UNITED STATES—Comic strips were a window onto the world for Gilbert. They provided all his major news and gave him the veneer of being a well-informed person, aware of the latest brouhaha, literate in pop culture because artists like Sean Hillenbrand loaded their strips with such stuff as well as steadily mined a rich vein of politically incorrectness and the yukky existential truth of being human.
Comic strips were a window onto the life of the artist, too. Gilbert had the proof in an email he’d sent to the cartoonist–after the better part of six months were devoted to strips capturing the cute and not-so-cute antics of dogs, he concluded that Sean had been urban gentleman like himself who had been coerced into getting a dog, and it had been a lucrative venture for the production of those kinds of Thurber-like cartoons, but Sean Hillenbrand’s barely masked an angst and pent-up rage against our canine brothers and sisters.
Gilbert felt that the letter hit the mark; within days of sending it, Gilbert noticed when Sean again interspersed purely human topics. But after putting all the effort into writing that email, he felt like he wasn’t rewarded. And Sean went off into a debauched series of strips extolling how the meaning of life could be found in beer, there was a pretty funny one about carbon monoxide poisoning. That tickled Gilbert’s own existential funnybone.
He was genuinely worried, Gilbert was. He thought about writing a new email to Sean, sure to be ignored. But warning about the dangers of the darkness and the need for laughter in the world, which would be a shame to cut off at it’s source. He drafted something, but it looked too stupid to send.
He was particularly disturbed by the last three-panel, where the two characters, the rat and the clown, exchange, “This has everything for a perfect cartoon… Except… a punchline.” And then the rat punches the clown in the nose.
A book signing came, for a book of strips by Sean. There were a couple dozen people, around noontime. The big surprise when Gilbert got to the head of the line: Sean was a woman.
“I sent the email about the dogs,” he said, hands thrust in his pockets. “You probably wouldn’t remember it.”
“But how did you know?” she replied, squinting behind her glasses, that matched her blue hair.
“I must be psychic,” Gilbert said. “I was thinking of sending you another email, but since I didn’t hear after the first… Are you alright? I am honestly worried. Your comics make me laugh harder all the time because you think like nobody else, but sometimes I think you’re going way down into the dark side,” said Gilbert, his skin turning hot and red. His mouth kept speaking, it was something beyond his control.
“It started with the dog, after my divorce and then I left to move to Vermont, so I wouldn’t feel alone, but Vermont is so dam alone. There’s still only one city,” she said.
“That’s right, said Gilbert. “Los Angeles.”
“No, New York.”
“New York is a suburb of Los Angeles. All the people who can’t hack it here refuge in New York.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“How well do you know this city?”
“To tell you the truth this is the first time I’ve been here. Had to come for the book tour.”
“I dare you to stay here for a month,” said Gilbert. “This is Louvre of anxieties and panic attacks.”
“Come here for a month? You need to stay in Vermont. That’s the place for you. I have a guest house in back.”
So Gilbert and Sean switched houses for a month, but after two weeks they couldn’t wait to swap back places. “I’ve seen so much,” said Sean. “I’ve got material enough to keep going for another two years, and I think I’m going to come out here more often.” And Gilbert had seen something else. It was comical, but Los Angeles would never feel quite like home again after two weeks in Vermont, but it was too peaceful, he didn’t trust it.
Graydon Miller is the Wizard of Fiction.