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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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Some things you can’t unsee. They become afterimages, a kind of mental scar marring your visual memory. They haunt you. The sixth page of Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s Beautiful Darkness is currently haunting me: a child’s corpse lying on a forest floor. I’m a parent and so especially susceptible to the horror of the image, but it’s more than that. Poe misogynistically claims there’s no subject more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman, but since his wife was thirteen when he married her, “girl” would be the more accurate term. The girl of Beautiful Darkness looks about ten. Her hair is splayed around her head, and although her eyes are closed and her body could be relaxed in sleep, she is unquestionably dead. Over the course of the next few dozen pages, her body rots to bones.

Despite the mysteries and plot questions evoked by the opening image—Who is she? How did she die? Is there a killer? When will someone find out?—the novel ignores them all. Aurora (we learn her name from the notebook strewn beside her) is not the focus of the novel—or at least not this version of her. The authors focus instead on another Aurora, a lovely cartoon creature who lives in a fairy tale world of tea parties and princes. Or she did until the borderless panels of her first page darken into rigid gutters as a surging Blob-like goo forces her and her cartoon companions to flee the child’s dead body and emerge into the most horrifying world of them all: our own.

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It’s rare to find such a horrifically eloquent concept executed so perfectly. Beautiful Darkness was originally published in France in 2014 as Jolies Ténèbres. Though Fabien Vehlmann receives solo writing credit on the cover, the title page credits Marie Pommepuy for original idea and co-story, translated in the Drawn & Quarterly edition by Helse Dascher. Kerascoët is the lone artist, and the juxtaposition of his two styles is the novel’s most pervasive and powerful technique. The characters vary in proportions, but all fit the exaggerated and simplified norms of cartooning, specifically children’s books cartooning. The setting, however, including the vegetation and the animals and the hill-like shapes of the corpse they fled from, is naturalistic with finely defined contours and painterly depth. The visual contradiction defines the graphic novel’s core: these things do not belong together.

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The pairing produces horrors. How will these innocent fairy tale folk survive in a real-world wilderness? They won’t. It turns out there are a lot of ways to kill a cartoon: cat, bird, bee, toad, ants, poison ivy, kite, puddle, starvation. The first death is most startling, but the gruesome effect never lessens in part because the death of a cartoon violates the logic of cartooning itself. How many times has Wile E. Coyote fallen to his would-be death only to have his flattened but endlessly malleable body rejuvenated for the next scene? The absurd proportions of most cartoons would make the function of internal organs impossible.  And yet when one of Kerascoët’s cartoon characters attempts to be fed like a baby bird, the force of the mother bird’s beak down his throat widens and buckles his neck in standard cartoon fashion—but then his face is blood-soaked as he staggers away apparently to die of internal wounds.

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Though each death vignette is effective, the horror of Beautiful Darkness is more than the picking off of cast members as expendable as any in a Friday the 13th film. They are literally their worst enemies. It turns out methods for murdering cartoons include abandonment, cannibalism, and live burial.  But that’s not the disturbing part. While the apparent existence of naturalistic organs inside cartoon bodies is discordantly upsetting, the psychological ramifications echo deeper. It’s one thing to find the flow of maggots across your feet ticklish. It’s another to yank off the legs of a ladybug for fun.

“Things are not as they appear” is the ur-plot of most stories, but it is especially true of horror: the corpse under Poe’ floorboards, the fangs retracted behind a vampire’s smile. Horror always waits just beneath a pleasant surface. It’s the difference between transformation and revelation. Did hunger make the giant baby doll eat one of her tiny friends or was the giant baby doll always capable of that crime? Worse, another friend protests before quickly returning to playing, the devoured friend apparently never a friend at all. The pleasant surface of these cartoons cover a moral abyss devoid of empathy and self-reflection. They are the novel’s only monsters.

