<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> Fun and Adventures in the Davidverse
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Fun and Adventures in the Davidverse

Not all comics have superheroes. Some have super persons who are able to reflect and comment on the goings on of everyday life. It takes an artist like David Hahn and his book Private Beach to remind us why we keep breathing and why we don't say all the things in our head.

by Robert Biswas-Diener


David Hahn has a secret identity; he just doesn't know it yet. To most of us, hidden pasts, forgotten memories, and secret histories are the stuff of fiction, but for Hahn they are tricks of the trade. At 35 Hahn, a dark-haired man with oversized sideburns, is a comic book artist and creator of the title Private Beach. Beach is a black and white quarterly from Slave Labor Graphics that falls squarely into that category known as "independent."

A slice-of-life strip following the daily activities of protagonist Trudy Honeyvan, Private Beach is quirky, edgy, and immediately likeable. Trudy works as a kind of literary phone booth, a place Hahn can duck into and change into costume. As his alter ego, Trudy's true super power is catharsis, the ability to channel Hahn's keen observations, witty quotations, and frequent frustrations. The relationship between Hahn and Trudy have paid off: This enjoyable blend of humor, suspense, and social commentary is what earned Private Beach a prestigious Eisner Award nomination for Best New Title of 2001.

It has been a long road to the Eisner nomination. Hahn's entry into the comic book world has been slow, hampered by the notion that comic art is the social underclass of the visual arts world. Although Hahn showed artistic promise as a child, his drawings were a source of head patting pride for his father, rather than the path to a viable career. Hahn's parents encouraged art as a hobby, an inexpensive past time to be pursued after a long day at the office, where the real work gets done. Hahn's father suggested he go into sales, or other profession that would provide such perks as a paycheck. As a child, Hahn bought a few eye-catching comics from the rotating racks at the grocery store, but he never thought about them as a potential source of employment.

Before dropping out of the University of New Mexico, where he was a film major, Hahn had learned story boarding and other elements of visual storytelling that would form the foundation of his success as a professional artist. It was around this time that Hahn was re-introduced to comics. A friend showed him Frank Miller's now classic Dark Knight collection. Miller's gritty portrayal of Batman helped establish comics as mature and sophisticated stories for reluctant fans, such as Hahn.

Excited by Miller's work Hahn began reading other titles, and quickly discovered Love and Rockets. In the mid-'80s Jaime Hernandez began pushing the limits of the comic format by introducing the world of spandex clad super heroes to a group of beer drinking punk rockers. In his black and white, magazine-sized Love and Rockets, Hernandez successfully traded X-ray vision for tattoos and invisible jets for skateboards. For Hahn, who was 22 at the time, it seemed as if Love and Rockets included stories secretly plagiarized from his own life. Hahn began to experiment with the comics format, often modeling his artwork after Hernandez' (A decade later, Hahn is a little embarrassed of how similar his early work is to Love and Rockets). When he felt he was ready, he began submitting his art for publication.

For years the larger comic book publishers ignored Hahn, and the smaller companies gave him a tepid reception. Hahn's break came when Antarctic Press, in an effort to reduce overhead, suggested they would hire him if he could both pencil and write a series. Accepting the mantle of writer and artist forced Hahn to re-invent himself as a multi-faceted creator, a move that was both professionally wise and, given his talent, inevitable. Hahn's earliest work for Antarctic included a bad girl comic called Serina, and a precursor to Private Beach with the clunky title Fun and Adventures in the Trudyverse. For years Hahn labored on these titles in relative obscurity. Until Private Beach.

The fan response to Private Beach has, overall, been enthusiastic. Some readers, such as those who post on the women-written webzine Sequential Tart, are impressed with Hahn's treatment of female characters. Others, such as a fan who asked Hahn to draw nude pictures of Trudy Honeyvan, are pathologically attracted to the series. Despite the frequent praise Private Beach, and Hahn himself, are not without detractors. An on-going source of tension concerns Hahn's treatment of comic shop owners in his stories. In a back-up story starring Hahn himself, he categorizes comic shop clerks as falling into one of three categories: dork shut-ins, hip snot-goths, or rude porn monger bikers. This was offensive enough that Hahn received letters from store owners threatening to drop his title.

