Steve Lafler spent twelve years (1992-2004) writing Bughouse, during which he explores so much of the characters and the world, that it can be tough to encapsulate. The book follows the virtuosic Jimmy Watts and the other members of his band, Bughouse, as they rise through Bugtown’s (read: NYC) music scene during the jazz and ragtime explosions. Now, all three of the Bughouse stories – Bughouse, Baja, and Scallywags – are collected in this new omnibus from CO2 comics. Although he initially wanted to deal with the intertwinement of drug culture and the music scene, he also wants the book to be fun, and so the stories are light and breezy.
The way that Lafler deals with drug abuse is actually pretty unique in its own right. Everyone is almost laughably blunt about drugs in the book. Some sample lines of dialogue…
“By the way, you should know you’re on your way to becoming an addict. Rather inconvenient, but there you are.”
“I wonder… am I falling in love with Julie, or do I just like doing bug juice with her? Ha! Ha! Ha! Both, of course!” (walking into a ‘bug juice’ dealer’s house) “Bug Juice! Bug Juice!”
When played for comedic/absurdist effect, lines of dialogue like this can be uneven; at times excruciatingly funny, but at other times just excruciating. However, there’s an extra level of depth to this blunt approach. One of my favorite scenes in the whole book is a conversation between a recently-clean Jimmy and another, still hooked bandmate. In it, the two hammer out a deal to make sure Slim can obtain enough bug juice before going out on tour to avoid getting sick from withdrawal. The pragmatism of the dialogue is touching and heart-wrenching, achieving an angle on drug-related stories that isn’t explored terribly often.
There has been so much talk about how Bughouse focuses on music and drug culture, it seems people have missed the magical realism that Lafler weaves into his stories. Early on in the book, this technique is pretty closely related to ‘bug juice’ itself: an older Jimmy appears on stage next to the younger to play a sublime set one night explicitly because the youth is on ‘bug juice’. Later on however, as Lafler writes his characters away from drug use, the magic remains. A hired piano man named Dennis also has a double named Dennnis, who shows up from time to time, even interacting with other characters in NSFW fashion. A dead band member goes through his own post-mortem story, eventually managing to talk with Jimmy’s wife, Julie, telling her that being dead is actually pretty cool.
It’s these paranormal scenes that allow Steve Lafler to really let loose with his artwork. In general, his lines are bold and detailed, and his shading complements the line work quite well. Furthermore, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone concentrate so much on hands; perhaps it’s because the hands are so essential to musicians, but each finger is given knuckles, and has its own independent movement. But, as impressive as his artwork can be in general, he uses the shows and strange happenings to let loose in symbolic artwork that takes over the page and melds the (ahem) magical with the real. If there is an argument that magical realism is perhaps best-suited for comic books, Steve Lafler could be cited as evidence.
The result of all this is an enjoyable, sometimes unpredictable and goofy read, and one well-suited for a rainy afternoon at home. I’m not at all sure that’s what I was expecting from a book about aspiring musicians and drugs, but here I am.