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Razor on the Mirror


The '70s live on in all their sordid glory in the autobiographical stories of Mary Fleener

By Richard von Busack

AN OLD JOKE has it that if you remember the '60s, you weren't there. Maybe the corollary should be that if you were there in the '70s, you'd rather not remember. Fortunately or unfortunately, cartoonist Mary Fleener's own memory of the Bad Taste decade is all too sharp.

Fleener was in the optimum place to observe the excesses of the time, since she lives on the coast of Southern California. The lackadaisical sound of the Eagles dominated the radio during those immemorial years, just as the slack morals of the Southern California style ruled our consciences. Slovenliness, lechery and self-indulgence spread to the four corners of the U.S. And you missed out on it all. Pity.

Fleener's cartooning suggests a meeting between the cubist painter Braque and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, the designer of bug-eyed cartoon monsters once popular in Southern California. The fractured, distorted, multiple faces in the 26 stories collected in Life of the Party: The Complete Autobiographical Collection (Fantagraphics, $14.95) reflect the coked-up, duplicitous people Fleener writes about. Her characters sometimes look as if their heads were about to burst with neurotic energy.

Cartoons are perfect for capturing the frenzy of the moment. They caricature the social distortion of the '70s, and the format easily telescopes time. Some of Fleener's stories cover 15 years in four pages, showing us how easily today's party girl can become tomorrow's Republican realtor. But Fleener herself, a character in most of the cartoons, watches the decadence around her calmly--even when waking up with amnesia from last night's drugs, wearing someone else's underwear.

Unlike so many other observers of the times, the Jay McInerneys and Brett Easton Ellises, Fleener doesn't see the end of Western Civilization reflected in her every hangover. She turns her gossipy, sometimes cruel satire on herself. There's never a sense of bitchiness or that patronizing, lecturing tone that marks so many current sendups of the '70s. As a reader, you never sense that Fleener is saying that there is a right and decorous way to live one's life and that in those days she just wasn't mature enough to have discovered it yet.

THE COLLECTION includes most of Fleener's previously published comics in the anthology Weirdo (edited by Peter Bagge and Robert Crumb), along with some new stories published in harder-to-find anthologies. Seeing them gathered in order presents a near-chronological story of a fun-loving life.

In the first section, the discovery of a Howlin' Wolf record leads Fleener to become a part-time musician at violent urban lesbian bars. The midsection brings together Fleener's stories of women she knew during that time. These portraits include the promiscuous roommate nicknamed "The Jelly," from the too-big breasts that both run and ruin her life.

In "Skulls and Stiffs," Fleener visits a chum whose father owns a Palm Springs mortuary. The mortician, an affable Kentuckian who shares his comb with the cadavers, is charmed by Fleener and offers her a skull--much to the artist's delight and her friends' horror. ("Oh, it'll look great on my drawing table. I'll put a candle on it. A black candle!" Fleener exclaims.) In "Career Opportunity," Fleener learns the old Thoreau maxim "Beware of all occasions requiring new clothes" when she unwittingly goes on a job interview to become a hooker.

Finally, Fleener tells of how a flood of cocaine exacerbates her friends' and neighbors' craziness, adding to the neediness of women trying to hold onto no-good, kink-prone men. In the long stories "Ashes of Love" and "Hush Yuppies," her friends' desperate efforts to cling to their men sometimes lead to violence. A book that begins with stories of partying hard concludes with death; two dead friends contact Fleener after the grave, one as a hard-to-get-rid-of poltergeist.

Fleener's newest work, seen in her recent comic series Fleener!, consists of dialogue-free cartoons about tikis; the work is less furious and more playful. Fleener got out of the partying circuit with a husband, a house and a new vocation: surfing, which she writes about tenderly.

Fleener's stories are as evocative as music. Her comics provide an authentic guide to an indescribably peculiar era, but they also reflect a charming, open-handed, open-minded personality. Life of the Party is a wonderful introduction to one of the most talented artists to use the ever-popular autobiographical comic.

Fleener has fans; she ought to have more. Maybe she's just too indelicate to be as popular as most of the newer autobiographical cartoonists, whose vague, prim and somewhat put-upon "authobiographix"--to use Fleener's term--are blown away by the vivid, hilarious work collected here.

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From the Oct. 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro.

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