Review: Through The Habitrails: Life Before and After My Career in Cublicles

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Let’s face it : work sucks. In my experience, while not quite everyone hates their job per se (and about 99% of those who claim they don’t are actually lying), everyone certainly hates getting up in the morning and going to it, and why shouldn’t they? Every single worker on the planet is being played for a sucker, and on some deep, intrinsic level we all know it — after all, we’re trading away the time of our lives (and chances are we’re only going to get one of those) in exchange for little green pieces of paper that we’ll use, by and large, to keep on surviving so that we can keep on showing up for work. A rawer deal than this is, frankly, impossible to conceive of : work doesn’t ensure that we’ll ever “get ahead,” only that we’ll have to keep on working, and the folks who benefit from all of our labors are a fattened, greedy clique of corporate parasites who, by and large, don’t do any work themselves.

When you really sit down and think about this patently absurd set of circumstances, you come to realize that not only is it deeply tragic, it’s also deeply evil, and trust me when I say that’s not a term I use lightly. About the only thing remotely comparable to it is the wretchedly inhumane concept of schooling, which dictates that, at a given age, we have to hand our kids over to either a private or state-run institution in order for them to be “educated”with the “skills” it takes to achieve a “bright” future — as part of the fucking work force. As an old poster I used to have on the wall of my apartment back when I was a 20-something states : “If you liked school — you’ll love work.”

And since we’re on the subject of my early 20s, a time which I now look back on as being quite formative in terms of developing my overall misanthropic/nihilistic (in other words, highly accurate)  mindset, it was at about this time that I first discovered the writings of “anti-work” anarchist philosophers like Bob Black and, especially, John Zerzan, who were able to concisely, if depressingly, articulate the breadth and scope of the world-wide existential crisis that is labor and employment, and to point out in stark terms how, no, it absolutely doesn’t “have to be this way,” and, in fact, it’s only been “this way” for a relatively short amount of time as far as the whole span of human existence goes. And right around this same time, in one of those oddly perfect bits of serendipity that life sometimes throws our way, I first came across Jeff Nicholson‘s superbly bleak Through The Habitrails, then being serialized in the pages of Steve Bissette’s ground-breaking horror anthology series Taboo, and immediately fell in love.

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Nicholson “gets it” because he’s lived it, apparently “doing time” in the advertising/graphic arts business, and while I’d been marginally aware of his earlier work on his self-published B&W series Ultra Klutz, the simple fact is that book, while equal parts amusing and tragic in its own way, was too steeped in a kind of loving-yet-somehow-resentful nostalgia for the old Japanese TV show Ultraman (a theme the cartoonist would return to with a more mature eye and better results in the sadly-truncated Lost Laughter, which I sincerely hope he’ll either return to, collect, or both, at some point) for it to really “hit home” for me the way Habitrails did immediately — and has continued to do for nearly two decades since.

Told through a series of vignettes that interlink to form a philosophically-unassailable whole, Through The Habitrails tells the story of a blank-featured, nameless protagonist, rendered in sharply-detailed-yet-appropriately-anonymous style,  who toils away at a drawing board inside of a cubicle at a typically gargantuan and generic corporate office where his “creative juices” (and, by extension, his very life essences) are drained in order to feed the gerbils running around in the habitrails that criss-cross the concrete tomb he’s whiling away his life within, hence the title. Each successive chapter sees the depth of his predicament deepen, to the point where he pursues dead-end relationships, “escapes” to the countryside, and even pickles his head inside a jar of beer, all in order to try to either numb the pain of, our outright forget about, a life that he’s literally selling away. The problem is, of course, that the reach of his corporate/gerbil overlords is so vast that they’ve managed to hollow out all of existence itself, and each of these temporary “solutions” proves to be an insidious trap in its own right — kinda like how you’ll go on vacation for a week and spend the last half of it dreading going back to work the following Monday.

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Obviously, then, this is far from “feel-good” reading, but it sure as hell is essential, and while Nicholson — who would, believe it or not, go on to do an issue of the Sandman spin-off series The Dreaming for DC/Vertigo — actually ended Habitrails‘ initial run on an uncharacteristically optimistic note by having his stand-in meet the girl of his dreams and, apparently, live happily ever after, now that the entire series is coming back into print for the first time in far too long thanks to the superb Dover Books collection Through The Habitrails : Life Before And After My Career In The Cubicles, he’s availed himself of the opportunity to insert new material throughout and to modify his earlier conclusion in order to wrap things up on something of a different, and perhaps more accurate, note. Does our hero still ride off into the sunset with the love of his life? You’ll have to read it to find out.

And read it you most certainly should — okay, fair enough, Dover provided Graphic Policy with an advance digital copy for review purposes, but this is something I’ll be plunking down my hard-earned money for a physical copy of regardless, even though I’ve got Nicholson’s self-published original printing, simply because, in addition to the just-mentioned new material, there’s a new foreword by early-fan-turned-comics-superstar Matt Fraction and an absolutely exhaustive new introduction by Steve Bissette that’s worth the $14.95 price of admission alone. Those familiar with his work know that there’s no introduction like a Bissette introduction, and the agonizingly thorough blow-by-blow he provides of his struggles to bring Nicholson’s work to print in the pages of Taboo is a genuinely gripping read. Plus, his love for the material remains obviously undiminished even after all these years.

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And while I may not have the physical package in my hands — at least not yet — my best guess is that Dover’s going to do a bang-up job on the production given the high standard they’ve set with works like their collected editions of Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli’s The Puma Blues and Sam Glanzman’s A Sailor’s Story. In short, a lot of work is going to go into presenting this story about just how demoralizing and draining work itself is. All in all this book gets a solid 9 for both story and art and a very strong BUY recommendation from your humble reviewer. Now quit reading this and GET THE FUCK BACK TO WORK.

Story: Jeff Nicholson Art: Jeff Nicholson
Story: 9 Art: 9 Overall: 9 Recommendation: Buy

Dover Publications provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review