Over the last two decades the artist, poet and actor Tony Fitzpatrick has crafted several fascinating comics and almost-comics out of the drawings and writings that go into his well-attended gallery shows. These books include the primer Max and Gaby's Alphabet, the incredibly rare and lovely Hard Angels, and a recent ode to the world his father inhabited called Bum Town. The best and most accessible to general readers is 1998's DIRTY BOULEVARD, a portion of which was serialized in that year's issue of the comics anthology Blab!. Stunning to look at and heartbreaking to read, Fitzpatrick's book is one of the great forgotten comics of the 1990s.
In DIRTY BOULEVARD, Fitzpatrick dissects a Chicago neighborhood through text and art portraits of its marginal denizens: an urban Spoon River Anthology that brings to mind John Fante scripting for Joe Coleman. The art, a combination of American outsider and Haitian influences, merges seamlessly with the measured, somber writing to exude a potent brick and mortar mysticism, the kind of you-have-it-or-you-don't quality that ruins less talented creators in it for the romance of the pose. Fitzpatrick has that rare mix of barely submerged rage and mile-wide empathy that yields powerful, on-page performances on a better than average basis, an authenticity that tears you away from how the work reflects on the artist and back onto the page.
Through its muted color and plays on perspective, DIRTY BOULEVARD achieves both intimacy and isolation, a feeling of knowing a person's deep secrets before you learn their last name. It can be funny and sad in the same line of prose, repulsive yet appealing in its depiction of a single face. Fitzpatrick binds all of these incongruities together and asks the reader to consider the larger picture they represent, if only by suggestion, like a half-mad carnival barker showing you pieces of meat wrapped together in a burlap cloak and demanding you give it a proper "Hello." Recurring visual motifs and background imagery imply that many of the demons here are shared, and that the neighborhood will stagger forward no matter who might be in the foreground at any one time, who else might be fading away. DIRTY BOULEVARD is a sterling example of comics' underused effectiveness at telling a story through a series of impressions organized by place rather than time. It is difficult, beautiful work.
Tom Spurgeon is a writer living in Silver City, New Mexico. He can be found online at The Comics Reporter.