This essay is the introduction to a new edition of Mark Beyer’s 1987 comic Agony, out this month as the inaugural title from New York Review Comics.
Agony is a gift.
There’s Agony as a gift received. Thirty years ago, the weekly visit to the comic shop was a liberating adventure for my young self. Who knew what the trucks were going to drop off this week? Maybe an early creator-owned project put out by a traditional publisher, like Frank Miller’s Ronin, or an oddball deconstruction of an underutilized B-list superhero, as Alan Moore was doing with DC’s Swamp Thing, his Watchmen precursor. Graphic novels were new creatures, discovering their form. Next to the mainstream offerings, magazines like Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s influential comics anthology Raw offered an off-kilter view from the alternative underground, one that put my stoner friends’ Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers to shame. In the spring of ’85, I picked up Raw No. 7—the Village Voice had run some notices about it—and got my first glimpse of Charles Burns’ nutso Dog Boy, Sue Coe’s slaughterhouse fantasia, and Spiegelman’s fabulist Maus. And Mark Beyer’s Amy and Jordan. Oddball and overstuffed, Raw was an anarchic lesson in the possibilities of being a weirdo, a necessary education for a would-be writer.
Then there’s Agony as a gift given. Senior year of college, my roommate Tim was struck down by a mysterious virus—a Beyeresque affliction—and had to spend a week in the hospital. What better present, I thought, than letting him borrow my copy of Beyer’s Agony? Tim was in bad shape, but how could his torments compare to Amy and Jordan’s never-ending stream of misfortunes? They sure had cheered me up over the years. When Agony came out in 1987, I Xeroxed pages from it and taped them above the desk in my dorm room. Page 39, featuring Amy’s exclamation “I’m turning into a human skeleton!” generated a strangely profound identification. In that panel, Amy’s face has been reduced to a horrible skull, her skin falls off in strips, and she stands in a puddle of her own flesh while an array of miniature skulls circles her head, taunting her. It’s hard to explain: I still had all my flesh, but from time to time felt like a living skeleton. “Why did you give me that?” Tim asked on my next visit. “It’s depressing.”
Whether you find Agony relentlessly downbeat or improbably uplifting depends on how your brain is wired. Beyer obviously shares some DNA with the two characters he abused over the decades. In “Radiator Relationships,” an autobiographical effort published in the 1978 anthology Lemme Outa Here, oval-faced Jordan is his childhood stand-in, labeled with “How I looked as a kid.” The last panel of that strip announces, “Now that I’m older I don’t have any friends either real or imaginary!” but Jordan, at least, had gained a running buddy in Amy by the time of Raw’s 1980 debut. (Her first appearance was a few years earlier, in Spiegelman’s Arcade.) Misery loves company, if only to have someone to drive you to the hospital, or lance your head when it fills with blood like a gigantic grisly balloon.
Agony is one of the most hilarious books I’ve ever read, but again, your mileage will vary depending on your feelings about the inherent comedy of suicide by acid bath, peanut-loving sea creatures, and forfeiting the security deposit on your apartment because you’ve saturated every surface with blood. And how you feel about relinquishing the logic of realism in favor of the logic of undying despair, your thoughts about a world whose underlying order rests on the next iteration of suffering.
You may wonder, for example, when Agony takes place. According to the newspaper Mourning Call, glimpsed midway through the book, some of the action takes place on “Feb 12, 0000.” Not much help. The meaningless captions provide no further clues. Events occur “Soon,” “Shortly,” “Seconds later,” and “Suddenly,” one after another, with no respect to conventional notions of time. On Page 54, Amy makes a remark to Jordan, and when he responds in the next panel it is “Two weeks later.”
What happens between those panels? Beyer’s editing philosophy is, “If something horrible isn’t happening, cut it out.” Which leaves only agony.
If we don’t know when, how about where? Agony starts off in the city, and many of Amy and Jordan’s misadventures in other strips take off from the cruelties of metropolitan life. Beyer’s “City of Terror” trading cards, which appeared in Raw No. 2, feature our sad protagonists as they are harrowed by the Supermarket Line (“Then she found an aisle where there were only 13 people ahead of her. … Four hours later she finally got out of the store”), Chased by Buildings (“Luckily there was a subway stop nearby. The buildings were unable to get downstairs due to their enormous size”), and Three-Cards Monte (“He screamed ‘you bastards, here’s your money’ ”).
The capricious injustices of the city are a constant aggressor. In the extended story of Agony, however, Amy and Jordan get into the most trouble during their repeated attempts to leave the evil city for a fresh start. “We could live up there,” Amy says, reading of a newly discovered village. “Then we wouldn’t have to worry about jobs ever again. We’d live off the land.” Of course, “Up North” is just as malevolent as the concrete jungle, as is where they end up after their next excursion into the wild: “Living in this cave is starting to get really claustrophobic,” Jordan says. But disappointment won’t stop him from suggesting that Amy visit her “aunt who lives in the country,” which inevitably brings another round of tribulation. It’s not the city that’s out to get them, but the universe. Nothing offers comfort or refuge—not the wide-open spaces, not family (as their visit to Jordan’s father’s squalid abode proves), and not friends (“I’m glad we left that party. That woman had no interest in us other than her grasping desire to dominate us”).
Purgatory or hell is one answer to the question of where Amy and Jordan dwell—certainly their remarkable healing powers, which enable them to endure the next round of abuse, are a feature of eternal damnation. They fit in with other cursed misfits from the late ’70s, like Mr. Bill from Saturday Night Live, except that Mr. Hands and Sluggo are here embodied by sadistic, disembodied fate. In Amy and Jordan’s sneers at the straight life and assorted phonies, we get a dollop of early John Waters, circa Female Trouble and Desperate Living, and that director’s dingy America where freaks and monsters abuse each other in an endless parade of travesties. Hippie idealism has been curdled by reality.
“The small part of my mind that’s controlling my life seems tattered and torn,” Amy says at one point in her travails. To be aware of your unending sufferings and to keep going: That’s the moral idea animating this book. It’s not a stretch to bring in Samuel Beckett as another kindred spirit at this point, for many reasons. The flat landscapes of Agony evoke Beckett’s absurd wastelands. Surely Vladimir and Estragon live in the sublet upstairs, and Nagg and Nell from Endgame own the local diner, sans legs and still trapped in their ashcans.
Beyer also shares Beckett’s humor and, unlikely as it is, his optimism. Agony is about agony, but it’s also about the hope that endures despite all that life throws at you. “In the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” laments the narrator of The Unnamable. It’s a nice echo of Jordan’s encouragement to his partner/roommate/double in Agony: “We’ve just got to keep trying harder. It’s a struggle, but what else can we do?” Keep trying harder, and sometimes a big bear will come out of nowhere and throw you to safety, or a winged cave-god deposit you in a nice apartment with pine-veneer furniture.
What can I say—it cheers me up, even now, all these years later.
Agony by Mark Beyer. New York Review Comics.
See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.