November 5, 2018

First, You Gotta Assemble the Shit: Keith Silva reviews HOW TO MAKE A SANDWICH by Vicky Leta

Vicky Leta’s How to Make a Sandwich opens with perhaps the greatest line in the history of comics: “First, you gotta assemble the shit.”

Too true. Too true.

This sentence, its Palmer method penmanship letter-perfect, begins a story of desire and doubt, self-discipline and self-loathing, compromise and catastrophe, and, yes, a sandwich, a very delicious sandwich. Leta turns what could be yet another numberless illustration of auto-bio indulgence into a lean, mean exemplar of how to make the personal universal, give it teeth and make it hurt.
It should come as no surprise given its title and opening sentence, How to Make a Sandwich concerns cooking and the ritual of preparation, nor should it be a revelation the story Leta tells has little to do with food and everything to do with memories, emotions, and actions food elicits and engenders—sandwich as meaning.  

Leta’s game is so strong, so smart and, in the end, so goddamn devastating, it’s easy to miss (and dismiss) a really ripping recipe for a tomato and mozzarella sandwich with fresh garlic and basil on toasted bread. Her emphasis to use “fresh” ingredients tells the reader she knows her way around a kitchen and possesses an exemplary palate. She also knows not every reader will have access to the freshest ingredients and so substitutions must be made. This is the art of cooking and of storytelling too. Details like store-bought minced garlic in a jar versus garlic you crush yourself in a garlic press change the plot, but not the story—sandwich as narrative.

Let’s talk mouths.

With the exception of when Leta chastises herself for the amount of calories in pesto (more on this in a moment) and the two floating heads with the unenviable task to properly pronounce the word “mozzarella,” which, as Leta writes, “always sounds wrong when you say it,” her figures do not speak or have mouths, not a first. Leta’s cartooning is more illustrative and not bound within standard comic book grids or panels. She divides pages with single lines to separate one idea, one ingredient, from the next which feeds her style of line and image. In black sinuous marks that curl like a wish and curve like a craving around reds of currant and cranberry, the space where a mouth should be, is left blank, turned away, or obscured by sandwich fixings. Not giving these figures mouths to speak (or eat) is a sharp detail and a clever choice that reveals how much Leta has thought about food as she interrogates her own relationship to eating.

The mood of the narrative voice in How to Make a Sandwich is, unsurprisingly, imperative. Words like “toast,” “slice,” and “examine” allow the reader agency to embody Leta’s emotions and her skills as a cook, an artist, and sympathize with her as a human being. Such a rhetorical device of command or request demonstrates an economy of storytelling that cuts to the bone and allows the reader to not only know and feel, but to do, to make. Any garden variety yarn-spinner worth their salt can generate empathy or understanding from the safe distance of a third-person-point-of-view, but when you absolutely, positively, want to devastate: use the second-person.

When Leta makes “I” statements, that’s when the mouths and teeth come out. If her use of the imperative mood didn’t make this comic personal enough, her voice speaks plain. The penmanship of the lettering tempers the authoritative and even parochial sound of the narrative voice and makes it seem softer, more shopworn. It is neither of these, it is the voice of severity, of censure. When Leta does speak, her word balloons burst with a furious red. The previously mentioned plea to pass on the caloric wonder of pesto, a shout of “No,” and, at last, the confession of “I just can’t, okay?!!!” which obscures the instructive yet goading treacle of the narrator brings it all home. It’s at this moment of head-to-head conflict that the voices resolve, and two show themselves to be one. Edgar Allan Poe called it ‘the imp of the perverse.’ Vicky Leta calls it Vicky Leta. It’s a voice we all possess and it’s why the last few pages of How to Make a Sandwich exhibit so much power. If that wasn’t enough, like Leta, the reader is left with one last command, one final imperative: “mangia.” 
On the back cover, Leta includes the following: “This comic contains themes of eating disorders and body dysmorphia.” Trigger warnings serve a good and right purpose. And perhaps this notice allows a reader who struggles with issues of body image to pause, forewarned is forearmed, after all. Leta’s choice to place this warning in the back instead of the front, says something about Leta herself and her willingness to transgress, to be an artist. Good art wounds. Great art scars. Leta knows her art is going to bring about (to ‘assemble’) some shit. She knows and she does it anyway. Respect. Cartoonists are mark makers, ink on paper. Vicky Leta is a cartoonist and How to Make a Sandwich leaves a mark.       
Keith Silva's writing can be found at sites such as The Comics Journal, Loser City, Comics Bulletin, and especially at Interested in Sophisticated Fun. You can find him on Twitter @Keithpmsilva

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