While the graphic novel may be out of my usual jurisdiction of artform, Alan Passman’s
When the Pain Starts… is a compelling hybrid of format — a conceptual book of poetry disguised as a multi-artist comic. Here, Passman has turned himself inside-out; combining life, death, love, and precarious coming-of-age moments sprinkled with pop-culture ephemera, making an absolute heart on sleeve immersive reading experience with the paneled visuals.
In the preface, he outlines the origins, placing the rest of the book in perspective. After a life-altering kidney transplant, Passman realized his output to date left him unsatisfied — even his style he felt was stuck in a Bukowskian cul-de-sac. An insidious stagnation had been holding him back until he was faced with the life-or-death transplant. This blessing in disguise gave him a sense of urgency to put his all into WtPS, and there’s plenty inside for the reader to submerge themselves in the transformation.
The title story, at 33 When the Pain Starts, takes us to the beginnings of his kidney failure, and ends with a panel of Alan pointing right at us, breaking the fourth wall like a poetic PSA. In This Should Be Read in The Voice of Vincent Price, Passman’s penchant for classic horror blurs into real life archetypes. Soy Creamer is a nightmare of our daily mediocrities, how a simple item on a grocery list can turn into the hinge of our unraveling. My Own Dorian Gray is Passman’s real close-up, a long look in the mirror, a squint into his family’s lineage. Selena Gomez drops the veil of celebrity, splashing in the fountain of youth as he ponders reproduction. The Ballad of Charlie and Sam is a fascinating fly-on-the-wall glimpse into infidelity, while One’s Lone Song is Another’s Break-Up Jam shows a more innocent encounter will be no less awkward (set to the soundtrack of Smashing Pumpkins, if that’s your jam). The book concludes with more classic horror In My Time of Need, Dracula Comes to Me, where Passman shows the strange yet convenient places we find our sympathetic allies — in the fertile ground of our associative imaginations, which really isn’t so strange after all.
Gabriel Hart lives in Morongo Valley in California’s High Desert. He’s the author of Palm Springs noir novelette A Return To Spring (2020, Mannison Press), the dispo-pocalyptic twin-novel Virgins In Reverse / The Intrusion (2019, Traveling Shoes Press), and his debut poetry collection Unsongs Vol. 1 (2021, Close To the Bone, U.K.). Other works can be found at ExPat Press, Shotgun Honey, Bristol Noir, Crime Poetry Weekly, and Punk Noir. He’s a monthly columnist for Lit Reactor and a regular contributor to Los Angeles Review of Books and EconoClash Review.