Heralding itself as the first chapter in a multi-part saga, Steve Lafler’s slender new book 1956 : Sweet Sweet Little Ramona — self-published under the cartoonist’s own venerable Cat-Head Comics imprint — is, at first glance, the retail world’s answer to Mad Men (and I say that fairly confidently in spite of being someone who’s never seen probably more than a few minutes of Mad Men — and in passing, at that), but if there’s one thing Lafler’s proven over his long career, it’s that he knows how to subvert expectations even while working within fairly well-defined genre confines. Sure, this being but an opening salvo and all it’s impossible to say whether the same will prove to be true here in the long run, but in the early going? All signs sure seem to point in that direction.
So, yeah, it’s 1956, and a gaggle of department store buyers are on the prowl in New York City, specifically The Village, engaging in a night of at least attempted debauchery at the jazz clubs before hitting the garment district in the morning. Lafler knows his old-school retail, introducing us to a cast of characters that fit that world to the proverbial “T,” and their various workplace intrigues and time-honored methods of blowing off steam on the company’s dime are fun to read about, especially charged as they are with authentic period lingo and wise-cracking dialogue. But, you guessed it, there’s something more going on here —
Enter Ramon in his male presentation, followed in due course by Ramona in her female one. A Texas transplant desperately trying to avoid a return home by plying their trade in the world’s oldest profession, precisely how they fit into the larger story remains to be seen — although it’s assumed they’ll find themselves at the heart of it one way or another. I mean, you don’t get the book named after you for nothing. Lafler’s created an instantly-memorable character here, that’s for sure: not a down-and-out victim of circumstance, but definitely at the mercy of it to a degree; not a hopeless addict, but someone who won’t say no to a line or a bump; not a streetwalker, but someone who isn’t keeping their occupation (or even both sides of their identity) a secret — and, most crucially, not a stereotype, but a well-rounded, complex, intelligent-but-fallible human being. You’ll want to know more about them, trust me.
Other various subplots hew a bit closer to standard 1950s deconstruction, such as the decision the boss-man needs to make about whether or not to put a woman in charge of one of his product lines, but even then Lafler’s sheer storytelling skills are enough to make it all interesting. He’s playing a long game here, and there are a lot of pieces on the board, but he moves them with a kind of precise fluidity that looks effortless enough on its face, but likely requires some pretty detailed advance plotting. He almost certainly knows where he’s going with all of this, but we don’t — and that’s the key to reeling us in once we’re on the line.
The really remarkable thing, though, is that despite some of this book’s admittedly lurid subject matter (our boys from the buying office do not behave themselves), there’s an elegance to it all, even a romanticism. A lot of that is down to Lafler’s admittedly gorgeous and smooth line, his attention to detail seldom wavering — but part of it’s also down to the narrative tone he adopts, most evident in the layer of mystery he shrouds his lead character with and the rich atmosphere he positively soaks the jazz world in. Yeah, the ’50s sucked for anyone other than straight, white, cisgender, hetero guys, but even still — this book sure makes them seem like they’d be an interesting destination to stop off at for a night in your time machine.
Fortunately, this is just our first visit back there, and we couldn’t ask for a better guide. I’m ready for more, Lafler, right after I finish this dry martini — ah, what the hell, I’ll bring it with.
1956 : Sweet Sweet Little Ramona is available for $9.95 from J. T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/collections/comic-books/products/1956-book-one-sweet-sweet-little-ramona
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