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BugHouse. By Steve Lafler. Seattle, Hudson, MA: Cat-Head Comics, 1996. 1v. (unpaged). $12.95. ISBN 1-889059-00-5.

General fiction; funny animals

Adults, teens; drug use, profanity

The place: Bugtown. All the characters are anthropomorphized insects. Jimmy Watts is a hard-living jazz saxophone player. He and Slim, a piano player, are interested in forming their own band. Jimmy has his eye on Ralph Rojas, a drummer, and his protege on bass, Stanley/Bones. Ralph is friends with Jimmy's graduate student girlfriend Julie (Julie was the person who got Jimmy into bug juice). Julie and Jimmy go down to a bar, where the four potential band members meet. They sound excellent together. Between sets, Julie gets Jimmy high on bug juice. During the next number, he dazzles the audience, but the other self he hallucinates warns him that he's "well on [his] way to becoming an addict. Rather inconvenient, but there you are." Still, the band Bughouse has been born, with Ralph as their stage manager.

After a bug juice bing, Julie and Jimmy elope. Julie decides to clean herself up and stays out of Bugtown for several months. When she returns, she finds that Jimmy has "a hot band and a bad habit." Prior to their opening at the Savoy, Jimmy and Slim visit the mobster Big Mean for a hit of bug juice. At the Savoy, Ralph and Julie have a friendly encounter with Detective Putter, who is hoping to catch Jimmy holding drugs or, better still, Big Mean. However, the alcoholic detective is easily distracted by free drinks. Jimmy and Slim arrive, thoroughly high. The band begins playing, and their first number is sloppy, but they catch fire in the second. Still, the next morning, Julie decides to have words with Big Mean. The mobster is annoyed at her audacity but respects Jimmy enough to quit supplying the sax player with bug juice. When Jimmy comes around for his next hit, he gets no answer when he knocks on Big Mean's door. Jimmy returns home feeling awful. To save the night's performance, Julie gives him a hit of bug juice left over from her user days. He perks up, but he's starting to recognize that he's a junkie.

The band is met by a young man who represents Ducat Records. During the discussion with him, Jimmy is approached by a drug dealer, Johnny Muggles, who offers to become his supplier. Jimmy is tempted into accompanying Johnny to his apartment. Just as they arrive, a guy with a gun, waiting in ambush for Muggles, starts shooting. Jimmy is wounded. Luckily, Julie and Putter show up in time to arrest the thugs and get Jimmy to a hospital. Slim has gotten some bad bug juice, so the two convalesce for several months. Meanwhile, Ralph is negotiating with "the kid" from Ducat Records, who reveals himself to be Simon Ducat, nephew of the owner.

Jimmy is the cleanest he's been in years, but he still craves bug juice. He visits Slim. They jam, then do some bug juice. Elsewhere, Putter warns Ralph that Big Mean is mad at Jimmy for "bringing the heat down on him" and wants to settle the score. But Ralph also has good news for the band: they've gotten a large advance from Ducat Records to cut their first record. Ralph calls the others for a rehearsal, but Slim doesn't show. Jimmy discovers him suffering from some bad bug juice given him by Big Mean.

Several months go by, during which Jimmy has stayed clean. The band has waited for Slim to get better, and they have just cut their record. Buoyed, they go on tour. Slim has decided to kick his bug juice habit, but he doesn't think he can function on the tour without a little every day, so Ralph doles it out to him. The band soon arrives in Oaktown, where Jimmy and Ralph catch a performance by McKinley's Jump Blues Band. Impressed, the two make their way backstage, where the band members are having a party. One person they meet is Joe Trapps, the drummer, whose girlfriend, Clarise, is immediately attracted to Ralph. In the kitchen, Clarise explains to Ralph about Joe's bug juice habit, which causes Ralph to rush out to find Jimmy--arriving just in time to see him do bug juice with Joe.

