In 2015, Atlanta-based artist Lauren Monger's comic series Terrible Terrible Terrible — also known as Habits, or Clementine Comix — picked up a small but devoted cult following, with a regular series on VICE, a print mini-comic released by Spaceface Books that promptly sold out, and a Tumblr full of disquieting but soothing anthropomorphic animals in hoodies and scuffed jeans.
The star of the show is an opossum with bitten-down nails and big black boots named Clementine. Sometimes Clementine summons incubi or stuffs her friend's heart back down his throat when he throws it up, but most of the time Clementine just hangs out with her friends, tries and fails to hold down a job, skips taking her antidepressants. We catch Clementine’s life in glimpses, without any real sense of where she came from or where she is going —- it’s unlikely, after all, that she knows.
People cosplayed as Clementine; they drew fanart. But at the end of 2015, Terrible Terrible Terrible faded away. The comics on both Tumblr and VICE dried up; Monger’s last social media activity was in 2017. “I don’t think I can say that I’m done, but I really did need a break for a while,” Monger told me recently. “The break just went on a little too long. I’d like give it some kind of proper ending, at the very least… Internet commentary and sharing was a blessing early on, but sitting down and focusing on really writing something is hard with that kind of pressure. I can see why a lot of webcomics end up just being dropped.”
Still, if Terrible Terrible Terrible hadn’t ended in 2015, it would still be the place I chose to spend my late nights, a town where the flat daylight permeates everything and animals turn their laughing teeth at each other and try to get by. There’s magic to be found, but it’s small and disregarded — a teenage girl’s magic, Monger agrees, “a weird, young girl, small town thing, and the whole universe treats it like it’s unimportant. Because it feels that way sometimes.”
All the same, I can do things with it. The internet is full of memorials to things passed: old LiveJournals, old Tumblrs, the old Gmail account I still log into now and again, whose cartoon background reflects the weather of a city in which I used to live. Terrible Terrible Terrible draws me back not because it feels old and familiar but because it feels urgent and as though it has something new to show me every time. I wanted to talk to Monger to find the future for the comic, if there is one. But Monger's work feels like the kind of past that means something, that can tell us more about where we ended up than where we started.
Terrible Terrible Terrible has no particular storyline or overarching plot; it moves in tiny vignettes, lazy conversations or awkward parties. More often than not you see characters walking home discussing where they’ve been; if there is a storyline, the feeling is, you may have arrived too late for it.
“I chose vignettes because, frankly, it’s the best way to come up with a comic and then actually finish it,” Monger explains, but the comics’ early vignettes, which present a more coherent capsule of a story that is resolved within the telling, give way soon to flashes of moments, like you’re peering into a life. When the comics first premiered on VICE, the first strip doesn’t announce or explain anything; there are no context clues for the characters or their lives, and if anything, it might be the moment before a story begins, though that too seems unlikely.
What the story is actually about seems to be “nothing”: not in the comedic, Seinfeld-esque way (although the lazy banter of friends well used to one another is a key draw), but in a moody, almost claustrophobic tightening of the internal universe. Characters do nothing; they go nowhere. They circle one another, they repeat the same old disagreements and disputes. Part of this is Monger’s keen eye for detail; not for nothing does the comic live under the name Habits in VICE, where daily routines strip back to reveal something sweet and sad lying underneath, like in the comic where Clementine gives her quasi-romantic (it’s complicated) love interest lice: “This is the least sexy bathtime I’ve ever had,” he says, amused.
Yet the aimlessness of the comics is also their whole point. “That’s what I live and breathe, baby,” Monger said. “It’s easy.” And though the internet — like any recent technology — does not appear in the comics, the aimlessness of Terrible Terrible Terrible seems somehow tied and representative of the aimlessness that now draws me to it, clicking through comics I have read a hundred times late at night. The empty roads of the unnamed hometown in Terrible Terrible Terrible feel desperately appealing, as does the easy group of friends, with someone always available to stumble across and hang out with, like the dreams of young adulthood you have as a teenager. The comics themselves are frozen in an unknown time, an unknown location; when you go back to them, it feels as if they are waiting to enfold you within.
