Before I jump into this review of Sina Grace’s Not My Bag, allow me to preface my thoughts with the note that I have always adored fashion. My days of fascination with couture are somewhat over, but the outrageousness of best works of John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier will always be near and dear to my heart. Consequently, my disappointment with Not My Bag does not stem from a lack of interest in the fashion industry, the subject of Not My Bag that may turn off many independent graphic novel readers; it comes from the lack of personal voice and introspection. As expected from a novel about a nightmarish job in the retail side of fashion, Not My Bag looks vibrant and stylish. Sadly, as with most of the prêt–à–porter world, little substance exists beyond the illustrations, making the novel far less innovative and expressive than Alexander McQueen (one of Grace’s muses for the work) and more like the sharp and sterile looking but never groundbreaking Ralph Lauren.
Somewhat of a semi-autobiographical memoir, Not My Bag primarily focuses on the central character’s entrenchment and awakening from his retail job in a luxury department store where he sold pallid Eileen Fisher threads to middle aged women who felt that a cashmere stretch cardigan was a step up from sweatshirt. There are plenty of tales about the ignorant customers who purchased the sub-par made in China clothing he and his colleagues sold, but the main lens of Not My Bag hones in on the main character’s peers, the vapid and cutthroat brand specialists and sales associates of the nameless luxury department store that most resembles Nordstrom. Given a low base salary and a sales requirement that encourages even the shyest person to transform into a piranha, the sales folk of the store predictably have no moral compasses in their treatment of their customers not to mention each other, but alas, what else do you expect? Sales is sales, regardless of the product, so what makes the stories of these salesmen/saleswomen different from their counterparts in the notorious, reviled used car world, a group of sales miscreants that film has already explored quite thoroughly? Nothing, and if I must spend time with the dysfunctional salesmen, I’d rather watch Kurt Russell in Used Cars.
Grace adds a side arc about his broken relationships in the past to accompany his journey into the retail underworld, but we only see small vignettes of these moments into his relationship baggage with a couple more into his current relationship with a guy he calls, “the lawyer,” in a supposed to be cute, distant pet name way that comes off as dismissive and annoying. The relationships expose his insecurities, giving some insight into why he’s been consumed by the luxury clothing sales world, but overall, they add little dimension to his character. Together, his relationship history and his salesman identity create nothing engaging, nothing that explores the psyche of the multiple personas of the protagonist; he is as bland and vacuous as the Eileen Fisher clothes he sells.
In addition to the dull story, Not My Bag suffers from an inability to balance fantasy and reality. As a result, more realistic moments feel too caricaturish and more phantasmagoric panels feel half-hearted and unimaginative. The back cover describes the work as a Gothic one, and whoever felt that balloon like ghosts representing lovers of past and a slightly more sinister looking Isabella Blow who wears ominous masks constitute a Gothic work should revisit Lord Byron and Edgar Allen Poe; they (and I) are offended that anyone would ever consider Not My Bag as a piece of Gothic storytelling.
Thankfully, Not My Bag ends before hitting page 100, which was a relief as I read it, but its length is also one of its fatal weaknesses. Grace cites Craig Thompson as an inspiration, and one of the best features of Thompson’s work is his willingness to give a plot and characters time and space. Conversely, Grace presents his protagonist, his conflicts, and his characters with the brevity of a Reader’s Digest summary, which weakens the work even further because everyone is a shell of a character that offers, at best, a trait similarity to people in reality. Worst of all, Grace presents tidbits of the sources of his protagonist’s identity conflicts but does not delve into them, and this is the most frustrating because these struggles with identity could bolster the story with the richness it so desperately needs, but Grace treats them as asides, giving more attention to the hollow sales demons we really do not care about.
I wanted Not My Bag to succeed because of my own love for fashion and learned disillusionment with the industry, but unfortunately, it just does not work. Grace’s storytelling chops were definitely rusty with this one, especially since this work was his first since quitting his job as Editorial Director at Skybound. It’s a shame that everything feels so trite here because the intersection of avant-garde fashion and comics could produce something fascinating, but alas, the Eileen Fisher uninspired, drab lack of vision must have had a greater subconscious influence on Not My Bag, for the result evokes as much excitement as I would get from an overpriced denim tunic that I would barely even wear as a house garment.
Not My Bag by Sina Grace is available via Image Comics.