The next day, Jimmy tries to talk Slim out of a share of his bug juice ration, but Slim refuses. That night, Jimmy discovers that he can play well even during withdrawal, and after the show he thanks Slim for helping him over the hump. Backstage, Simon Ducat shows up and announces that he just taped their fantastic performance, and the McKinley band members arrive with words of praise. During the subsequent party, Joe Trapps offers Slim and Jimmy some bug juice. Jimmy has the strength to walk away from the offer, but Slim takes him up on it. Back in the hotel, Jimmy gets a call from Julie; she's pregnant! However, unknown to Jimmy, Slim, thoroughly high, has walked in front of a speeding cab....

Last August I loaned this book to a friend while we waited for a United flight in Chicago (luckily, it was delayed, not cancelled), and her first comment after reading a few pages was, "Why are these characters bugs?" I have the same question. Except for one or two names and the absorption of bug juice via antennae, these characters do not have any buglike characteristics beyond their looks. Unlike, say, Maus, where the depiction of characters as animals had a strong quality of metaphor and also took advantage of their physical characteristics (e.g., a protruding mouse tail marking a character as Jewish), Bughouse's bugs seem more like a one-joke gimmick based on the slang phrase "bughouse."

Having said that, I also have to say that the story is quite good and transcends the weak visual joke. I especially liked the contrast between the pleasure and heightened creativity afforded by bug juice (something that a lot of anti-drug stories neglect to mention) and the detrimental effects that it has on users: withdrawal symptoms, hallucinations, chances of bad trips, reckless behavior, neglect of health, neglect of loved ones, and diversion of money meant for more important things (e.g., rent). Although the story has a strong anti-drug tone, it rarely gets preachy. (Note that in a few scenes characters casually smoke pot without censure, quietly making the point that some drugs are much less dangerous and intrusive than others.) The dialogue is usually very good and very natural sounding (pretty crude, too, as befits the subculture), faltering a little only when Julie is explaining things to friends--in these scenes she's used as a vehicle for outlining what happened over Period X. One story element I thought was a mistake was a flash-forward in the middle of the book, showing most of the aging Bughouse members jamming in Jimmy's back yard with his daughter on piano. The absence of Slim more than hinted at his fate, and as I am not a fan of foreshadowing, I would have preferred not to have seen this flash-forward, which didn't really add much to the story anyway. On the other hand, the after-death scene (I assume he died, anyway--it's possible he's just in a coma), where a seemingly healthy Slim speaks with a doctor who shows him movies of his life, was a creative way to handle that unpleasant event.

The characters are appealing enough to make you want to follow the story. Jimmy is a lively, talented fellow with many flaws but many good points as well, and you care about him and want him to succeed. Julie is a lot more serious and competent, but she has her fun side as well. Slim is an increasingly tragic figure: an easy-going musician caught in the downward spiral of addiction. As the story progresses, Ralph comes off more and more as the rock around which the other band members center; he genuinely has their interests at heart, but he also has his sordid side that he never shows them. Bones is devoted to his mother and prefers reading to partying; however, his character seems to be slowly changing (e.g., he finally loses his virginity on the tour), but he doesn't get enough screen time to show much. If there's a sequel, I hope he gets more attention. I do hope there's a sequel--this book has a number of loose ends that need tying up, and the ending is awkward if this is a self-contained work.

The black-and-white art is very cartoony, but detailed enough to really go to town on the hallucination sequences (spaceships and clams and floating wedges of pie, oh my!). I like how, when Jimmy or the band really play hot, cats come floating out of their instruments in place of notes. The bugs' faces are reasonably expressive, depending on the kinds of bugs they are, but most of their emotion comes out in the dialogue rather than visually.

A very interesting book whose merits outweight its flaws and whose subject is unusual for graphic novels. Definitely worth a look if you can find it. It would be a good title in a collection that focuses on alternative comics. Not for kids, though! And while the ultimate message in the story is anti-drug, parts of the story could be seen by the casual glancer (unfortunately, there are a lot of these) as pro-drug.


Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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