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And we’ve still not hit bottom, because the true plot question is whether Aurora, the kindest and most dutiful of all them all, will succumb—not to death but to the darkness revealed by the collision of her cartoon world against a naturalistic one. It’s no spoiler to say the nature of her character remains radically ambiguous. When she helps the others to build shelters out of the dead Aurora’s notebook, someone reads the name and asks, “Who’s Aurora?” Aurora answers, “I am.” At first I thought she was lying, maybe to prevent anyone feeling qualms about stealing (this is well before the first murder), but the answer seems much more complex.

Is the cartoon Aurora some kind of manifestation of the human Aurora? Is that why she cries at the sight of a fly hatched from her corpse? Was she and the others released by her death? Do all daydreams take physical forms when we die? Or is this a kind of afterlife? Has this cultural stereotype of childhood innocence died and gone to hell? This cauldron of questions are stirred most violently in a midpoint two-page spread in which the human Aurora wakes in sunlight, sits up from the forest floor, and wanders off—only for her motionless corpse to return after the page turn and the monstrous cartoon child who has burrowed into the cave of her skull to gasp awake, relieved that it was only a “nightmare.”

If you’re used to the blood splatter of slasher films or the simplistically evil monsters of supernatural thrillers, be warned: Beautiful Darkness covers an abyss of horrors far far deeper.

 

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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I’ve been hesitant to call myself a “comics artist,” but looking over my online publications of the last year, I think I may have hit critical mass, especially over this summer. Most immediately, my “Obscured Panels” just went live yesterday at Sequentials. These are the thumbnails:

But my favorite is a collaboration with my life-long collaborator, Lesley Wheeler. Our poetry comic “Made for Each Other” appeared at Split Lip last month. I made the images, Lesley wrote the words, which I converted letter-by-letter into my homemade font. Yes, those are the same robots in “Obscured Panels,” but we made “Made for Each Other” first. Here’s page one:

the right of the people peaceably to assemble” appeared at Empty Mirror earlier this summer too. (Sorry, no robots though.)

And “Thought Bubbles” at Redivider:

I also made the cover of Two Cities Review (plus a five-image sequence “Don’t” inside the issue):

Last winter was good to me too. “Expected Outcomes” premiered at Ilanot Review in January. I kept intending to promote it on this blog and then kept not (probably because it’s about my dead mother). The text is from the nursing staff of her assisted living facility as she entered the last stages of Alzheimer’s. The background image is a painting (I think by one of her cousins) of her college graduation photo:

Muybridge Comics” appeared at Aquifier last December:

Also, two more of my Muybridge adaptations, “Nude Woman Washing Face,” appeared at Sonder Review (which, frankly, I’m less thrilled about because the images aren’t gender-balanced; the batch I submitted included male nudes).

A year ago this month, “Queer Arrangements” appeared at Sequentials:

And a year before that, “This Is Not Marilyn“:

Somewhere in there “1917” appeared at Hair Trigger 2.0 (which features the Modigliani paintings that the robots cut up and recombine in the first comic):

I also have three visual poems forthcoming from Chronically Lit. I think that brings the total to twelve.  Can I officially declare that the unofficial threshold for comics-authorness?

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am not typically a fan of graphic novels that tackle historic subjects. Too often I find the visual approach faults toward the safely predictable—as though a rendering of historical events precludes the idiosyncrasies of an artist’s personal style. Thankfully, Marcelo D’Salete, author-artist of the historical graphic novel Angola Janga, avoids that pitfall.

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Angola Janga (the title means “Little Angola,” the region of Africa from which many of its inhabitants were abducted) has the blunt visual power of black and white woodcuts. While D’Salete literally stays inside the lines of his rectangular panels and gutters, the energy of his images—the angled perspectives, the chiseled details, the abrupt close-ups, the streaked strokes of his shading—are a match for his equally powerful subject matter.

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If you’re anything like me, you are woefully ignorant of Brazilian history, especially the late seventeenth-century history of Brazil’s escaped slaves. But at least we’re in good company, because  D’Salete admits in his afterword that he didn’t either—even though Palmares (which means “victories” and names the region of villages established by fugitive communities in the forests of colonial Brazil) reached a population as high as 20,000, defying Portuguese authorities for decades.

