True Story Swear to God

I wonder if Tom Beland is sick of people calling his comic a chick flick? I won’t deny the fact that True Story Swear to God has quite a bit in common with a lot of movies that are usually pigeonholed as “chick flicks”, which means, excellent, well crafted dialogue, a logical plot, and a love story at its core, and little in the way of kicksplodin’ action. TSSTG is more than that though, so much more. It’s a clever work of pure genius.

For those of you who’ve been holed up in caves for the past few years (and we’re all comics fans here, so I’m certain there are more than a few of you), TSSTG is your classic boy-meets-girl fairy tale with a bit of a twist to it. This fairy tale really happened. Tom is a writer and cartoonist who meets Lily at a bus stop at Disneyworld. He’s there covering the opening of the new Animal Kingdom for his newspaper in Vallejo, CA, and she’s there covering the same event for her radio station in Puerto Rico. The two of them hit it off and begin a long distance relationship which changes dramatically after Tom has to deal with being thousands of miles out of the loop when Hurricane Georges hits Puerto Rico. After Lily goes through that without him, Tom decides to pack up his life and move to San Juan to be with her. Currently in the series, Tom is dealing with a radically different culture, a predominant language barrier, and having a significant other who is a famous radio and TV personality. I know this seems a bit Tom Beland centric, but it is his life story, and an amazingly interesting one at that. It’s a chick flick set to paper, and that is in no way a bad thing.

Of course, I have a small confession to make. I love chick flicks. It’s taken me a long time, and thousands of dollars worth of therapy to come to terms with this, but the truth of the matter remains. No matter how crispy, blackened, charcoal covered cynical I am on the outside, once you set me down in front of a sappy, overly sentimental love story, I suddenly turn into a big puddle of gooey treacle. If it’s a romantic comedy (which TSSTG really is), you’ll get sugared syrup on top of your treacle.

I do have at least a working theory as to where my love for the rom com comes from. This is all the fault of spending a good portion of my teenage years digesting a steady diet of Frank Capra films. I was entranced enough by It’s a Wonderful Life to check out some of his other movies, and it just snowballed from there. It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lady For a Day, I sucked it all up and when the Capra fountain ran dry, I started on Billy Wilder. To this day, if I see that Gary Marshall is involved with a film, I’m unapologetically there, soda in one hand, popcorn in the other, at the edge of my seat.

Because of this aspect of my personality, I initially shied away from reviewing True Story Swear To God. It was too special to me, too personal. I wasn’t sure I could trust my critical instincts with something that always seems to be a perpetual blind spot with me. I absolutely adored Notting Hill for god sakes. When you read TSSTG these are all similar fears that Tom expresses when debating whether or not to publish his comic. Ultimately, writing this good needs to be shared. Tom’s storytelling is so amazing, and so intimate, and so beautiful that it makes researching any critique of his work a pure joy.

Not long ago, Tom made the decision to move from self publishing TSSTG, and using the wonderful folks at Ait/Planet Lar to put out his collected editions, to letting Image Comics take over all the publishing chores. While initially this move seems like a disaster in the making, it’s not like he’s taken over writing Spawn. (Which by the way, I’m firmly convinced is such a bad core concept that it will mess up any decent writer. If you doubt me, check out any of the work Steve Niles has turned out on his various Spawn projects. It pales in comparison to anything else he’s done.) I picked up the first four Image issues, and Tom’s masterwork shows no signs of slippage in either the quality of the storytelling or the artwork.

Tom’s art is simple and direct. It’s a stylized form of caricature with sparse backgrounds that force your eyes to the characters’ expressions so that you see and feel the relative emotions in any given scene. Tom has learned the lessons of Jeff Smith, Frank Miller, Al Capp, and Charles Schulz in that sometimes less is better, and the art should serve the story.

The story is without peer. We are given Tom’s point of view, and we share his thoughts; his fears that Lily will somehow find him inadequate, or that his storytelling won’t be good enough for him to make it as a comics artist. We get to follow his hopes, from his excitement at attending his first comic convention as a pro, to his unbridled joy at cooking a simple meal for Lily. The story is set up like a love letter, shared with anyone who cares to pick it up and read it.

What a frightening prospect, to lay out the story of your life on paper. Through the marvelous synergy of his words and pictures, Tom Beland has given us more intimate knowledge of his life than anyone who could ever be considered a mere passing stranger. As his audience, Tom treats us as if we were friends and confidants, and we are all the better for knowing him and Lily.

TSSTG is a romantic comedy at its core. Like the best Capra, Wilder and Marshall films, it contains drama as well as tragedy, but you just know that everything will work out alright in the end. Tom’s true genius was in adopting the audience as family members. It’s a situation that makes TSSTG unique within the grand pantheon of comics. Comparatively few people in this world have the brass to put down even a small part of their lives on paper. Fewer still would ever present it to an audience. It’s autobiography as entertainment, and a fascinating study of one man’s extraordinary life.

Romantic comedies are popular because they make us feel good about ourselves, about being humans. The ones that succeed best are the films in which we recognize a bit of ourselves in one or all of the characters. Tom has taken this one step further by taking the reader into his confidence, sharing intimate details of his life. His work is a constant reassurance that we are not alone, drifting endlessly in Beckett’s “void,” that there is someone else out there who shares our hopes, our dreams, our successes, and our failings too.

The best stories can be about anything as long as they are honest and true to themselves, and Tom’s stories exemplify this. They have a big heart, the biggest in comics. True Story Swear To God is a must read for anyone who loves a good story, and that’s really why we’re all here now isn’t it.

True Story Swear to God by Tom Beland, is published by Image Comics and available at fine comics shops everywhere.

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