Fatal Distraction

by Zachary Houle

30 December 2004


Fatal Distraction

(Insomniac Press)

Choose Your Own Adventure

It’s not often that a book encourages you to read it out of order. Fatal Distraction “may be read in a random sort of way or front to back,” or so invites the foreword to this, Vancouver-artist Sonja Ahlers’ second full-length collection of cut ‘n’ paste found art. While this forward may sound like an invitation to quite the narrative train wreck, anyone with even a remote, passing interest in sequential art might be surprised at just how powerful and liberating a proposition this is in the hands of someone on the verge of becoming a true master.

Ahlers has an uncanny knack at inserting pictures, including her own doodles or drawings from friends and contemporaries, and combining them with handwritten thoughts or clippings from newspapers, magazines and ‘50s-style instruction books. The end effect is cross between Napoleon Dynamite’s binder and something out of Russian cinema, in which the audience is invited to reassemble the diverse strands of conflicting pictorial information and synthesize their own meaning out of it. In fact, thinking of this book as though it were some kind of movie might be the best way to look at it, considering that it blurs the divisions between literary and graphic forms and conventions, if not genres. (Is it a diary? A novel? A lyric book? A manga, considering the ‘read it back-to-front’ invitation? Poetry? Well, it’s probably all of these things, and then some.)

If you were to take Ahlers’ own advice and open Fatal Distraction to a random page, you might find a droll handwritten passage that reads, “Not only am I a fool for love, I am a fucking idiot.” Flip ahead a few pages, and you might see a found drawing of a black woman holding her hands over the eyes of what’s presumably her husband or boyfriend, with the following clipped bit of text sloppily arranged beneath: “If it doesn’t pertain to you, you don’t give a shit.” As with any experimental art, you might have to read between the lines a bit to arrive at a conclusion that makes sense, but it’s a fascinating process that Ahlers is playing with—the ability to shuffle and create different narratives, of which there are seemingly endless possibilities here. It would be particularly interesting to pull this book apart and throw the pages out onto a table as though they were Memory playing cards. Too bad this book comes with a glued spine.

Fatal Distraction plays not only on a certain Hollywood movie from the ‘80s about female domination and gender stereotypes (an intentional connection), but also on the title of Saved By the Bell‘s pilot episode (which was probably an unintentional link). It follows a similarly thick collection, 1998’s Temper, Temper, and a handful of Ahlers’ self-published ‘zines, and is, more or less, a loosely thematic anthology of her uniquely underground style of collage art from the past five years linked together in some kind of order for those used to reading something from front to back. While her work grew out of the West Coast underground ‘zine scene and a likely depressing, disaffecting life simultaneously affected by pop culture—much has been made of her work in relation to Generation X malaise by cultural commentators like Hal Niedzviecki—Ahlers is starting to spread her wings a bit with Fatal Distraction.

It might be worth noting first that this might have to do with the fact Ahlers has made the jump into slightly more mainstream and upscale spaces since publishing Temper, Temper. According to the rather shy-on-precise-details bio accompanying Fatal Distraction, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles now retails some of her artwork; she also has had a solo exhibition in 2000 called Everything I Own Is in This Room that was funded from a British Columbia arts grant. Oh, and some punk named Henry Rollins has talked up her work in the past, reportedly referring to one of her works a “cult classic.” We’d love to provide more details, but the bio accompanying this book is, again, rather silent on this issue and a search of Google didn’t cough anything up. That said, Ahlers and Rollins have obviously become friendly over the years. Ahlers’ 2000 chapbook Happy Ball contained a rather bleak, yet fascinating and insightful, road e-mail from Hank, which, if you’re a punk rock fan, makes that ‘zine well worth hunting down on eBay or elsewhere. Rollins is also rather personally thanked in the acknowledgements here.

Ahlers seems to have learned something from her time in the limelight of the art world because she’s started to add different, more experimental tricks to her palette. Ahlers—in keeping with her street roots—is now dabbling in graffiti art, by using the same big swirls street taggers make on buses and buildings with their Sharpies. The visual effect is sort of like watching indie rock clash with hip-hop, which is not altogether successful at times but still interesting to ponder. This graphic novel does mark a progression in her work away from downer goth girl-like rantings—though there still are a few remnants—and it also offers some semblance of progression or maturity, even though what the transition is also isn’t all that clear yet.

Fatal Distraction is the rarest of time-wasters, something that’ll make you think as you breeze through its sparsely illustrated pages. I’m hopeful that the wait for the next big bound collection doesn’t take six more years because Ahlers is really pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with narrative sequential art. In fact, Fatal Distraction establishes she’s no one-off gimmick, but an artist who might just have a few more major tricks up her sleeve. Now, if someone could only issue a deck of Sonja Ahlers cards…

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