In all my life, I have yet to hear of someone on their deathbed who says that they wish they would have put in longer hours at the factory or office, and I don’t think it’s too bold to state that the very concept of trading away the better part of your life — time that you can never get back — in exchange for money that you can’t take with you is an inherently raw deal regardless of income or occupation. Granted, we’ve all gotta get by somehow, but the notion that we should sell our time and talent to somebody else in order to do that “getting by” represents a failure of human imagination and will on a frankly tragic scale.
The small preview of the Chick tract-shaped mini that would become Max Huffman’s 2019 self-published opus, Big Drink — which he included within his earlier Funky Dianetics — sufficiently intrigued me not only because it appeared to be another fine example of his always-surprisingly-varied cartooning (incorporating, in this case, elements of cubism, psychedelia, expressionism, kineticism, and futurism in a remarkably fluid fashion that evokes a kind of transitory state of perception, if not actual being) utilized in service of a narrative that emphasized the unbearable agony of workplace tedium, but also because he seemed to be concerned with exploring that tedium on an existential level. We’ve all heard that long-term unemployment is a precursor of lethargy, depression, and even suicide, but seriously — how many academic studies are ever done in regard to quantifying and analyzing the lethargy, depression, and even suicide brought on by long-term employment?
Certainly, Huffman’s protagonist in this story, Gloria, has what most of us would (accurately) consider to be a “shit job” at the titular Big Drink bowling alley, and Huffman shows her performing the most soul-crushing acts of drudgery ranging from renting out and spray-cleaning shoes to mopping up lanes and gutters to serving beverages — and her nonplussed reaction to the state of her existence is conveyed as a kind of near-asymptomatic depression best categorized as resignation. A living death, if you will. She subsists on super-sized sodas which she often gives a little “kick” from her flask, sleeps in her car, and does the same old monotonous crap over and over (and over and over) again. How bad is it? So bad that she is open to considering the pitch made by a support group/cult (the line between the two often, let’s face it, being a very fine one) who claim they have found a kind of low-grade enlightenment by drilling holes in their head.
We’ve all heard of the mythical, mystical “third eye,” but making one yourself? That’s a new wrinkle. The process is called trepanation, and, yes, it’s a real thing, quack pseudo-therapists occasionally recommend as a way to “relieve the pressure in the brain” and alleviate depression. This is a fringe science so fringe that even Oprah Winfrey has never tried to sell it to the masses, but when life is work and that work literally offers nothing but more work? Well, who am I to judge how a person attempts to make such a paradigm bearable?
The interesting thing is, that for an artist so committed to doing something different visually on every page, Huffman’s vaguely cynical tone remains as constant as his impeccable sense of timing — he has a history of exploring serious topics from something not so much less as other than an entirely serious point of view, gently satirizing conventional genre tropes with an undercurrent of respect for them usually present, but that undercurrent of humor is deadpan in the extreme, as well as consistently effective. This creates a kind of interesting tension between subject matter and method of delivery (both in terms of art and writing) that’s only successful when approached with extreme confidence, and, at this point in his career, it’s fair to say that Huffman has a very firm grip on both what he wants to do as well as how he wants to do it. Granted, this particular comic hinges on a plot twist, but it in no way feels like a crutch as these things often do — and he eschews the cheap and easy “escape hatch” of making that twist an “everything changes” sort of moment. He’s too committed to the integrity of both his story and his point of view to go that route, and the end result is a conclusion that feels absolutely honest in its “the more things change, the more they stay the same” air of non-resolution. Really, it couldn’t be any other way.
Which, of course, is the problem — not with Big Drink per se, but with life itself. Patterns and habits are hard to break, and, as Huffman posits here, not every “solution” to them necessarily offers anything better. But there is a kind of relief, if not anything close to actual liberation, that comes from considering radical new ways of thinking and living and even, perhaps, being that makes facing the terror of the same damn day over and over again at least a little bit more interesting. “Think I’ll pass, thanks” is a natural enough reaction to the unthinkable, but the one thing the unthinkable does have going in its favor is that once it has been considered, new vistas of perception open up. Drilling a hole in her head may not be the answer to Gloria’s problems — or anyone’s for that matter — but who knows? Maybe less harmful methods of shaking free from the shackles of (low-) “wage slavery” and its attendant miseries will present themselves to her in the future, and maybe the demolition of the walls of possibility that this far-out scenario engendered will cause her to give fair consideration to other alternatives to punching the time clock and going through the motions — the note Huffman ends on is ambiguous enough to be read as either a strong hint that she has found her escape, or that she’s left such notions behind. It’s a challenging way to end a strangely fun and challenging comic, and I highly encourage you to call out sick from work tomorrow and read it for yourself.