Reprinted from the Austinist, a noble experiment in documenting a city and its social stratas that ended a couple years ago. I met lots of people who sweated and worked hard to make the website interesting, fun and provocative, and Benjamin Reed‘s 2007 review of my satirical comic book started a long friendship:
DECEMBER 17, 2007
The Accidental Gentrifist Reviews Tales of the Really White Vigilante
Editors’ Note: The opinions and ideas expressed in The Accidental Gentrifistare solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the outlook or beliefs of anyone else in the Ist network.
Yes, you’re in the right place. There is a review of Tales of the Really White Vigilante coming right up.
For seventeen Mondays in a row, I’ve written a column called The Accidental Gentrifist. Since the second such missive, I’ve had this suspicion that there’s a short list of very obvious things about the column that apparently require explication:
1. The Title. The Accidental Gentrifist. Why ‘Accidental’? Because if you’ve grown weary of paying rent, you want to buy a house in central Austin, and your income is anything approximating average, chances are better than good that you’ll end up with a fixer-upper on the East Side—not that this is an unfortunate situation. But if you improve your little lot, or do anything which might make your new neighborhood more conducive to development, you are, like it or not, a de facto element of gentrification. And I’ll be honest: it sounds worse than it feels.
2. The Title Image. In case you missed it, it’s a crying child. Yes, he’s clearly Caucasian. Yes, he is literally a ‘crybaby.’ But there’s more: He’s crying because he dropped his ice cream on the ground. Put another way, he had something good and then he lost it. Not because he deserved it, not because of a condo development, not because respectable universities actually offer degrees in marketing. Just because. There are many unchangeable and unavoidable forces of nature that may one day go pee-pee all over your personal parade. Gravity is only one of them.
Tales of the Really White Vigilante first splashed across the Austinist back in October, just before it hit the presses. Yours Truly sullied himself in a petty back-and-forth in the comments section, after innocuously noting that Schliefke’s cover has a concrete similarity to a series of works by Houston artist Dawolu Jabari Anderson, which it does. Both Anderson and Schiefke are detourning the comic book form to make cultural commentary, although in radically different ways. (Incidentally, TOTRWV‘s cover was painted by Ian Shults, after Captain America #1.)
TOTRWV is a good, brisk read, one that should probably be savored rather than torn through or left forsaken atop the toilet. Not because it’s a pristine homage to the form, but because it is an artistic actualization of the allegorical, a ground-eye view of what is so often lobbed about like so many epithets and meaningless, one-word memeplexes. The illustrations are black and white, decidedly non-Marvel, and have more or less survived a transfer from concept to sketchbook to panels. The Austin our hero inhabits is a curious tableau, and I felt both curious and satisfied to see a handful of my haunts through Schliefke’s eyes. And I don’t think it diminishes his work to note that the comic greatly benefits from contrived advertisements, furthering fleshing out the theme while hearkening back to the halcyon days of mail-order goods like Sea Monkeys and X-Ray Glasses, all designed by fellow artist Corey Goering, a nice reward for those who still read the fine print.
In modeling the cover after the most American hero punching out Adolf Hitler, there is the tacit but nonserious implication that whiteness is at the heart of this newish evil, a mass destruction in some way equitable to world war and genocide, yet exists in a project whose credit list reads Schliefke-Shults-Goering-
This multi-layered irony is addressed in the narrative, shortly after the introduction of the story’s sultry and unquestionably non-blonde heroine, ‘Dos Equis.’ In fact, the comic deals heavily in the Austin-ironical, which is in no short supply on the East Side, nor on Schliefke’s pages. Which is how I finally determined TOTRWV is an honest, genuine article: My chief criticism of the comic is true to my chief criticism of armchair anti-gentrification: a great deal of it is product-oriented. It’s a complex issue, and a great many seem to feel they’re not showing their feathers when they speak about gentrification in terms of consumerism. We miss a restaurant, a store, a coffee shop. A neighborhood’s culture is rarely defined by the bum urine on your Welcome mat. More likely, you hear it described in terms of the available ways to spend money or represent oneself with brands. In the Vigilante’s universe, a class divide is illustrated by who drinks PBR, and who drinks Fireman’s #4. (The protagonist’s only occasion to break out the Español is when he orders his tacos.)
(The comic also gives a healthy and self-aware treatment to my second-biggest complaint: the notion that it is the onus of white young men and women to speak on behalf of the disenfranchised masses, be they real or imagined. While these mouthpieces are certainly distinct from The Man, they don’t seem to be as different from the hipster scourge, at least not as much as they’d like to imagine. Not being rich doesn’t mean it’s your privilege to speak for the poor, at least not as long as you’re lumping your interests in with theirs. The notion that you can lecture me about a group to which you don’t actually belong basically negates their individuality and humanity.)
Again, irony. Not that race is the only thing meta about TOTRWV. Although ‘gentrification’ is a 40+ year-old notion given to us from London, nowadays the idea follows a model that more or less alludes to the East Village, or some neighborhoods in San Francisco. This version offers that artists and gays (not to mention the dreaded gay artists) are the precipitants of gentrification, especially the artists—because they live wherever one can when one has to pay for rent, food and light from whatever tips one can scratch together at the kind of job that affords you time enough to paint, sculpt, write manifestos, and learn the chord progression of ‘Baby, I’m-A Want You.’ Then people who want to buy ‘cool’ (and people who make a living selling it) move in, change the drapes, and basically make the rents skyrocket, forcing the original artists to sulk off into the sunset. Schliefke recognizes this model of gentrification and his own (Accidental) complicity in the destruction of the very same he loves and would protect ideologically, and through TOTRWV, artistically.
And this is an inextricably ‘art’ affair. In various ways Schliefke is tied to Bolm Studios, E.A.S.T., and Blue Genie. Credited with the design of ‘The Gentrification Bear’ is local heavy Rory Skagen, of Genie fame (and the ‘Welcome to Austin’ mural). Skagen’s influence on Schliefke seems hazy in this project, but his works are very much admired by me, primarily for his deft use of color and an occasional resemblance to another huge favorite,Neo Rauch.
In the final analysis, TOTRWV is a quintessential example of itself. Meaning, it doesn’t capture the now fleeting essence of an authentic East Austin, but instead documents a transitional period, one that will most likely not be forgotten, but will nonetheless be less spectacular and more brief than others of both future and past. Although it is an interesting read and a good buy, Michael Schliefke will be better known for his framed art, which isn’t a bad way to be. His paintings are both good and dense with straightforward social commentary, which is uncommon in younger artists. Several of his pieces evoke Max Beckmann, not the least of which is’The Nation Builders.’
[Tales of the Really White Vigilante is $15, available from Schliefkevision.com, and would make a great Christmas gift for the gentrifist in your life.]