In Demon Tears creator Bernie McGovern provides a direct path into a personal and often hard to describe place, the mindset of alcohol addiction and the attempts at recovery. While this is a trope that is familiar in the media with images of drunken step-fathers or out-of-control celebrity party girls, the true first person perspective that McGovern provides paints a portrait that is more complex and often more painful.
Rendered in black and white, the round and simple line drawings of the common world are in a constant struggle with the often dense and chaotic depictions of the world of the self during periods of alcohol induced destruction. In the addicted world there are brains on fire, huge crustacean like creatures, demonic shadowy figures and people in cartoonish masks that seem to hide their true self. There are hints at a small bit of narrative structure. In the center of this land there is a walled in settlement called Demon’s Head that needs to be explored. Here it is hard to keep things clear, time seems elastic and the world is constantly spinning as the occupants try to bend Bernie’s will toward their goal, for both good and bad. This creates a challenging place for the reader. While all of these things might actually be the reality of the space of addiction, sometimes it becomes too obtuse and confusing, creating more of a wall around the area of addiction instead of an understandable path to walk with Bernie during this time. Readers are dropped into this space quickly, with only a few brief pages to who Bernie is, which doesn’t allow for much of a period to bond with Bernie or invest too deeply in his plight.
The common world does not surface too often, and when it does, it is frequently full of self reflection acting as a bridge to return to the addicted world. In the few sparse moments of Bernie interacting with other people, McGovern is very frank. A dinner with his grandmother who is terminally ill is heartbreaking, and a party with friends which should have been fun is uncomfortable and saddening. In these sections McGovern shows his skill at depicting the quiet awkwardness of reality, selecting just the right moments of dialog and interaction. This world is still and each panel represents the enormity of time when nothing is correct.
Towards the end of the book which has already been filled with the harsh addicted irreality, and seemingly brought on by the sadness of seeing his dying grandmother, Bernie goes on a vast bender that seems to last for days. During this period, Bernie comes in and out of the common world to only be dragged back to the visual state of the addicted world where there is an epic battle for his “self”, a battle that Bernie seems to win. However, the book feels like it is reaches its climax and then just stops when Bernie seems to have his moment of clarity. Though the ending is the only moment of happiness in the entire book, somehow this too is a little awkward because the book is over but the arc of the story does not feel complete even though the happy ending has been provided. Some of this suddenness may be eased for those who who then subscribe to his ongoing mini-comic, Demon Dust, which covers his life in recovery, but for those reading Demon Tears as a standalone entity, it is a bit confusing and unsatisfying.
This however is the complexity at looking at a work that is so intensely autobiographical; as an artist it is often difficult to separate the truth from its presentation and it is also equally hard for a reader to do the same. Perhaps there can be no separation, and then constructs for understanding a work such as this are blurred too. In Demon Tears McGovern creates a book that is smart and at points engaging, but perhaps a work that does not take an absolutely understandable form from which the reader can approach it. If it is mainly a diary, then the work is really just for McGovern and the reader is just an onlooker and narrative critique is moot. If it is an autobiography to be understood as a narrative, then readers may need to understand more about who Bernie is to care more about who he will become. Currently living somewhere between both of those approaches, it is an interesting, if not totally realized beginning, to what I hope has become a more stable life for McGovern and successful series of publications.