Originally published in 2017 with the subtitle “History of Palmares,” the Fantagraphics edition, translated from Portuguese by Andrea Rosenberg, helpfully identifies its content for less knowledgeable English speakers with the subtitle “Kingdom of Runaway Slaves.” I presume Rosenberg preserved D’Salete’s verbal style by choosing colloquial phrases—“for crying out loud,” “pipe down,” “let’s not get ahead of ourselves”—despite their anachronistic effect. While slightly distracting, the alternative—faux-archaic diction and syntax—would be fatally worse. D’Salate himself wisely avoids captioned narration, limiting words to brief dialog and allowing the language of images to communicate the bulk of his story.

French comics scholar Thierry Groensteen gives a name to visual motifs specific to comics: tressage or “braiding.” I’m not a fan of unnecessary terms (why not just “visual motifs”?), but Angola Janga convinces me that Groensteen is on to something useful. He likens the repetitions to rhymes or internal quotations, ones that “enter into dialogue with panels not currently visible, establishing relationships among non-adjacent pages” and so producing “an enhancement, a layering, a deepening of meaning.”

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If so, then D’Salete is a master of braiding. Some occur within a single page: a bird’s eye view of a round plate of food carried by a woman into a hut, a higher view of the round roof of the hut, and an ending close-up of the village leader’s round eye after he has consumed the—we soon learn—poisoned food. The wedge-shaped opening of the hut also suggests his open mouth as he eats. The combined effect, especially because the page is wordless, unifies the sequence and heightens the individual moments beyond what they convey in plot alone.

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D’Salete’s other, multi-page braiding includes birds (how the points of their feathers visually rhyme with the carved points of trees in a fortress wall), whipping wounds (clusters of slashes juxtaposed with the tree branches of the surrounding forest), flies (both as victims of spider webs and later as visual metaphors for corruption), ocean waves (an idiosyncratic triangle pattern that later returns as scales on a snake), and flames (too many instances to mention).

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But the first I noticed is D’Salete’s idiosyncratic smoke: the oddly dense shapes he draws curving from a plantation foreman’s cigarette as he eavesdrops on a dying slave owner’s promise to Soares (the novel’s main character) that he will be freed upon her death. A page later, in the same bottom left area of the page, the shapes repeat in the visual metaphor of a snuffed candle on her bedside when she is found dead in the morning. The foreman then ignores the dead woman’s will and keeps Soares enslaved. The image returns almost two hundred pages later in the smoke billowing from a village set afire by attacking soldiers—again in the bottom right corner panel. In each case, smoke is present in the story world—as it might also be if described in words in a prose-only novel—but the effect is different in the visual medium of comics, especially when rendered in D’Salete’s beautiful but unflowingly un-smoke-like smoke style, linking the moments at a more visceral level because the images are experienced directly as actual ink marks on paper. Written language can’t produce quite the same effect. Within the story, the events—Soares cheated of his freedom and years later a village of runaways destroyed—are no more related than any other of  a range of similarly  horrific events, but the braiding pulls the two into contact, suggesting that they, like the nearly identical smoke patterns, are nearly identical too.

Though 426 pages long, Angola Janga can be opened at random, and a viewer will be rewarded by some visual element that D’Salate has carefully crafted into his artwork. He approaches his history with a similar narrative exuberance, crafting characters and events to fit the massive gaps left by colonial documents (which he quotes to excellent effect at the opening of each of the eleven chapters). Zumbi, the Palmares leader who Brazil celebrates with a national holiday, receives an origin story as an orphan initially raised by a Franciscan monk, and the colonial strategy of dividing the fugitive community by partitioning a free town is embodied by the villainous traitor Zona. The book designers apparently would like us to believe that Andala, a female warrior featured prominently on the cover, is central too, but, I was disappointed to discover, she is only a minor character—despite D’Salete acknowledging in his afterword: “Women had a notable presence in Palmares.”

