While I was attending New York Comic Con 2012, I had the opportunity to talk with artist Sina Grace and read his just-released autobiographical graphic novel Not My Bag. The first thing he had to say about the book was that early opinions from his fellow creators wished it was longer. I can see why. You don’t want it to end.
Grace, of The L’il Depressed Boy fame, draws upon his experience in retail to craft a graphic novel that gives us a personal view of a struggling artist forced to take a job to pay the bills. To say it is relatable doesn’t do the effort justice. Like much of The Li’l Depressed Boy, Grace’s book touches on the facets of real life that are often overlooked, but provide a narrative fidelity so connected with our modern world that we can’t help to identify with it.
Not My Bag is an introspective tale that defines its protagonist in terms both outside and inside. His experience working in retail hell at a mid-level department store is only espoused upon by looking back at the relationships the define him. There is this constant search for identity, whether that is from career aspirations, ethnicity or personal relationships and desires. And it’s a celebration of fashion and art.
While the obvious comparison would be The Devil Wears Prada, Grace offers us a more substantive approach. The curtain is pulled back; the inner workings of his mind are exposed as the Band-Aid of bashfulness and insecurity are thrown in the trash with last year’s fashions. The gothic framing of the story, used to enhance the sense of personal ghosts, is a form of visual storytelling, which while anchored in hyperbole, brings a strong sense of aesthetic. Grace plays with our expectations, drawing panels and pages that ease into our consciousness and hold on tight.
As I read his book, on a train from New York Comic Con to my home in New Jersey, I recalled my own experience working jobs in retail and marketing to pay the bills. Even I as I write this review, having just come home from my corporate marketing day job, I easily identify with the story Grace tells in Not My Bag. It can be a struggle to do what makes us happy and survive. It can be a strain on our loved ones. So we take on things that are a means to ends. But that doesn’t dismiss the desire to succeed at what we are doing at the moment. We may dislike our current employment, or desire a different type of work that gives us more satisfaction, but that doesn’t mean we don’t give it our all.
That type of experience, the personal reflection on the immediate world, captured by such writers and artists as Craig Thompson and Harvey Pekar to varying degrees, is what gives Grace’s novel its power. It holds on to our spirit. It shows what happens when we get lost in the moments we are thrust into. We want to be successful. We want to advance. We are scared to sacrifice the safety and security of the known for the unknown.
Grace pays strong attention to detail, guiding readers through a world that they might not be completely familiar with. He acts as tour guide, showing the differences between his station in the fashion industry and say the likes of Alexander McQueen and stores and fashion houses of that ilk. He pays close attention to the form as well, using the visual hyperbole mentioned above to crash seemingly dissimilar worlds with the visual tenets of gothic horror. The faces, body shapes and poses form a haunting intimidation that impresses upon the certainty, yet uncertainty, of Grace’s role in the retail game. And it is a game, a shark’s game as Grace imparts, stressing his do or die circumstance—I don’t think I’ve read anything that better explains commissioned-based work than this book.
Through it all, the ups and downs of the retail world and his personal relationships, the aspirations and coming to terms with the ghosts of past are part of the request conclusion, at least to this book. But there is more story to tell. I return to that initial conversation I had with Grace about the book. Not My Bag is an engaging narrative, told with a clear aesthetic sense. A personal story told with personality and style. You simply don’t want it to end.