Realism is the invisible genre, supposedly guided by no rules or conventions beyond depicting the world as it is. Upon closer inspection, though, realism does offer rules that tend to reinforce the notion that things are what they are, often for implicitly political reasons because definitions tend to come from those who have power: criminals are inherently bad, wealth is inherently desirable, and on and on as definitions extend to race and gender. Realism is less prepared for things that are defined – always already, to borrow wording from postmodern theory – as being in the process of becoming other things. In the context of stories about recovery – despite the number of memoirs and support groups suggesting that recovery is an ongoing and unending process – realism as a genre exerts pressure for a story to settle on one side or the other of the question of whether or not a character is an addict or a recovered addict. Though Blood and Drugs adheres to realism by setting the story of the main character, Buster, getting clean and returning to the art world in a very real Minnesota, Ward complicates the genre in a few important ways that allow its characters to exist in a liminal state simultaneously deserving of the claim to a fixed identity but also very much on the way to that identity.
Ward conjoins the story of Buster’s recovery from addiction and the injury that derailed his career as an artist to the story of his roommate – trans woman Nance – and her transition; though Nance is presented to the reader, immediately and always, as a woman, her identity as a woman is complicated by those around her. Her transition is blocked by insurance companies and complicated by depression; she begins the story living in the group home with Buster. It is only because the group home continues to misgender her that she is Buster’s roommate; Ward shows Buster struggling to recognize Nance as she is and desires to be understood. Like Buster’s recovery, Nance’s gender identity is depicted as paradoxical; she is simultaneously always a woman and always in the process of being understood and treated as a woman.
A second way that Ward uses realism to depict paradoxes of identity involves his formal decision to follow the 12 Step Program as a table of contents. Each section takes its name from one of the steps of recovery; importantly, though, these titles are all rendered in the past tense, asserting the step has been completed even as the chapters themselves demonstrate ways in which the steps are far from finished. By framing each chapter as a completed step that is also indicative of the need for additional work, Ward frames being recovered as a process dependent on the continual acknowledgment of one’s addiction. Like the recovery process itself, Buster’s narrative begins with the story of the hand injury that put his comics career on hold after initial success which then led to an escalating addiction on pain killers that cost him his wife and family. Beyond framing the narrative at the beginning of the recovery process, Ward’s choice to show Buster telling the story of his addiction in a past-tense chapter titled “Admitted We were Powerless” reveals that the identities of addict and recovered addict are both about transformation and process and that the two identities remain coterminous even as one, forever, completes the process of being the latter.
This chapter also does something else. By establishing Buster’s addiction as part of a different change in identity – from one who makes art to one who no longer makes art other than to sell for drugs – Ward sets readers up to pay attention to ways that even that change in identity is a process. Throughout the comic, Buster is recognized as the Buster who makes comics even as he no longer identifies as that man. The title of the comic we are reading also refers to a comic that Buster made about his experience of addiction, one that readers see with different margins and slightly different art, inside the pages of Blood and Drugs. The story of Ward’s Blood and Drugs is also about the long road to publication for Buster’s very different Blood and Drugs.
Perhaps most importantly, the art of Ward’s Blood and Drugs renders Buster’s world in a style that rhymes with Buster’s description of his post-accident artistic difficulties; because his drawing hand was damaged, he consistently asserts that he can’t draw and struggles with precision. Ward’s art, though perhaps a bit more precise than the pages we see of Buster’s, is likewise comic strip-y and often unrealistic. While both artists demonstrate a tremendous amount of talent and intentionality in terms of composition and panel layout, neither art styles emphasize technique. Beyond providing a perfect conduit for depicting the Dionysian world as one that imbues the Apollonian in the way that Buster’s Minnesota of busses and group homes exists in and amongst the middle-class city where I was born – we both bought music at Electric Fetus, for example – the shared art styles imply a lack of distance between Buster and Ward that would move the story from being real to being true.
Because another rule of realism is that theme is more fully tied to plot than it might be in other ostensibly more experimental genres, I am hesitant to talk about the conclusion to any of the characters’ journeys other than to say that I found them immensely satisfying and earned. In keeping with the other ways that Ward complicates the realistic impulse to show things in a fixed state, however, it matters that the comic ends in a way that does not undermine the suggestion that the story isn’t actually over. In any case, Blood and Drugs is a rare bit of realism that simultaneously attempts to tell a real story while also explaining exactly how and why it appears as it does on the page.
When it comes to stories of recovery, claims of honesty are probably safe and, therefore, nearly meaningless criticism. However, I remain convinced that Blood and Drugs is one of the most honest comics I’ve read in years, particularly in the ways that Ward manages to show not only the real world but the rules by which he and Buster are creating and negotiating those rules, rules that, in every page of both versions of Blood and Drugs, forward a kind of realism that would appeal to Nietzsche as much as it did to me, a reader much more accustomed to Law and Order and other, less experimental, depictions of reality.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Matt Vadnais has taught college literature and creative writing classes for twenty years. He is the author of All I Can Truly Deliver and a contributor at covermesongs.com. For more comics coverage and the occasional tweet about Shakespeare, follow him @DoctorFanboi. For short takes on longboxes, subscribe to his channel of video essays.