Something Old, Something New — And Something Borrowed, But That’s Okay : “Chad In Amsterdam”

sOne of the best things about this “critic gig” of mine is the unexpected pleasures that await you in your mailbox on a near-daily basis —on the other hand, one of the worst things about it is the artistic detritus that also awaits you in your mailbox on a near-daily basis. I don’t fault anyone for being industrious enough to send me their wares, that’s for sure — there’s a lot of material out there for the comics reader to spend his, her, or their hard-earned money on, after all, and while I like to think of our small-press/self-publishing scene as a community, let’s not kid ourselves : when it comes to getting your comics into the hands of consumers, it’s a competition, and any little bit of publicity you can get helps. Creators that understand the value of critical outreach have a leg up in that regard.

One guy who appears to have been doing a lot of it lately is writer/occasional artist Chad Bilyeu, an African American ex-pat currently living in The Netherlands whose self-published autobio series Chad In Amsterdam has actually been running since 2018, but seems to be garnering a lot of recognition from quarters both expected and less so since the recent publication of its fifth issue. I admit to being late to this particular party myself, but Bilyeu recently rectified that situation for me by sending me all five issues to date, and I gotta say : we throw around Harvey Pekar comparisons a lot when referencing certain creators like Jonathan Baylis in the here and now and Dennis Eichhorn in years gone by, but Bilyeu might come the closest of anyone to really channeling the “Pekar ethos” given that his comics not only deal with the day to day realities of his own life, but also tackle subjects pertaining to local social, political, cultural, and even economic history. Here’s the perhaps-surprising thing, though : despite hewing closing to Pekar than anyone else in the “autobio game,” these comics are nevertheless utterly unique.

As a literal “stranger in a strange land,” Bilyeu brings a singular perspective to his surroundings and indeed his life that is precisely the opposite of Pekar’s “Cleveland right down to his bones” insider knowledge, and this gives his stories a kind of eager enthusiasm that borders on the positively infectious. Even more remarkable, though, is that Bilyeu’s “newness” to his adopted “home,” and the wide-eyed wonder with which he immerses himself in its culture and customs, in no way makes him come across as naive — rather, he approaches Amsterdam with the ferocity of a student hungry to learn all they can about a particular subject. And why not? After all, he’s gotta scratch out a living in Amsterdam, and the more knowledge he can absorb about the place, the better. If you’ve ever read a travel guidebook in preparation for a trip to parts far and wide and found upon arrival that you know more about the city, state, or country in question than many of the locals you encounter, then you’ll have some inkling of what Bilyeu’s life is like every day.

Which isn’t to say that he’s not frequently reminded that he’s, if you’ll forgive the cliche, a fish out of water, and that he doesn’t have plenty still to learn. A visit to Amsterdam’s infamous “Red Light District” turns out to be nothing like he expected for reasons no reader will expect themselves, the ins, outs, and frankly “what the fucks” of bicycle transportation in the city remain a constant source of head-scratching, and while students doing double duty as cafe baristas will surely surprise no one, having them do triple duty as immigration officers almost certainly will. And here you though mayonnaise on french fries sounded out of the ordinary.

Plenty of the stories in these comics tackle deeper and weightier themes, though, as well, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Bilyeu’s confidence as an author is growing in proportion with the metaphorical “heft” of the subjects he’s writing about, culminating in issue five’s exploration/examination of the bizarre blackface character of “Black Pete” that’s part of Dutch Yuletide pageantry. As one can imagine, being a black person from a county with its own shameful history of racism gives Bilyeu a vantage point on this sorry national tradition that no one else around him has, and accentuates the series’ continuous undercurrent of “otherness” in ways that narratives focused on the history of the local herring industry or talking to yourself as you walk around town don’t — not that such “lighter” fare isn’t plenty interesting, sometimes even clever, in its own right, but it’s when Bilyeu well and truly contextualizes things through a “personal is political and vice-versa” lens that readers most sharply realize that this isn’t just an “old wine in new bottles” type of comic; that there’s much more to this project than simply transposing American Splendor or So Buttons over to Holland. Bilyeu can tell stories no one else can, and that’s all well and good, but what’s even better is that he’s learning to share his own truth with the immediacy, power, and authenticity of his own voice.

Which isn’t to diminish the contributions of his artistic collaborators in any way — it’s Bilyeu’s life, sure, but their interpretations of it give each story a unique flavor that more often than not is a pitch-perfect tonal and stylistic match for the material that they’re drawing. And while many of the artists who have appeared in these pages are familiar (and decidedly welcome) faces, such as Bernie Mireault, personal favorite Rachelle Meyer, and even frequent Pekar cohort Gary Dumm, the talents of Eryc Why, Drol, Juliette de Wit, Merel Barends, and Denis Galocha, to name just a handful, are more than likely going to be ones that are being enjoyed and experienced by most readers (at least most North American) readers for the first time — which rather keeps the “old and new” theme that we began with going, I guess, and makes this as good a point as any to wrap this up. Suffice to say, you pass on this series at your peril, even — maybe especially — if you think you’ve already seen all that the autobio genre has to offer.

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Chad In Amsterdam #s 1-5 are available at Chad Bilyeu’s website, but for the ease of my predominantly-North American readership, I’m going to direct you to J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro, where they’re all in stock and sell for $7.00 each : https://birdcagebottombooks.com/

Review wrist check – Zodiac “Super Sea Wolf 53 Compression,” in the “Blackout Edition,” on bracelet.