Writer & Artist: Jesse Reklaw
Release Date: December 20, 2013
Not so much a graphic novel as a collection of five graphic novellas, Jesse Reklaw’s Couch Tag is an effort to make you tremendously sad without crossing the line into melodrama. Much like Josh Cotter’s Skyscrapers of the Midwest, which this book resembles in tone but not visuals, Couch Tag will gently remove your rose-colored glasses as you reflect on your childhood, making you extremely thankful that you are now an adult. There is a kind of anti-nostalgia that, if done correctly, both evokes the confusion, pain, and lack of control in childhood and brings you to the verge of tears because of its restraint. This book is mixed in its approach, and nothing is as successful as its first story, “Thirteen Cats of My Childhood,” which also appeared in the 2006 Best American Comics anthology, but the picture it assembles is sad, interesting, and individual.
“Thirteen Cats” is exactly what it sounds like: a catalog of the author’s pets, each given a page or two with a name at the top in fancy lettering. But it is also a slow-building story of being yanked from place to place by irresponsible people. These people aren’t bad, and they’re not always bad parents (they encourage free thinking and creativity), but the overall impression conveys loss and instability, shown through the ever-changing parade of half-wild animals.
There’s joy here, too. The delight in having a pet, especially in youth, is intense, and Reklaw captures it as well as the fickleness of a child’s affections. The panels where he plays a trick on his cat, Pudding, by clotheslining him with some fishing line, are more devastating than the final panel on the page, in which his dad tells him that the same cat has been hit by a car. Guilt is a huge part of childhood, when you feel much worse about breaking the rules than you do later in life, and there’s a lot of that on display here.
As for the other tales: “Toys I Loved” takes a comparable approach, pulling depth out of specificity, and the same kind of deep love that can pass at a moment’s notice. And “The Stacked Deck” uses card games to paint a family tree. “The Fred Robinson Story” is a little more straightforwardly narrative in its structure, and the final story, “Lessoned,” sets out with a deck of alphabet cards. “Lessoned” also differs noticeably in its art, constructed in blurry, messy colors that reflect the adolescent angst it depicts. The way the book’s separate stories fit together is much like the way most of those smaller tales produce a bigger picture, piling up blocks slowly and unobtrusively until they form a larger point in the reader’s mind. It is, basically, the way we make sense of life as we grow older and gain distance from our early years, which is an impressive task for a comic book to undertake.