Ulli Lust Does Her Best in How I Tried to Be a Good Person

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Ulli Lust Does Her Best in <i>How I Tried to Be a Good Person</i>

Viewed superficially, Ulli Lust’s two autobiographical books—Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life (2009; English translation published in 2013 by Fantagraphics) and How I Tried to Be a Good Person (2017; English translation just out from Fantagraphics)—have a lot in common: longish, sometimes rambling, not super-structured accounts of her wild youth, rendered in two-color printing. In fact, the new book is significantly different and, in many ways, better. Today was a hitchhiking trip in a speedy, rattling car with a stranger, as the teenage Lust bummed around Europe, discovering through experience that the world is generally a harsh place for young women. She had a hunger for new things and freedom that seemed to be mostly undulled by abuse after abuse, but, if you were past your own gutter-punk days and into a period of your life in which you prized structure, the effect was one not of nostalgia but of “thank GOD I’m done with all that.” The cover was a perfect encapsulation of what lay inside: a close-up of the top half of Lust’s head, her hair like Medusa’s, her eyes wide and staring right at you, ready to take in whatever might come her way, each soft pencil line seemingly heartfelt and with the title splashed over them in fast, wide-brushed letters, like a political slogan slapped up in the night.

So what can one expect of the new book, other than that it clearly has an entirely different perspective? Its cover shows Lust and a man, half-embracing, shown full-length from the rear as they stare at a carnival ride that seems to involve a rollercoaster that dives into a cat’s gaping mouth. Other folks walk around them, paying them no mind. The title this time is typed, not hand-lettered, in a bubbly, serifed font that calls to mind movie posters of the late 1960s, and it hangs out in the sky, not overlapping anything. This is clearly a novel of adulthood. And so it is. Sort of. How I Tried to Be a Good Person is partially about trying to live a more structured life and how it’s not easy to do so. That makes it sound like a rehab novel, and it’s not that, even though Lust’s impulses pull her toward chaos a lot of the time. The title isn’t made very clear until the book is done, and even then it’s more of a feeling than an obvious statement. How did she try? Did she fail? What’s coming next? You could call this a weakness, that she doesn’t really like to spell things out—it’s not a very reflective book, even though it’s written looking back at an older self—but it doesn’t feel that way. Maybe it’s that it’s not a conspicuously reflective book. Lust lets those feelings that she evokes do a lot of the work.

One of her great innovations in How I Tried to Be a Good Person is her use of full-page splash pages to break up the story. They don’t advance the narrative, but they change your reading of the book by messing with the pace at which you would otherwise go through it. They aren’t part of the story exactly, but they make you pause because they contain a lot of visual information. They rarely contain dialogue, and a lot of them are landscapes. The first one we get is on page nine, as Ulli and her partner Georg drive to the countryside to visit her son and her parents. Technically, it’s two panels. One shows the road seen through the windshield, with agriculture-devoted fields spreading out ahead, a big sky with a tumbling mountain of cumulus clouds, and a few musical notes; it feels like the freedom of the road, when the weather is beautiful and there’s not enough traffic to snarl things up. The second panel is much smaller and shows a hitchhiker with thumb out. Is it Ulli? It could be, if we’ve read her first book. We haven’t met her yet in this one. But it turns out not to be. She’s riding in the car and Georg is driving and they talk about when they used to hitchhike. The time spent on the landscape is the time of someone who’s slowed down a bit. The lines are still gut-driven, but they’re airier, and the color this time around is pale pink. The head of hair has been tamed a lot, but the tresses still have a mind of their own.

As we move along, those pages appear fairly regularly. Sometimes they’re very grounded, as with a picture of the fluorescent-lit employment office. Other times they’re lyrical: a page of sunflowers seen from a Thumbelina-like perspective, a night in the club (all tight clothing and weird light and conversation), a long-awaited sexual experience that pushes every button desired, some leaves falling from a tree. They suggest someone who’s observing how things work, not just jumping into experience without looking. That doesn’t mean Ulli doesn’t make bad decisions. She makes a lot of them. But she doesn’t tear herself down for them either. Just as she’s unapologetic about her sexual appetites (she doesn’t show herself as gross for wanting sex), she’s clear-eyed about herself in general. She doesn’t have everything figured out, and she changes her mind and learns and even feels guilty about not wanting to take her son full time, but she also doesn’t go down the ruminative rabbit hole of trying to meet everyone’s expectations of her as a woman. The most important word in the title turns out not to be “good” or “tried” but “person.” It’s hard to translate personhood into an abstracted form like comics, which naturally simplifies the complicated edges of things, but this book does it.

How I Tried to Be a Good Person Interior Art by Ulli Lust

How I Tried to Be a Good Person Interior Art by Ulli Lust

How I Tried to Be a Good Person Interior Art by Ulli Lust

How I Tried to Be a Good Person Interior Art by Ulli Lust

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