Say what you will about political lightning rod Ted Rall: the man’s not afraid of coming off like a dick. In The Year of Loving Dangerously (NBM), abetted by Spanish artist Pablo G. Callejo (Bluesman), the provocateur political cartoonist takes us back to 1984, the year a young Rall got his ass evicted and expelled from Columbia. To stave off homelessness, the young Rall sponged off a series of young New York women while pretending to be an up-and-coming yuppie. Portrait of the Artist as a Manipulative Stud Boy.
Rall isn’t the first autobiographical comics writer to depict himself as an ass, of course — back in the nineties, Dennis P. Eichorn produced a series of entertaining walks on the low-life side for Fantagraphics entitled Real Stuff — though, perhaps he’s the most susceptible to cheap shots, given his propensity for pissing off his ideological opponents. For Rall to produce such a bleeding-warts-and-all graphic novel is either an act of bravery or the reflection of a severe case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Maybe both.
Rall’s narrative can get muddy in its chronology — it starts out with our hero showering in the morning after one of his trysts and later shows us how he lost both his dorm space and his place as a student at Columbia – but its themes remain constant. The ways that poverty “makes every act an economic transaction,” the way that self-prostitution undermines you capacity for pleasure. “It was impossible to assess whether I actually liked her,” Ralls says, as he reflects on one such dalliance. “The experience had been queered by the inconvenient fact that I was desperate.”
In between his romps between the sheets, Rall offers up slices of life in Reagan Era America: the struggles to find an affordable place to live in NYC, a disastrous Massachusetts road trip, an anti-Reagan protest on the Washington Mall that concludes with our man with a threesome, work as a trader trainee for Bear Stearns, a Dead Kennedys concert, the workings behind a subway token scam plus the inevitable naked geezer on the subway. Callejo’s painted art, a far cry from the proto-punk stylings Rall uses on his political cartoons, captures the milieu wonderfully and even manages to convey the varying degrees of dismay Rall’s young self feels over the way his life is going.
He keeps the political proselytizing to a minimum. Though it wouldn’t be true to his character to avoid anti-Reaganomics rants altogether, Rall doesn’t shy from taking his own level of responsibility: “None of them could have fucked me up if I hadn’t let them,” he says early of his misspent youth — and with that admission, I found myself liking the dickish Rall more than I initially expected to. Year of Loving Dangerously is a strong addition to the growing field of graphic memoirs.