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Reviews: Couch Tag

Published On February 20, 2014 | By Joe Gordon | Comics, Reviews

Couch Tag,

Jesse Reklaw,

Fantagraphics

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Jesse Reklaw’s first full-length work is one of those books that may easily have slipped out under your reading radar, released just before Christmas when we were all busy with a million other things, so it’s good to be able to flag it up here for your consideration, because it is a rather lovely wee piece of work (and published by Fantagraphics in a very handsome small hardback edition that looks nice on your shelves, as a bonus). Yes, this is Indy comics and yes, it is autobiographical work. And yes, I know the autobio Indy comic is sometimes almost a cliché these days, but bear with me, because there are still gems to find in that oft-explored sub-genre, and this is one of them.

Instead of the normal chronological approach to autobio comics (“I am born, I grew up” as Dickens put it) in Couch Tag Reklaw presents us essentially with several themed sections, so we see him at different points in his younger life, back and forth throughout the book, from child to young adult, early teens or back to child. The bulk of the art is presented in a nice, clean, monochrome with gentle greytone shadings, although there are a few sections which go for a rougher effect, like charcoals, and a section using non-naturalistic colour over the panels, so visually we’re treated to several styles, although I think I found the clearer B&W and greytone approach more satisfying (especially for showing off the way Reklaw captures facial expressions so well). Some autobiographical works revolve around a huge, life-changing event – a tragic loss, an injury or illness to fight through – but Couch Tag is really more scenes from a life, childhood and adolescent memories for the most part, no massive, traumatic event as such, just all the little ups and downs, the small triumphs and the minor traumas, the happy family moments and the awful family arguments of everyday growing up, pretty much like most of us.

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And this is what makes Couch Tag so appealing and also so easy to identify with, because while some parts are obviously unique to his family and setting, many elements are pretty similar to so much of family life that they are almost universal – you did this yourself with friends as a kid, you had that relative that always did this certain thing, you had the grans or aunts who were the nice ones (the sort that would let the kids win at a game) and the ones who were much more strict, the memories of childhood pets, the family stories told and retold at big gatherings so often over the years they become semi-mythical and are passed down to the next generation to retell, that feeling that everyone else’s family seems to be so together, unlike yours (you realise later they had all the same problems and arguments, it was just you didn’t see them, unlike in your own home life). It’s not hard to identify with many of the stories of childhood Reklaw conjures up from memory, be it playing with other kids or arguing with his sister over who got to choose the next TV show to watch (ah, the days before multiple TV sets throughout the house, everyone gathered round the one big telly to watch The Six Million Dollar Man) or that always awkward working out what this sex thing is.

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A whole section on a number of different cats which passed through the Reklaw household kicks off the book, and by the end of it may leave you thinking that this was a family that perhaps shouldn’t have animals (it’s a litany of lost cats, killed moggies, or runaway felines). As we move further into the book it’s not difficult to imagine that Reklaw put the cats chapter and the litany of feline care disasters first in the book because in some ways it serves as a very rough metaphor for the problems of his family life we come to later. But where he shows major problems he also shows the good moments too. In quite a few scenes his father clearly prefers getting stoned or drinking, or both, to actually spending time being a dad, and of course this has an effect on Jesse and his sister and mother. In fact you are left with the impression several times of someone who perhaps shouldn’t have been a dad, who would have been happier on his own. And then he would suddenly step in and do something thoughtful for the kids…

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Games and peculiar hobbies play a prominent role in Couch Tag – even the book’s name comes from a childhood game, where the floor is made of lava, so you must move around the room leaping from furniture to furniture, armchair to sofa, without touching the ‘hot’ ground. New games and variations on existing ones are continually invented until the rules become bizarrely twisted and impenetrable (but who cares as long as it was fun to play?). There are other bizarre pastimes shared with close friends – stealing road signs then adapting them and placing them back, so the sign for left or right only, no straight on (kind of like this <->) is repainted to look instead like the Batman logo. Or the Fred Robinson affair, a name picked at random from a phone book, which over the years snowballed into numerous different activities, from prank calls to leaving odd bits of random items outside Fred’s house (some just silly, some bizarre, the odd one or two a little creepy), or a Fred Xing road sign on his lawn, then a whole series of Fred comic books…

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As I said, there is no one huge moment of change, no “this is the day I had to straighten up and become a man” type of scene, rather this is just family life, most of it viewed through the lens of childhood and adolescence (which comes with that childlike assumption at first that this is how all families must be, changes when older to why isn’t my family as cool/nice/together as that other family down the block?). Inventing games, spending summer afternoons playing with friends, the desire for pets, the mum-dad bickering, school, studying, developing your own interests, first stirrings of sexual curiosity… It’s all in here, in a very open, very easy to read, gentle fashion that sucks you totally in and will leave you often nodding in empathy – oh, I used to do that, I played with those, I had an uncle just like that…

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About The Author

Joe Gordon
Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk's chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.

One Response to Reviews: Couch Tag

  1. John says:

    Thanks for this, Joe. I have Reklaw’s Dreamtoons and The Night Of Your Life, and a few of the mini-comics that comprise this collection. I remember finding the minis kind of mean spirited and almost unpleasant. It was all those dead cats, I think (not to mention the fish). But you’ve revived my interest (I’m a carpet-lava participant, myself!); I’ve just ordered the book.