But there is more to Private Beach than free speech controversies and shock value edginess. The four published issues of Private Beach follow Trudy Honeyvan as she engages in some of the most mundane daily activities -- commuting, taking a spare key to a friend locked out of her apartment, and people watching at the beach. It is fair to say that Private Beach's "common" quality is one of the things that make the series attractive. Hahn's attention to visual details, such as a bus full of children with Down's Syndrome on the highway, a post-it note on Trudy's phone reminding her to call her parents, and the Korean sign at the corner grocery, makes the series and characters easy to relate to. Who hasn't bumped into an old friend from high school, been treated rudely in a store, or made fun of people at the beach? Private Beach is so firmly grounded in reality that reading it feels like an act of voyeurism.

Private Beach is a political forum as well. Each issue promises a dialogue that every reader has either heard or had. A jaunt to the beach, in the premier issue, includes a quick discourse on the racial politics of "diversity." In issue three, the main characters debate whether female vanity is learned or innate while playing pool. Oftentimes the dialogue is wittier than in real life, as illustrated by Trudy's pithy observation that "Cleanliness isn't a trend, it's a cornerstone of civilization." At times -- like when Trudy's friend says "Her tattoos and piercings show that she safely complies with society's standards of non-conformism" -- it seems as if Hahn, as writer, is butting in on Trudy's party, yelling when he ought to whisper. But at other times the dialogue works -- the argument Trudy has with a coworker about whether or not frogs are amphibians stands out as a good example -- and provide one more point of contact for the reader to relate to the story.

Luckily, Private Beach is not overly realistic, merely aping the real world. Just before the story grinds into boredom -- a very real threat to a series like Beach -- Hahn surprises the reader with suspenseful or humorous narratives. A sappy episode where Trudy watches grade school children release a rehabilitated seal into the sea, for example, ends in a sardonic panel depicting an enormous Orcas whale breaching to eat the doomed seal. In another example Trudy absently plays with her magic eight ball -- a cultural icon familiar to all of us -- when the chilling words appear in its viewfinder, "We are watching you."

In fact, although it does not seem it, Hahn's series is essentially a super hero comic. It is the story of every day life, as it is touched by the extraordinary, much in the same way the X-Files is about everyday heroes made exceptional by their contact with the supernatural. On the very first page of the first issue of Private Beach, for example, there is a story about God: God has taken every human -- past, present, and future -- and lined them up shoulder to shoulder. Because they are packed so closely together none of them can move, and none can see the others. Except, of course, for the two people on each end of the line, one of who is a Japanese farmer who died in 1681. The other is, of course, Trudy Honeyvan. The story sounds conspicuously like an "origin," and Trudy appears as if she benefits from some type of divine favoritism, certainly a nod to super powers. When I suggested to Hahn that Private Beach blurs the line between slice of life comics like Love and Rockets and super hero comics like Batman he admitted that he had toyed with the idea of giving Trudy certain small "abilities," such as being able to balance anything -- a ball, a stapler, a jar of pickles -- on the tip of her finger.
If Private Beach seems fickle, wavering between sci-fi adventure, political commentary, and soap opera, it is because the story is not clearly defined. Hahn appears to be discovering Private Beach along with his readership. Like a multiple personality patient Private Beach takes turns at being hip, humorous, everyday, and extraordinary. It is a place where religious fanatics share space with flying saucers, diner waitresses, snobby coworkers, and mysterious vanishings into thin air. Although the frenetic shifting is generally well paced, keeping the reader interested, it also makes for a cluttered undercurrent to an otherwise clean book.

Perhaps the sudden jumps in tone are due to Hahn's own uncertainties about what is going to happen. Because the artwork is consistently good, it is safe to assume that the problem, to the extent there is one, lies in the fact that Hahn's visual talents have outpaced his gifts as a writer. In fact, Hahn thinks of himself more as an artists than writer, despite his obvious abilities as the latter. Here is another instance of a Hahn secret identity. Think about Hahn as a young Clark Kent discovering that he can fly for the first time. Flying, we can assume, is just so fun that it might take awhile to get around to appreciating X-ray vision, super strength, and other abilities. As a comic book creator, Hahn is still developing his ability to fly visually, and until he turns his attention to the X-ray vision required for great writing, he will not be a creative superman. The important thing is that Hahn, who describes himself as an avid people watcher, has the natural talent required for writing, and will eventually develop with the same intensity he has devoted to drawing.

Regardless of his charming naiveté Hahn seems poised for large-scale success. The title's recent nomination for an Eisner Award will help give Private Beach much deserved publicity. Hahn has also begun diversifying his artistic projects, recently penciling an issue for DC's Robin, the comic book equivalent of playing in the big leagues. Hopefully success, in the form of bigger money and working on titles with wider distribution, will not tempt Hahn away from Private Beach, the source of his super powers.

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