I feel I’ve used the term Pekar-esque a little too freely at Broken Frontier of late. But in the case of Chad Bilyeu’s Chad in Amsterdam it seems particularly appropriate given the anecdotal account he gives in its pages of meeting the great man when growing up in Cleveland as a kid. Since 2018 Bilyeu has self-published five issues of his autobio series. He describes it as the “misadventures of an atypical American living in Amsterdam”. The comic combines short strips and the occasional visual essay, in collaboration with a number of artists of noticeably diverse styles.
That visual eclecticism is very much part of the draw of Chad in Amsterdam with the varied interpretive approaches to Bilyeu’s tales giving different perspectives on his world. The fluid art of Jared Bogess in issue #1’s ‘The Dutch Inquisition’ – where Bilyeu recounts an early awkward exchange in a bar about his reasons for being in Amsterdam – for example, where Bogess uses the space between panels with inventive flourish. Or the underground comix vibe from artist Boyane’s visuals for ‘The Breaks’ in the same issue where Bilyeu’s trip to the Red Light District leads to a surprise encounter. It’s also notable that the selection of artists is an agreeable blend of the established and newer voices.
Chad in Amsterdam is both about Bilyeu’s observations of his new environment after moving to the Netherlands and his own interactions with its denizens. From local legalities (#2’s story illustrated with energetic cartooning and imaginative page structures by Eryc Why about the perils of having your bike confiscated by the local authorities) to historical investigations (#3’s multi-pager on the importance of the herring industry and its pace in Dutch history, illustrated by Pekar collaborator Gary Dumm), through to explorations of local community and his inter-relationship with it (#3’s ‘Ronin’, an eloquent reflection on national identity and otherness wherein artist Lorenzo Milito ably captures Bilyeu’s sense of detachment from the surroundings he wanders through, integrated into them without being absorbed by them.)
Top cover art by Kim DeMåne, art above left by Jared Bogess and above right by Boyane
In examining life in another country Bilyeu’s shorts aren’t simply wry commentary about adapting to new customs and ways of life. They also ask profound questions about identity and how we define home, particularly in #4 where he opens up about his past outside of Amsterdam. While his style as narrator is mostly laidback and meditative Bilyeu is also candid and unflinchingly honest in his observations, whether that be in describing ephemeral moments from his daily routines or more philosophical considerations.
Art above left by Gary Dumm and above right by Lorenzo Milito
It’s issue #5 though that will doubtless be seen as the most powerful entry in the series to date, with its contents dealing with the offensiveness of the Dutch Christmas custom of Black Pete, a blackface character who is seen in festive parades. It’s an incisive look at how “tradition” is used to perpetuate racism, of how easily privilege overcomes empathy, and the moral gymnastics and self-denial it takes to justify the unjustifiable. D.M. Rodriguez illustrates the main story here, perfectly capturing Bilyeu’s incredulity at the situation with disorienting effect. A number of uncompromising follow-ups underline the nonsense of the Black Pete apologists – one drawn by Lae Schäfer emphasising the dehumanising behaviour it involves, with another illustrated by Merel Barends showing the casual ramifications when bigotry becomes ingrained in culture.
Art above left by Lera Ryazanceva and above right by Dotsy
While issues of Chad in Amsterdam complement each other in terms of theme and tone each number can be read as a separate entity. Taking the everyday as a foundation to explore more complex questions this is autobio comics at their most perceptive and insightful.
Chad Bilyeu (W), Kim DeMåne, Jared Boggess, Boyane, Bas Schippers, Denis Galocha, EKS Graphics, Dotsy, Lera Ryazanceva, Eryc Why, Iris van der Heijden, DroL, Will Robson, Greg Menzie, Bernie Mireault, Lorenzo Milito, Juliette de Wit, Rachelle Meyer, Dany Modesto Rodriguez, Lae Schäfer, Merel Barends, Margaret de Heer (A) • Bistro Books
Review by Andy Oliver