K. Thor Jensen’s Red Eye, Black Eye – Review
K. Thor Jensen’s Red Eye, Black Eye (Alternative Comics) is the work of a young cartoonist. That is literally true, as the book was published in 2007 after being serialized online, but the tone and content is very much of a man in his mid-20s trying to figure out his life. As such, a lot of the content is juvenile and silly. It being his first major, sustained work, the art is frequently rough-looking. That said, this memoir about a round-trip series of bus rides across the United States and back has its pleasures, mostly because Jensen can really spin a yarn. Even if the stories aren’t about him.
Jensen sets this story up with a memorable sequence at the beginning, revealing that he lost his job, his girlfriend and his apartment in short order. Oh, and his grandmother died. Then 9/11 happened as he was in New York. That prompted him to get a two-month pass from Greyhound and travel around the country, reaching out to people on the internet for places to stay. He was a self-styled “hobo” who was hoping that travel would magically give him some kind of epiphany. What it mostly did was make him act kind of like an ass, looking to pick fights in bars and insult people. While he was young and didn’t have a lot of immediate options, he was also young and had his life ahead of him, giving him privilege that he couldn’t comprehend at the time. Jensen as a character in this book ranged from boorish to boring, and frankly, it was the latter quality that made it much worse as a reader. It’s one thing to be an unlikable narrator, but it’s another to be unlikable and unremarkable.
Fortunately for the reader, Jensen asked everyone he met for a story, and they gave him one. As a cartoonist, Jensen had a knack for translating and distilling that story into comics form, in a way that was entertaining from a visual aspect as well as a narrative one. Jensen related stories of people engaging in weird sex and fetishes, having a knife pulled on them, fearing for their lives at a concert, realizing that a co-worker had stuffed her own aborted fetus into a pendant, working a terrible job as a party-line operator, discovering a local Bigfoot really being a homeless man, and a variety of chilling ghost stories. There are smaller pleasures as well, like when Jensen captured a random comment or two on the bus that are funny or sad or absurd. Again, Jensen’s own tales of carousing in the book felt like he was trying too hard to be a character in his own story.
There were some genuinely interesting sequences, like going to a structure to hear a woman tell ghost stories, or going to Alabama and doing absurd, randomly destructive things there. They were interesting because of the way that Jensen captured those moments. For the most part, the reader is simply swept along with the mundane and kept entertained by Jensen recounting story after story. The pace is lively and crisp, and despite the crude quality of Jensen’s drawings, it’s obvious that he was a top-notch storyteller and knew how to bring out a wide variety of emotions in the people he drew. The last page of the book is the most telling with regard to what it all meant: it’s a narrative panel like he used throughout the book for all of the people he talked to, only it says “Thor’s Story”. The trip was an opportunity and an excuse to tell stories–nothing more, and nothing less. In so doing, this book acted as a sort of comics PhD project. It was his chance to get better in public, and he did.