It’s what makes Terrible Terrible Terrible so suited for its digital presence. Monger has released physical artwork, including the excellent mini-comic for Spaceface Books that showed a party going to seed, but the comics seem in their most brilliant form online.Their online presence works not because of any formatting tricks or interactive principles but via their obsession with aimlessness. You’re here because you don’t have or don’t want anything else to do, the comics say; great, neither do we.
This aimlessness is soothing, but not harmless. Beneath their surface calm, the comics are deeply angry, simmering with frustration and helplessness, and claustrophobic in their portrayal of class divisions and mental health. They feel newly urgent now, when a heroine like Clementine — dirty, smart, funny, a bit of a mess — refuses to turn into an optimistic message of “things getting better.” It’s unclear if things can get better for Clementine, who is both self-destructive and poor, trapped without a lot of options, and Terrible Terrible Terrible is uninterested in false narratives of progress and optimism.
The rush of bad news in the last few years has had a totalizing effect; think of how the badness of the year 2016 became its own meme, quickly followed by a similar meme for 2017, before the years continued to be bad and we had to give up on our own smug “fuck you, 2Kwhatever”s. The badness of these years has become too easy a category, a nice little package that we can easily set aside whenever the next president who is good at PR comes along.
Terrible Terrible Terrible, written mostly in 2015 and set in some nebulous time period that could encompass any part of the 2000s, gives us the fury and fervor we need without the comforting fiction that this is all due to a bad couple of years that we will one day escape. Escape? Clementine would laugh. Monger’s work is free, too, from the kind of empowerment-core that appears in fictional worlds where optimism remains the best tool at our disposal. Clementine does not deal with optimism; nor is she defeatist. Instead, in one strip where she is heckled by a strange (dog-)man about her shopping bags, she responds, friendly enough, “At night I like to put these bags over my head and think about death. But it never comes.”
“Jesus,” the Pomeranian says, thrown. “You don’t have to be such a crazy bitch about it.”
But Clementine’s power is that she is a crazy bitch and knows it, just as the comics’ power is in their stillness, their aimlessness, their long days of doing nothing and burying emotions. When an active emotion does arise, it usually appears in the form of panic. In this, Terrible Terrible Terrible brings to mind how Louise Glück described American poet Richard Siken’s collection Crush: “This is a book about panic. The word is never mentioned. Nor is the condition analyzed or described — the speaker is never outside it long enough to differentiate panic from other states… the poet [is] in all the roles: he is the animal trapped in the headlights, paralyzed, he is also the speeding vehicle, the car that doesn’t stop, the mechanism of flight.”
Though Siken’s work, as Glück writes, is “all high beams: reeling, savage, headlong, insatiable” and Monger’s is decidedly more low-key, a car idling on the corner on a dull afternoon rather than any of Siken’s high speed chases, the tonal resemblance remains in the enduring panic that threads through the different vignettes. Sometimes it is explicit, as when Clementine calls Bennett to beg for cigarettes, or when she abruptly quits a new job on the first day, leaning outside and smoking on her break, exhaling “Fuuuuuck,” four years before Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag gave us a new, equally tense version of the same scene. Other times, panic is a low simmer in the background, like when Clementine finds out that a high school loser has made it to college: “Ugggh, this is fucking me up,” she says, clutching her head. “I’m having a crisis. Kevin was supposed to be a loser forever.”
The panic, seething and usually invisible, is part of why Terrible Terrible Terrible is so discomforting and so soothing at once. The aimlessness that feels at first like a gift becomes a trap; we’re not moving because we’re animals in the headlights, not because we’re trying to fill up empty hours. You can get used to anything, Monger shows us, even fear. If ever there was a mood for 2019.