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The collapse of Palmares is a historical fact D’Salete cannot avoid, giving his novel an inevitably tragic slant. But he copes with its reverberations well, drawing a brief, unexpected, and poignant leap into 21st-century Brazil in his final chapter, before concluding with an extended sequence featuring one of his most effective braidings: the star motif that literally unites the cosmos with the spiritual plight of the people of Palmares. Since this is the first work by D’Salete I’ve read, I look forward to buying his 2017 translated Run For It: Stories Of Slaves Who Fought For Their Freedom, while hoping that Fantagraphics releases more of his work, old or new, soon.

 

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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First off, no, that’s definitely not a Picasso. And neither is this:

While moving my daughter into her first post-college apartment in West Philadelphia last week, I noticed a tattoo parlor down the block (part of the seedy influence of U Penn a few more blocks away) and asked her if she was thinking about getting one (or another one since she came back from her summer camp teaching gig with a strawberry on her leg). She said if she did, it would be a “Picasso Athena.” Since Picasso never did a painting or drawing of Athena, she clarified that she meant something iconically Athena in the style of Picasso, presumably his later-career line drawings, not his cubist work.

So I took that as my instructions. She also said my palette tends to be a little too dark for her decorative taste (her studio apartment wisely features lots of yellow), so I figured she wouldn’t like my usual black and red variants:

To be clear, I was thinking about a wall poster, not another leg tattoo. If you’re interested, here’s my process. As usual, I like the lunatic limitations of Microsoft Paint and the weird creative leaps they foster.

I started with some photo research, both Picasso’s line drawings and lots of Athenas:

 

Once I found a pose I liked, I made a quick sketch using the mouse on my laptop, then overlaid it again and again and again, deleting areas, experimenting with color transparencies, and just sort of screwing around to see what emerged. It’s a haphazardly idiosyncratic approach that I’ve become inappropriately proud of.  Laid out all together here, it’s also vaguely reminiscent of Picasso’s bull sequence process:

I also experimented with overlays from a Van Gogh (because yellow), but didn’t love the results enough:

I think the rawly digital red and yellow might be better:

I’m still trying to figure out a way to combine my favorites:

If you like any of these, and if your daughter has also moved into her first studio apartment, feel free to make a copy for her. (As with a previous post about my son moving out for his first year of college, it falls under the empty-nest fair-use clause of U.S. copyright law.)

 

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I think of erotica and horror as opposite genres. When the image of a female body appears in a horror story, it’s usually scantily clad and in peril, making rape the subtext if not the overt threat. Vampires are romanticized rapists, their penetrating fangs barely a metaphor. They roofie victims with their charming looks and mesmerizing eyes, while werewolves and other clawed beasts consume without the pretense of a date. Either way, it’s rape, not sex, and so anti-erotic.

That’s horror. Erotica is also about excess, but it’s the excesses of pleasure not pain and fear. When the two genres mix, the pornographic results are typically male-oriented and sadistic. Even when not sadistic, porn is most often created by and for men. The image of two female bodies sexually groping isn’t about (or for) actual lesbians but the doubling of female genitalia for increased male consumption.

Which is a long way of saying how startled I am to have enjoyed Emily Carroll’s When I Arrived at the Castle quite so much. Its overt genre is horror (the pair of blood-drizzling fangs on the cover declares as much), and while far from pornographic (there are only a few exposed breasts inside), the not-really-a-subtext is both erotic and lesbian (the cover’s tightly cropped embrace declares that too).

I didn’t know anything about Carroll’s own sexuality before reading the graphic novel (though I’ve since found her on a 2014 list of “Queer and Trans Women Comic Creators to Support this Holigay Season!”) 2014 is the year her first major book, Through the Woods, earned her much-deserved, international acclaim (she’s from Canada, yet more evidence of that nation’s excessive comics prominence). It compiled five of her webcomics into print form, soaking its pages in vibrant colors to pleasantly garish effects. Her new book is comparatively restrained: one story, less than half the pages, and only one color offsetting the black ink. Red.

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Of course she picked red. And as much as I love all the blues and yellows and greens and purples of the earlier tales, the single color is better. Coupled with Carroll’s vacillating black and white lines and negative spaces, the pages are darker in a literal if not thematic sense.

