In popular culture, we talk about throwbacks all the time. Football teams put on garish uniforms as a tribute to their garishly designed pasts, MTV trudges through every bit of television and film history to pay homage to the tripe that paved the way for the station, college freshman wear Pavement t-shirts as if they were not eating dirt cups the last time Pavement was relevant. Throwbacks are not necessarily dangerous; they just elicit a nostalgia that is not always authentic. Surely, the Pavement-shirted 18-something will make a lot of very interesting friends but the fellowship is founded on tenuous connection.
I cannot help but approach Kenneth Dahl’s Welcome to the Dahl House with similar suspicion. Filled to the brim with one-off comics about zines, punk culture, and the Gen-X fallout, the book is very much a relic. Paging through, I am taken back a little more than a decade to a time that I cannot remember because I was simply too young. However, by skill more than coercion, Dahl makes me feel bitter about the state of zine publishing and the Tipper Gore morality.
This is what unnerves me and makes the experience of “Dahl House” not an entirely pleasing one. Although Dahl is explicitly transparent that the élan vital of these works is personal experience, I cannot but feel implicated. There is something about Dahl’s alternative everymen characters, which forces the reader to feel they are speaking for them. Is this necessarily a fault of Dahl? No. However, one must approach this volume cautiously.
As to the art in this volume, “Dahl House” displays impressive range and talent. Alternating between detailed, gritty illustrations and simplistic Sunday paper style art, Dahl manages to extend his commentary on “alienation, incarceration, and inebriation in the new American Rome” to many foray. The fine line work is able to capture the subtility and extent of Dahl’s condemnation of disaffected American culture, while the broad strokes of his other pieces decry a loss of innocence. To see Beetle Baily’s Sarge transformed into a vicious figurehead of the American army is a profoundly unsettling transformation of a classic cartoon. Such a move undermines the innocuous appearances that American culture puts forth.
Dahl’s dialogue falls somewhat short of his crafty illustration. Often bombastic, Dahl overreaches from time to time and becomes a parody of his own medium. Although, this might be the effect he wants to achieve. A dog in a cape laments: “Because of their brief moment in the spotlight as ‘Generation X’ accessories, zines in the 90’s have been largely rejected and abandoned by the same ‘counterculture’ types that once espoused them…the secret is out, the jig is up, and minds of talent and purpose have all but evacuated the ‘zine world’ towards newer, cooler, less corrupted frontiers.” Clearly, Dahl does not believe that pithy dialogue written in this manner is best, but what he obtains is a comic that teeters between smug, wordiness and self-reflexive critique.
Ultimately, this is the most problematic aspect of Dahl’s work. Although quick to diagnose social ills, it even more quickly retreats into musings on how ineffectual comics are and how even the comic you are reading is thoroughly flawed. Dahl traps readers between his incredible powers of persuasion and his equally well-trained powers of self-deprecation. The entire experience leaves you saying, “Oh yes I do hate that about America…Oh, I hate myself for thinking that.” Continually he forces you to vacillate between condemning culture and condemning your viewpoint.
All in all, “Dahl House” is a nicely put together collection of a talented artist’s work over the past few years. However, an inner conflict of Hamletic proportions undercuts the enterprise. Caught in the crossfire of Dahl’s own mind is a fascinating experience but a frustrating one as well.