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

Image result for Pieter Coudyzer graphic novel Outburst

At first glimpse, Pieter Coudyzer’s graphic novel Outburst fits firmly in the revenge genre defined in the mid-70s US by the Stephen King best-seller and Brian De Palma box office adaptation Carrie: a sympathetically hapless but unsuspectingly powerful victim of teen bullying is finally pushed too far. Though Coudyzer is a Dutch author, and so his pop culture references are likely different, he narrates from his protagonist Tom’s point of view, establishing reader sympathy from the opening pages. The flashback structure anticipates the promised outburst of the title too, with the police arriving to arrest Tom as he begins to narrate his past.

After pages of schoolyard pranks and mockery, there’s no surprise when Tom finally loses control. As in Carrie, his victims are his school’s most popular couple and the source of his worst suffering.

Image result for Pieter Coudyzer graphic novel Outburst

Coudyzer literally draws Tom sympathetically, rendering his eyes in colored close-ups that contrast the black-dotted faces of his classmates. Tom’s popular love interest Aure’s eyes are colorless, but Coudyzer draws her black pupils distinct from their surrounding whites. The other characters, especially the most bullying boys, look at Tom and the reader through disturbing black smears. Even when “what’s-her-name, the least popular girl in class” refuses to share a kayak with Tom during a class outing, she looks at the ground with the same scribbles. Though Coudyzer sometimes draws Tom’s eyes similarly, they are always framed and tinted by his glasses. The bully Yves tells him, “those glasses sure come in handy obscuring your dumb ugly mug”, but they also make Tom seem human.

But Tom isn’t human. In the Poe-like opening, he calls himself a “madman” and describes a forest growing inside him. While a metaphor for his tamped down suffering, the forest is also literal. His arms and legs have become branches and roots. The physical transformation began after he was tricked into writing Aure a love letter. Now instead of laughing at him, the class stares silently as dropped leaves appear around his feet. In the next pages, Coudyzer draws Tom in silhouette as branches protrude all around him. The images are oddly metaphoric though, since Tom’s simultaneous narration explains that the forest “slithered out of me, along my fingers, my toes … Fortunately, the rest of my body was spared.”

Image result for Pieter Coudyzer graphic novel Outburst

If Outburst followed the typical bullying plot, Tom’s life would have grown much worse afterwards, but instead Tom tells us “I grew accustomed to my new body” and even achieved a “sense of belonging” when he enrolled in university. No one comments or flinches when his cluster of branches accepts the diploma handed to him on stage. Though he wears sacks to disguise his former arms and legs, he is “content”. His boss briefly questions his “handicap”, but doesn’t care. His deepest challenge is the solitude he seeks. After his first shift as a lone night guard, “the forest inside of my head doubled” and soon his “dreams faded”.

Though unarticulated, those dreams are not of the forested “island of your dreams” he described to his school psychologist, but their opposite, the false promise of Aure’s love that motivated him to return from the school outing instead of remaining hidden and alone within a hillside forest. When he sees the now adult Aure in a grocery store with the former bully Yves, Tom literally “CRAAAAAAACKS!!!” His forest explodes across the building, killing Aure and Yves both. Though nominally a horror scene, Coudyzer avoids blood until afterward, when one of Tom’s countless branches drips red dots across the floor.

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The more disturbing image is of Aure’s face as a cluster of Tom’s branches push into her mouth. The violent penetration suggests not only murder but rape too, and it is the last we see of Aure. But in her final close-up, Coudyer renders her one unobscured eye as distinct and colorful as Tom’s. When she first appears in the grocery store, her eyes are colored too — a fact Coudyzer emphasizes by inserting a flashback panel of her younger face, now with the smeared black eyes of her classmates. Though her bully of a husband appears smear-eyed in a similar flashback panel on the following page, the adult Yves is human-eyed now too.

They are not villains. Coudyzer’s visual narration suggests that even though many children can be inhuman in their cruelty, even the worst eventually grow into human beings. It’s unclear whether Aure was ever cruel. She stuck her tongue out at Tom once, and her reaction to his love letter was merely annoyed: “Tom, I want a word with you. What’s this supposed to mean?”

In the present scene, Aure initiates the conversation, pleased to have bumped into Tom. It’s only when she mentions the love letter that Tom’s “true home finds” him. Though a sexually-motivated double-murderer, Tom is arguably a victim too. But Coudyer’s choice of names complicates even that reading. Tom admits he was “Always looking where I ought not to. Always peeping.” It’s unclear whether the peeping Tom reference originated from the Dutch version of the novel or was introduced by translator Peter Mennen, but it further suggests that Tom is not simply a victim who got his just revenge. In the end, he finds complete isolation in his forest — an ending that is both escape and punishment.

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

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