Friday, February 3, 2012
Pipe Dope by Jon D Witmer, The Greatest Webcomic of 2011!
I am always looking for stories that move me to tears, even though I'm bitter enough that it rarely happens. Still, there have been works across multiple mediums that were powerful, tragic, and heartwarming enough to trigger the waterworks. For me this is particularly true for comics, where I teared up at the ending to Preacher, the World's Most Wanted arc of Matt Fraction's Invincible Iron Man run with Tony Stark's Algernon-style degeneration, the heartwarming final issue of Planetary, and now, Pipe Dope.
A recently concluded blog-comic by Jon D. Witmer, Pipe Dope is a formally innovative and emotionally profound memoir about the author's father. The comic's conclusion, like all biographies, is forgone, as David Witmer tragically died from lung cancer when his son was still a teenager. What is not forgone is the way Jon Witmer memorializes his father, with a serial comic that takes full advantage of the medium to show us just what David meant to him.
The strip is formatted as a blog, with each entry featuring a Far Side-style single panel. Each entry encapsulates a key moment in David Witmer's life, and its impact on Jon. The content is as varied as the man himself; some strips show us David's own childhood, and the lengths he took to court Jon's mother. Others show Jon's childhood memories of David, the lessons David taught him from the practical (where the title comes from) to the bizarrely profound (the axiom, "never kiss a girl who smokes"). The little mannerisms and routines of David's life are captured, as well as the struggles (particularly the haunting images of David's chemotherapy, such as a head-first view of a CT Scan machine). Most interesting, however, is the AAF-- characters who best encapsulate the influence and importance of comics upon this particular narrative.
The AAF, or Animal Air Force, are the adventures of David's stuffed animals, which were passed down to and continued by Jon. Characters like Genroo the stuffed dog and Blue Peep the stuffed chick were sent on wacky imaginary escapades that portended the future of both Witmers, all the while bickering in broken English a la characters from Pogo. The AAF went on epic air and sea missions that inspired David's later career in the Navy, showing how play, fiction, and imagination helped a child formulate a great path as an adult. They later resurfaced in young Jon's life, their stories told from one Witmer to another, and even gave a surprisingly moving wake to the departed David. The actual AAF stuffed animals were on Jon's desk during the creation of the comic, as a reminder of the shared legacy between father and son.
Stuffed animal adventures may seem like a silly way to interconnect a narrative about a man dying of cancer, but the trappings are less important than what they symbolized for both men, and how they formed a permanent and inspiring legacy. Pipe Dope is a superbly written and drawn example of the form, and one of the most moving comics I've yet read. Do yourself a favor and read it Here.