Comics

Love and Fulfillment: On the Li’l Depressed Boy, Parks and Recreation and Neal Cassady

If Li'l Depressed Boy creators Struble & Grace achieve anything, it's a magnificent artistic range that can conceptually connect even Parks & Recreation with Beat icon Neal Cassady…

“But I need you you you"

Just to see me through.

Somebody to hold my hand

When I feel a little lonely.”

-- “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” as sung by Solomon Burke

The ragdoll hero of The Li’l Depressed Boy may be at times melancholy, but he’s never been morose. He’s had friends, records and comicbooks to pick him up and provide him hope for that fulfillment that is elusive to so many. Romantic misadventures have their ups and downs, but at their heart they are about finding satisfaction in life. It’s the cornerstone for many narratives, with the pitfalls of finding someone to love providing all the conflict necessary to enthrall us. LDB may have found new love with Spike, but the price of keeping that love may be their undoing.

“I’m in Love with a Girl Named Spike” is the closing chapter of this volume of The Li’l Depressed Boy, and like much of the series, leaves us on a solemn note. The last full page panel gives us a scene dying for an emo or classic soul song; something that captures just how much is still unknown and troubling. Life, love can be so troubling, so complicated. Just when we think we’re up, we’re down.

Jim O'Heir as Gary "Jerry" Gergich on Parks and Recreation

We all search for it. Some type of fulfillment. Just after I read The Li’l Depressed Boy #16, I also watched the “Jerry’s Retirement” episode of Parks and Recreation and re-watched the movie The Last Time I Committed Suicide. All three are concerned with its characters finding some amount of fulfillment, whether in love or life or both.

“Jerry’s Retirement” is about just that: Parks and Recreation’s Jerry (Jim O’Heir) finally retiring, something that the character has talked about since the beginning the TV show’s run. Jerry is the show’s goat, constantly screwing things up and being the butt of too many jokes, but the character has got something over the rest of the cast, that elusive life fulfillment.

While Parks and Recreation is on the surface a parody and satire of politics and small town government, at its heart it’s a show about people striving for lives that are filled with love and success. This particular episode is centered on Leslie (Amy Poehler) trying to help Jerry achieve some of the goals he set down when he first joined the local government. They are inconsequential, innocuous, and along the journey we’re meant to laugh along, but by the very end we realize just how great a life Jerry has lived. He’s a wonderful painter, he has a beautiful and loving family, and outside of the Parks and Recreation Department he’s not a clumsy goat at all. The type of fulfillment Jerry has achieved outside of the office is nearly the same level of happiness every character on the show wants.

Beat icon Neal Cassady

On the other end of this popculture experience is the little seen movie The Last Time I Committed Suicide, loosely based on the infamous “Joan Anderson” letter Neal Cassady wrote to Jack Kerouac describing the ill fated romance he had as a young man in Denver. At the center of the movie is this same emotion of finding fulfillment, but this piece is focused on love.

“It’s a metaphor, man,” Neal Cassady (Thomas Jane) says to his pool hall friend Harry (Keanu Reeves). “I’m just saying, every man, every woman for that matter, wants a person to love, who loves them, and a roof over their head when it rains.”

But that would never be the happy ending for Cassady, as his search for that peace would end with him rejecting the semi-suburban home life and dying alone, face down in a ditch near the railroad tracks that were never too far from him throughout his life.

That apt quest for fulfillment, for love and a roof over your head when it rains is essentially LDB’s journey. The journey has its dangers and obstacles. Just as Jerry has to endure the torment of his co-workers and Neal Cassady has to survive his own restlessness, LDB has to bear the conniving jerk-face Toby and the other circumstances nearly out of his control.

Spike and LDB have been lucky to this point. They are defying the rules of workplace romance – she is his manager after all. But their story is one of understanding, of sentiment, of mutual affection for the little gestures that mean so much more.

from the Li'l Depressed Boy #16

The pain from his shoulder is nothing compared to the pain of not knowing what the future will hold. How will their romance stand-up to the very public outing they experience? How will they survive when the excitement of breaking the rules has worn off and they have to move forward? It’s a test to be sure, a test of LDB and Spike’s resolve to be together despite the uncertainty and unwarranted spotlight.

Writer S. Steven Struble and artist Sina Grace work with a straight-forward narrative, creating character movement with expressions and silence. Words fail us often, especially when it comes to finding and holding onto love and life fulfillment. We can talk all we want about finding “someone to love, who loves us,” but when it’s actually in front of us, and the pushes and shoves of life are breathing down our necks, are we ready for it? Are we ready to weather the (snow) storm?

This is where The Li’l Depressed Boy excels: subtly examining the challenges of life and love with situations that are too often real. It’s autobiography to be sure, as Struble has said several times, but in the form of this comic, it takes on the everyday quality so few pieces can actually achieve.

I could go on and on citing popculture examples of characters hoping and trying for love and life fulfillment. But they rarely deal with the spaces in between. The Li’l Depressed Boy #16 reminds us that even after the confrontation, the path to love and fulfillment is still fraught with the unknown to come. Sometimes we end up like Jerry; sometimes with end up like Neal; and sometimes we end up in bed, somewhere in between.

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