Otherwise Carroll’s style remains familiar: deceptively cartoonish figures that evoke a children’s picture book despite the puddles of blood oozing into the gutters. Not that there are many gutters. Carroll prefers ever-changing layouts that only rarely provide traditional panels or grids.

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Instead, the objects and interior spaces of the story world shape each page design. As the protagonist winds more deeply into the castle’s labyrinth interiors, Carroll finds new ways to visually surprise—a sequence of keyhole-shaped page-panels, an image-less two-page spread of white text on red background, a sudden sparse white background with no punctuating red. She favors full-page images too, an effect literally heightened by the 10 ½ x 8 book dimensions.

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Like the cartoon figures, the plot seems deceptively simple: the heroine has come to kill a vampire in her castle lair. Except, okay, the heroine is an anthropomorphic cat. Which might make sense if the vampire were an anthropomorphic cat-vampire, but she’s not, she’s human, or at least humanish—when she’s not stripping off her skinsuit or uncurling the lower snake half of her suddenly mermaid-esque body. Other times she’s aggressively two-legged and fleshy, as when she lounges barefoot in a cushioned chair, her naked calf angled invitingly toward her guest. Carroll draws one of her talk bubbles across her crotch, with the words “Your meekness” inside. While the vampire may be sincerely turned-off by her would-be killer’s timidity, Carroll is playing with a visual metaphor, or two of them at once: the vampire is calling the cat a pussy.

The sexual pun is the more important one. This would appear to be very much a lesbian vampire, and she wants the pussy to both kill her and die trying. If all the lip-licking and close-up cleavage and overflowing bathtubs don’t make the meaning clear, then the vampire’s ecstatic open-mouthed grin at the moment of her, um, plot climax probably won’t either. In which case, you’ve enjoyed a perfectly fun gothic romp, no harm done. I recommend you next read Christina Rossetti’s wholesome “Goblin Market” and admire the spiritual purity of sisterly affection.

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But the rest of us are probably left even more unraveled, unsure where Carroll is drawing her line between erotic metaphor and blood-splattering literalness. And I lied about the climax. There’s a lot more yarn for this cat to untangle—including her own culpability, the origin of her feline identity, and the source of what at first seem like her misdirected talk bubbles. I also appreciate Carroll’s attention to body types. While the snakey vampire is supermodel thin, the cat has a deliberate plumpness that somehow avoids voluptuous clichés while also allowing the matter-of-fact folds of a large, strong body. Though I’m relieved not to live in an Emily Carroll world, I’m glad its inhabitants are more diverse than the superhero half of the comics multiverse.

While the page count is thinner, Carroll’s new tale is more than twice the size as any of the skinny vignettes found in Through the Woods or at her own wonderful website (if you click there, be sure to check out the “The Worthington”). When I Arrived at the Castle also unfolds over a tighter time span—just a single evening—amplifying the continuous scene’s tension through patiently prolonged suspense. Like the cat protagonist, we arrive at the castle with the first page turn, and we leave only after … well, I don’t want to give too much away.

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[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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As much as I enjoy U.S. and U.K. comics, some of the best English-language work is coming out of other countries right now. Certainly Drawn & Quarterly and Koyama Press have proven Canada’s oversized presence, and though Fantagraphics Books is stationed in Seattle (which is sort of Canada?), some of their most exciting releases feature international authors. Earlier this year they debuted Danish artist Rikke Villadsen’s first English-language comic, The Sea.

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Though I would be content to read a translation of a work previously published in Denmark, The Sea is significantly more than that. Many comics develop their text and images independently, with artists leaving talk bubbles and caption boxes empty for letterers to fill with mechanical fonts digitally. While this is a reasonable division of production labor, one that also allows for textual revision until pages head for the printer, it can create a visual discord between the pleasant imperfections of hand-drawn artwork and the rigid reproduction of identical letters in identically spaced rows. Too often comics creators ignore the visual fact that words are images too.

