The Book That Ruined My Life
I recently read an online essay about "the book that will change your life!" (and if I can ever find the URL in my list of bookmarks, I'll link it up here). The essayist's key point was that most books aren't going to change your life, and especially not the ones that are marketed that way. In my case, though, there actually is a book that changed my life forever. For the worse.
Let me set the stage. It's early 2002 and The Japanese Beetle! is floundering. I've been at it now for four years with nothing to show for it except a closet full of unsold "Button Men" and a couple thousand readers who never, ever write no matter how much I beg. I'd spent the better part of several months building to a big storyline featuring the United States of America (or at least a rogue government agency) as the primary villain, but 9/11 led me to change those plans. It takes me forever to come up with a replacement storyline, as I've been short of ideas since my brother stopped co-writing the strip (mostly by not returning my calls). On top of that you can add my usual anxieties about the quality of my art and the fact that I spend six hours a day chained to the drawing table and zero hours a day going out and meeting girls.
Enter Balzac's Illusions Perdus. Or rather, Lost Illusions since I'm not fluent enough to read Balzac in the original French.
For those of you not familiar with Lost Illusions, let me give you a quick summary. It's about Lucien de Rubempré (ne Chardon) egocentric doofus who, in his pursuit of art and fame, betrays all his friends and principles and destroys the lives of everyone he meets. Eventually he comes to his senses and tries to set things right, only to discover that his friends and family have already taken care of things without his assistance, comes to the realization that his life is utterly without meaning and kills himself. (Okay, he spends a few years as an apprentice grifter, but that's another story entirely.)
In short, it's about the worst novel for an artist having a crisis of conscience to read. I instantly began empathizing with Lucien and started to feel that I'd been frittering away my life on artistic folly. Within months the strip ground to a halt, and though I made a brief stab at resurrecting it the following year the spark was gone. And the spectre of that failure has preemptively squashed a good chunk of my artistic efforts since.
Which I suppose is an awfully long way to say that I'm starting a new webcomic today called Different Package. Working on it has been supremely awkward — there's so much rust to shake off that I'm not sure there's any metal left beneath it. But I hope to have fresh content up every other day, alternating with blog posts here. Hopefully this will help me pull out of the five year slump caused by that bastard Balzac.
All joking aside, Lost Illusions is still of my favorite books. It's got wonderfully fleshed-out characters, a gripping plot full of moral dilemmas, and some fantastic writing which shines through even in translation. I actually re-read it a few years ago, appropriately enough on a trip that took to Paris and Angoulême, the book's two primary settings. I highly recommend it, or anything else written by Balzac for that matter.