It doesn’t feel good to be right. When I asked James Brooke about his workplace-themed comic, he explained, “People keep telling me it’s amazing or asking how I feel now that the Bartending in the Apocalypse concept has become so literal. It doesn’t make me feel good. It feels bad, actually. That’s why I’ve been drawing trees, lately.”
Brooke got into drawing graphic art and comics, after working his way through the stations of the service industry cross from pot washer (“I wasn’t even a dishwasher in my first job; I washed pots with grits that had been burning all day”), to runner and server, and angled his way into bartending—first on the West Coast where he’s from, and now in Brooklyn. The ripe hour of 4:30 am, just after closing, wasn’t a particularly auspicious time to work on a novel, but sketches and scenes of the job flowed more easily. From ethnographic portraits of the most depressing and irritating customer behavior, to surreal takes on the logic of exploitation and alienation in the bar; from coworker camaraderie to the weird beauty and danger of New York City night life, this minicomic takes on bad bosses, ridiculous beer names, sexual harassment, addiction, and exclusion in the industry from a worker’s-eye view.
As Brooke puts it, graphic storytelling has a certain cinematic quality that better captures and expresses certain kinds of experience. Much of the art in the Apocalypse series identifies the disconnect (and even disdain) between bartenders and customers, all of which takes place by design: “Sometimes you can, actually, you have to race through forty transactions in a row, and never speak to anyone, nobody is even using words, just passing cards, money, and drinks back-and-forth.” This is the main wellspring of some of the prescient and surreal images that lean into a critique of work and of leisure.
But connection isn’t totally absent. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Brooke and all of his coworkers were laid off, and many have not yet returned to work. A number of bars and restaurants may never reopen. Most service industry workers went directly from being highly exposed to the virus to unemployed, often unable to collect benefits, either because of an overwhelmed online system or because their wages and/or status as workers remained off the books. In the midst of the #GeorgeFloyd uprising, many bars and restaurants in Brooklyn and beyond have come under increasing scrutiny for racist practices in hiring and service. “I hope it does change, and it’s amazing to see now. Things have been going on for years without being pushed.”
Service industry workers are organizing informally to support each other in the real apocalypse of the viral crisis and economic crash. Readers can see more of Brooke’s art, as well as order a limited print of the full comic, at @bartendingintheapocalypse, which also includes work from his collaborator, Mallea, who can be found @pinklegspegway. @bartendingintheapocalypse is also good place to find information on solidarity funds and events in support of service industry workers who are now surviving and fighting back in this real life dystopia.
Spectre is proud to feature excerpts of Brooke’s work.