Not Villadsen. All of her words are hand-drawn in an idiosyncratic style, merging script and font and bold flourishes in curving rows that echo the shapes of the talk bubbles that contain them. Translating The Sea into another language would require not simply rewriting text, but redrawing it and so altering all of her original artboards. While a loss for non-English readers, the result is a comic that fully exploits the visual potential of its text. Because Villadsen uses no exterior narration, all of those hand-drawn words also evoke the spoken sound of the characters who voice them, further deepening their visual characterization.

Villadsen’s words, like the rest of the art they appear in, are drawn with pencils. Comics artists typically produce penciled sketches which they or collaborating artists ink over to create line art that is then colored or printed in black and white. For Villadsen, penciling is not a step in a production process. The penciled pages are her finished product. The Sea consists entirely of pencil marks, from delicate crosshatching to rulered frame lines to the smudged smears presumably produced by Villadsen’s own thumb on the original art. While colorless comics are common, it is rare to find the kinds of gray gradations of The Sea—a style ideal for Villadsen’s subject matter, since her main character is lost in the gray waters and gray fog of the North Sea. Though he partially escapes the monotony through what may (or may not?) be surreal fantasies, even the fisherman’s imagination remains caught in the monotone pencils that literary shape him and his world.

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The imprisoned effect is heightened by the full-page bleeds and the absence of a formal gutter. Villadsen always draw to the page edge (and so necessarily beyond it on her artboards), and rather than framing each panel individually to produce an undrawn negative space between them, her panels share single frame lines. Because the panels are gridded—usually 2×2, with occasional 3×2 and other variants—the combined effects produce a net pattern continuing across pages, as if the story is caught in the same trap that the fisherman pulls from the sea.

Villadsen also draws her main character and his surroundings in a style that at first glance feels cartoonish, because his features are exaggerated and distorted, sometimes as if by the hand of a child, though there is nothing untrained about Villadsen’s artistic choices. But cartoons are also typically simplified too, with only a minimum number of lines needed to define their most essential shapes. Villadsen instead crosshatches her world with a naturalistic level of detail, producing a visual surrealness that matches her story content when her sailor nets a talking fish and a talking baby.

The graphic novel leaves its watery setting for the first time when the baby begins to recount in image-only narration the circumstances of how he (or she—Villadsen always poses a bare leg in front of its genitals) ended up in the sea. We spend the next sixteen pages on the shore where the child’s mother, after scooping up water and boiling it and pouring it back blacker into the sea, removes her Puritan-modest dress and has intercourse with a lighthouse. Villadsen parallels the change in story topic and tone with a striking change in visual style, penciling the mother in naturalistic proportions nothing like the sailor’s distorted features but everything like a pornographic supermodel’s.

If the sane nineteen-image sequence were drawn by a male artist, I might lose trust in the project overall. But Villadsen knows what she’s doing. Earlier in the novel, the fisherman breaks the page’s fourth wall to address the reader and display his tattoos. They include a sailor meeting a prostitute, four female nudes, a fully-dressed nurse, and a sailor before a tomb marked “In Memory of Mom.” These drawings of skin-deep drawings, what that fisherman appropriately calls “painful doodles,” seem to encompass the world of tiny possibilities that he is able to picture for women. Though the sea is vast, his world, like his imagination, is hopelessly limited, as he sails alone on his small boat through identical gray waves.

It is no surprise that he refuses to take responsibility for catching the talking fish and baby, instead blaming them for swimming into his net. When they critique his language as insufficiently old-fashioned, he refuses to change, preferring “fuck” to “hornswoggle” or “grumbleguts.” According to his tattoos, he also prefers “fuck” to “True Love.” A tale of his own origins follows with his unknown, kelp-smelling father and his shrimp-peeling mother whose breasts creak like tree trunks in a storm.

Though already thoroughly surreal, the novel grows even stranger as each growing wave threatens to capsize the tiny ship. Ultimately, Villadsen appears to be spinning a circular tale-within-a-tale with no origin or end point and only tragic escapes. What it all means in terms of narrative and the implied gender critique grows as murky as the thumb-smeared fog, but the trip itself is worth the cost of any cruise on Villadsen’s idiosyncratic sea.

[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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