girl’s trip through a fantasy world is filled with disgust and self destructive self sacrifice, but the feeling you are left with at the end is a poignant understanding of her desire for power over her situation. What we see here is that to Alden, control may be sinister, but when it comes to the topic of loss, it’s sympathetic. The control in these situations is not shown to be some prowling beast, ready to strike. In all of his stories control overturns the status quo, but in these stories the status quo was already disrupted and their lives were already changed. Their desire to control is more of a struggle to accept new circumstances, than to create new circumstances. Thus, the threatening, dangerous vision of control is control that subverts the status quo. Control that is taken from those around you.
Returning to Household, the story about a set dresser and his sister’s incestuous destructive relationship, it’s a rare instance of a male protagonist for Alden but the one who is trying to control things is his sister. She spends the story just trying to make things okay without knowing what okay even is for normal people. “I’m just trying to have a normal life here” she says, “like other families had.” We watch her try to bring order to her life and in doing so bring disorder to her brother’s. Alden again never seems to believe power can be taken neutrally, it’s always taken from someone else. It’s always questionable.Being a man in our society comes with expectations of assertiveness, that you will take attention, you will take power. You will be independent of others, you will lead others. Being a man means you do not receive, you take. Alden’s instinct seems to be to represent female characters as almost hapless neutral beings who encounter male expectations and are changed by them. Almost as though in Alden’s comics, a man is a woman who is given the expectation to be a man. And the very act of them receiving this charge of being men is so dangerous and powerful that it’s intoxicating.
Alden is an artist who is clearly inspired by filmmaking. He directs his comics, shows tiny moments of gesture and movement, giving them as much time as they need. This requires confident control over his work, and he clearly has it. Yet when he imagines his characters in this context of film, as he has done a handful of times, they are the members of the crew, subject to powerlessness and a lack of control. He exhibits control, while his characters reach for it.
If control is a masculine trait, Alden possesses it, but also questions it. The relationship his narratives have to manhood seems troubled. He is not creating stories about an emasculated self that should shape up and grasp the power that is its birthright. His stories are about how grasping at power is a treacherous but sometimes necessary thing.
Kimball Anderson is a non-binary artist who has spent most of their life disabled by mental and physical illness, and developed an analytical instinct in order to navigate the good days and bad days. Now, this drive to understand is a part of their art and writing, where they break down life to its sensations and narratives so that they can honor each part. They are currently making four webcomics on outside-life.com