Discover more from The Symptoms
...in which Ashley promotes the work of his artist friend, J. Daniel Abel.
I’m just putting the finishing touches on my new book collection of pulse-pulverizing essays, utilizing the independent editing method I like to call “libertarian proofreading,” and since I’ve been too busy with that task to cough up any new Symptoms material, you folks will just have to do your best to contain your anticipation of this looming literary event. (And that’s enough show-stopping Stan Lee-style alliteration for now.)
The new book is called An American Embarrassed, which you may have guessed centers around my cumbersome adventures as an expat in Germany. I’d envisioned this collection since first planning my escape from America, but I’ve been spurned on in recent months by the encouragement and example of artist and writer J. Daniel Abel, with whom I am embroiled in a heated competition to see who can publish the most books before the grave beckons. But I suppose it’s not so much a competition between Mr. Abel and myself as mutual enabling, like two patients with the same metal disorder, both convinced he is Napoleon, while also encouraging the other to be the best Napoleon he can be.*
In this respect, I was taken aback on receiving my copy of Abel’s Rank ‘N File, a new edition of a book originally published in 2014 as part of his exhibition at the Oceanside Museum of Art. It was yet another example from J.D.A. of work I wish I’d done myself, had more-or-less considered doing myself, but couldn’t possibly have done with this level of emotional power and visual electricity. As Napoleons go, Abel had already slaughtered the Austrians while I was still planning my trip across the Alps.
Abel refers to Rank ‘N File as a graphic novel, and this example of that form expands the definition. It is, in effect, a sequence of words and pictures, and does tell a story, albeit one much bigger than any single set of protagonists. But “comic book” it ain’t. In Rank ‘N File, Abel has collected the stories of desperate and struggling Americans, in their own words, illustrated with portraits which, in most cases, are not of the actual people speaking those words but may as well be. Both drawings and quotes were referenced from online searches. The result is a random assortment of personal testimonies, made unique by Abel’s portrayal of the subject in line, and made less random by their careful curation. The book tells stories, but also a story.
And the power of that story is what has me checking Abel’s work against my own meager publications, as men must do in their efforts at bonding. We must compete in fits of strength, compare chest expansion and tales of heroism, see who can spit the farthest, and consider which man has published the more engaging illustrated pamphlet. What Rank ‘N File and An American Embarrassed have in common is the attempt to draw an overarching portrait of America, and what it means to be an American in our modern era. With that objective, I can only confess that I’ve pulled my punches while Abel has delivered mercilessly with a regulation Louisville Atlas.
In short, what my book attempts to convey are the differences in attitude and priorities that help an American living overseas define what are truly American traits. Yes, I’ve pointed out a few of the novel cultural divides, the unrefrigerated eggs, the unairconditioned homes, the T.J. Maxx that is weirdly known as T.K. Maxx. But what I’m mostly trying to emphasize is the comparative calm and orderliness of the standard German demeanor, the unrelenting rationality they exude that can drive Americans insane. For Americans, as I can now see more clearly than ever, consistently express panic, general anxiety, high drama, and Karen-esque explosions of rage to a degree not seen in other parts of the world. Americans are crisis actors, addicted to the neurotic energy on which the American cultural engine revs. Sometimes the crisis is Walmart running out of Spongebob sweatpants, sometimes the crisis is thyroid cancer and no health insurance. For many, the crisis is chronic.
The subjects in Rank ‘N File are the working poor, the migrants, the incarcerated, the unwed mothers, the homeless vets, the drug addicts, and the rest of the poverty-line warriors who make up half of the American population. Their individual stories are largely tales of defeat, dreams that faded, lovers who left or died, illnesses that wrecked livelihoods, hopes that live on, and resentments that never die. Abel’s portraits, crackling with kinetic pattern and anatomical celebration (I absolutely love his drawings), eagerly betray his kinship with these people. His craftsmanship in delineating the unlucky reveals that his aim is not to fetishize the poor and working classes as an anthropological study, but to remind us, as so many collectivists and humanists before him have, that we’re all one mishap away from telling the same story, even if our gated communities with trimmed hedges convince us otherwise. This is a portrait of us.
Because here’s what you really learn when you’re fortunate enough to compare your American past with a new life in the EU. America isn’t simply different because of its geography and rugged individualism. It’s not just distinctive in its Hollywood spectacles and megachurch lunacy. It’s not just a clown show. America is a “failed state,” and not because it has failed in its mission, but because it’s working exactly as designed. Abel’s characters are not trailer-trash flotsam too hopeless to get it together; they haven’t “failed” any more than America itself has failed. They have been exploited. By a corporate-owned empire of bank deregulators, who orchestrate Machiavellian schemes to further commodify the debt they themselves inflict on the poor, trapping them in a company-store extortion racket in which they owe money to The Man before they’re even born (and even when they’re not)
But lest you begin to confuse J. Daniel Abel with Mother Teresa, caricaturing the afflicted as Keane-eyed waifs of eternal suffering, Rank ‘N File also reminds us that many of these noble souls are deluded, self-destructive, church-addled, and eager to blame Jews, non-whites, homosexuals, and other undesirables for their own stunted lives. As one border-patrolling patriot explains his position, “The libtards accuse me of being a racist just because I resist the brown takeover of our state, and because I don’t want a illegal Mexican to steal my paycheck every week.
“It has been proved theologically that these issues also concern the lord Jesus in heaven.”
I would imagine that, unlike Mother Teresa, Abel would support distributing birth control to many of these downtrodden supremacists.
Clearly, I am not a reviewer of books by profession. I can only express my gut reaction to Rank ‘N File, a mix of awe and admiration of its undiluted brutality, jealousy over its refined execution, recognition and empathy of the social contagions as diagrammed, and deep respect for the clarity and righteous anger fueling the project. As noted in the forward, this work was originally produced ten years ago, but in America, the more things change, the more they worsen. On the flip side, this makes Abel’s portrayal of the American epidemic even more vital and illuminating today.
Also, in case I haven’t made it clear, dude can draw like a sumbitch.
Rank ‘N File is available from the author, along with his other must-have publications, here: https://www.mythosgraphosbooks.com/
*This is a dated stereotype, of course. It occurred to me at one point that, while schizophrenics had historically been wracked with religious delusions, more and more dangerous lunatics were becoming fixated on the Fab Four (including an infamous White Album enthusiast who used to hang out at Spahn Ranch). That nutjob who tried to gut George Harrison seemed to back up Lennon’s assertion: among the fanatics, the Beatles were officially more popular than Jesus Christ.
(And let’s not forget Ashley’s website, jam-packed with portraits and other drawings, his highly-affordable prints and books currently available, his eagerness for your portrait commission, and his contact email, email@example.com, where he longs to hear from you.)