Dating Awkwardness Takes the Stage (with help from Marc Maron).
Since the 1970s, in the days of Justin Green’s Binky Brown meets the Holy Virgin and Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, comics have become an increasingly powerful and effective vehicle for realist biographical stories. Whether it be Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Marajane Satrapi’s Persepolis, or modern day works such as Sina Grace’s Not My Bag or Alison Bechdel’s Fun House, which was recently adapted into a Tony-winning musical, comics have time and time again proven their unique strength in detailing artists’ personal journeys. Some of these journeys are grand tales, while others are more simple illustrations of daily life. One of the pioneers of the latter form to emerge from the 1990s was Bob Fingerman with his semi-autobiographical comic, Minimum Wage. The comic, deemed one of the earliest examples of modern “cringe comedies” like Louis CK's TV show, Louie, told of the stories of cartoonist Rob Hoffman (Fingerman’s alter-ego) and his girlfriend Sylvia as they navigate the awkwardness of daily New York City life. After a fifteen-year hiatus, Fingerman returned to the comic in 2014. Minimum Wage: So Many Bad Decisions is the latest arc in the series, and the latest issue is a thoughtful and funny look at a common scenario: post break-up desperation.
The issue opens with Rob spending time with a woman named Bekka he has met through a dating site following his divorce from Sylvia. The two watch a movie at Rob’s apartment made by Rob’s friend and starring famously cynical comedian Marc Maron. Bekka is not impressed by the film, and suggests the two instead go see Maron perform in the city, as she’s an aspiring standup herself.
The next scene depicts Rob and a friend at a diner two days later talking about Bekka. Rob’s friend asks why he’s even dating her when he doesn’t seem to like her much, to which Rob responds that he doesn’t want to be alone. As they leave, Rob’s friend suggests that there are worse things than being single.
Rob walks down the sidewalk and considers his friend’s advice in what Fingerman illustrates as a very Pekar-esque (and picaresque) scene of introspection. Rob walks down a traffic island and remembers how as a kid he would walk through town pretending he was the sole survivor of a Road Warrior-style post-apocalyptic world, calling himself the “Omega Kid.” In this imaginary world, it was just him and his thoughts, with no other people to concern him, where he could breathe, “always alone but never lonely.” He relates this back to his current predicament, considering how being single for a while might not be so bad for him, even given how much it scares him. The scene is a relatable and genuine look at a common human fear: being single, even when it may be best. It’s also a clever look at the appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction: not only in its depiction of the daily struggle for survival and decency, but of the art of being alone.
The following Monday, Rob is waiting for Bekka at a park while reading Philip K. Dick’s Zap Gun, which creates a hilarious exchange when the two meet up (“you like Dick?/” “I love Dick/” “I can’t stand Dick”). The two walk over to attend Marc Maron’s standup set, at which Rob is the only person in the fairly limited audience to laugh out loud. Maron’s response is very characteristic as he claims “the interesting thing about when one person laughs in a room full of sixty is that fifty-nine people look at that person and say ‘what the fuck?’ And oddly that’s how religions start.”
Marc Maron’s inclusion not only makes for a great foil/companion to Fingerman’s Rob, but is also a believable depiction of the comedian. This is largely due to Fingerman’s real-life friendship with Maron, who is a longtime admirer of the comic. The few scenes between Rob and Maron, during which they discuss their rocky relationship histories, manage to be both funny and honest, and shows Fingerman and Maron’s similar styles (Fingerman says in the issue’s afterward that he considers the comic a kind of kindred spirit to the show Maron). It makes one wish there could have been more time in the issue for the two’s interaction.
Later in the week, Rob and a few friends watch Bekka performing standup as part of her standup class. Bekka goes on to comment on the embarrassing details of her and Rob’s sex life, much to Rob and his friends’ horror. Later that night, while having sex, Rob can’t stop feeling self-conscious and upset, which is only made worse when he realizes his condom’s slipped off. As Bekka gets dressed and storms out, the week’s cumulative embarrassments and disasters, coupled with the new fear of Bekka’s pregnancy, make Rob realize the relationship is probably more trouble than its worth. A few days later, while getting some film developed, Rob gets a call from Bekka, who says she’s not pregnant, and that she thinks they should break up. Rob agrees, and after hanging up has a personal moment of ecstatic relief, declaring “The Omega Kid can breathe” while his imaginary apocalyptic world materializes behind him.
Like the greats such as Pekar, Fingerman has a talent for depicting the small, but relatable moments in life, such as the regular instances of questioning, or even justifying, a bad relationship. The issue illustrates the consequences of Rob’s refusal to follow his own instincts, prolonging something he knows he shouldn’t, out of the ever-destructive, but very human fear of being alone. But Fingerman also shows another great truth: you can feel worse while with someone than when alone. It’s what makes comics such as Minimum Wage both so simple and so enlightening all at once.