Sunday, March 20, 2016

Through the Habitrails, by Jeff Nicholson

Jeff Nicholson says Through the Habitrails: Life Before and After My Career in the Cubicles really isn't autobiographical.  All the better for him.  His graphic novel, published serially and intermittently through the 1990s, presents a creepy, bleak, and dehumanizing picture of corporate life. protagonist slaves in his cubicle creating content, while the gerbils, who somehow run the place, run around in their habitrails.  People sneak up behind him and slap on tap on his head to sap his creative juices.  In one of the more depressing-sounding expressions of an attitude shared by employees everywhere, Nicholson writes: "The company won two-thirds of my life, and drained the juices from my driven flesh for its own needless product."

This sense of alienation from work, or rather from the fruits of one's labor, permeates Through the Habitrails.  Nicholson's office worker labors on, yet seeks means of escape, both literal and through food, entertainment, drugs, and drink.  The last is most memorable, in the form of a jar he encases his entire head in a keeps filled with beer.  Yes, it's as weird as it sounds.

This new re-issue includes an introduction by Stephen Bissette, who published Through the Habitrails in Taboo magazine, a comics anthology that specialized in horror and other edgy comics.  He rightly points out that Nicholson's work is a sort of mix of Kafka and Dilbert, although it's much more subversive and disturbing than Dilbert.  The tone is certainly Kafkaesque.  (Bissette bemoans the fact that "Kafkaesque" is used by people who have never read Kafka or know who he is.  But he never makes clear whether Nicholson himself read or was influenced by Kafka.  I'm curious whether or not this is the case.)

I was struck with thought, where are the positive, affirming depictions of labor, of business, of making a living in a traditional job?  Comics and other entertainment on this theme (think Office Space and The Office) draw on the perpetual, perceived struggle of labor versus management.  I guess people who are not disgruntled don't write comics.  It's just that many companies are great and make fantastic contributions to humanity.  Many employees of big companies are content or even enthused about the role they play in something bigger than themselves.  We simply don't see that state of things portrayed in comics, movies, or fiction very often.  

Through the Habitrails is an entertaining collection of weirdness that is probably more relevant today than it was in the early 1990s, when it appeared in Taboo.  Too bad Nicholson is not writing comics today.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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