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Inside 'Old Growth' by Niv Bavarsky and Michael Olivo — CYA

Sometimes the mark of a good comic is its inability to be summed up in words. Here’s my one-sentence attempt for Old Growth:

“Sentient mushrooms build a city in the forest of an expelled caterpillar who returns as an avenging butterfly tasked by angels to prevent the mushroom people from completing their tower of Babel and invading heaven.”

That plot summary may be engagingly odd, but it’s neither the most engaging or even the oddest thing about Niv Bavarksy and Michael Olivo’s graphic novel. Old Growth is foremost a visual work, and no verbal description will do it justice.

That includes the authors’ own attempts. In a concluding four-page interview, Olivo writes: “The book is largely an exploration of immature and arrogant attainments of power, and the two polarized factions represent the individualistic and collectivist manifestations of that.” Bavarksky wisely adds: “I’m not personally inclined to explain too much. Maybe it’ll become clearer over multiple readings or be interpreted very differently from our personal interpretations and I welcome that.”

I welcome it too. Exploratory interpretation is even built into the DNA of the two artists’ creative process. They began with no story, no character, no situation, just a few panels they passed back and forth by Dropbox (they live on opposite U.S. coasts). Like their later readers, they had to figure out what was going on based on initially ambiguous drawings, before working backwards to build a foundation for the sequence and then forwards as the narrative coalesced panel by panel.

Old Growth - Comics by comiXology

That’s not your typical approach to comics writing. More often a scripter hands a penciler page-by-page descriptions of would-be panel content paired with dialogue and narration. The artist doesn’t start drawing until the writing is over, making most comics just illustrated scripts. The penciler divides up the pre-determined number of images into layouts, sketches them, and then hands the work-in-progress to an inker who finalizes the line art, before handing it off again to a colorist. That’s the conveyer-belt production style of mainstream companies like Marvel and DC.

Olivo and Bavarksy worked nothing like that. They instead drew “completely in tandem,” trading the same panels back and forth, each adding new details, both and neither taking the role of primary artist-writer. Little wonder Old Growth took three years to produce.

Inside 'Old Growth' by Niv Bavarsky and Michael Olivo — CYA

They offset their complex creative process with formal simplicity. Most of the novel’s pages divide into a 2×3 grid of equal squares, providing a comfortingly simple progression through an internally complicated world. The choice of squares isn’t random. Bavarsky and Olivo recount how their first collaboration began when both were separately commissioned to draw an album cover. Instead of competing, they submitted a single, combined work. (They don’t name the album, but I’m guessing it’s “Cartoons” by the Australian band Hollow Everdaze.) Apparently, the shape appealed to them, because Old Growth includes over six hundred more.

Old Growth - Comics by comiXology: Web UK

The only images not co-drawn are the authors’ self-portraits, and there it’s clear that their styles are so merged it would be impossible to identify either’s specific contributions anywhere else in the novel. Their cartoons also evoke a higher level of abstraction than the majority of graphic novels. Sometimes panels seem to be shifting arrangements of flat, single-color shapes more than a storyworld of environments peopled by characters. The caterpillar, for example, is a string of overlapping pink circles with an anthropomorphic eyeball at one end but no other facial features.  The opening full-page image highlights a yellow triangle, which only after rereading with information gleaned from later pages can be deciphered as a heavenly ray of light bursting through darkened clouds.

Inside 'Old Growth' by Niv Bavarsky and Michael Olivo — CYA

Most panels are isolated images, but some pages (usually those depicting underground networks of mushroom roots) are appropriately interconnected, as though the white of the gutters blocks the view of the full picture. The second chapter (which might be an extended dream or prophecy?) breaks form, with squiggly panel edges and an eight-page sequence of full-page images that heighten the authors’ abstract style and push even harder against the novel’s narrative coherence. As a result, it’s one of the most interesting segments in the novel—though I admit I equally enjoyed the visual allusions to 1970s Godzilla movies when the caterpillar suddenly has a death ray emitting from its head. I also suspect the authors have seen a few Harry Potter movies, since the death ray and a mushroom laser tank lock beams like Harry and Voldemort.

Given that level of visual playfulness in both style and content, it may seem odd to interpret the novel as a philosophical struggle between domesticated comfort and antagonistic growth as Olivo suggests. He argues that the key to happiness is the understanding that pain is necessary. I’m guessing it was also Olivo who drew a literal key in the novel—a skeleton key with a skull for a head—that unlocks a heavenly door to the unknown.

I prefer Bavarksy’s description. When you’re taken “out of your comfort zone,” make something positive from the challenge. I suspect Old Growth will take some readers out of their comfort zones too. Personally, I wouldn’t mind a little more happy discomfort and a deeper exploration of heavenly unknowns, but it’s a treat to watch such an unusual collaborative process regardless of what flavor of fruit grows from it.

Niv Bavarsky — Just Six Degrees
Michael Olivo (Person) - Comic Vine

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The best way I can summarize this graphic novel is the expression on my partner’s face as she flipped through it, her mouth locked in a grimace, eyebrows arching over each page.

Image result for Kate Lacour Vivisectionary

Kate Lacour’s Vivisectionary is surprisingly horrible—and that’s a compliment. I could say horrifying, but that implies horror in the genre sense (though technically it’s that too). Lacour’s art burrows past standard tropes to trigger a range of down-to-the-bone visceral reactions. It’s unpleasant viewing—the way a roller coaster would be an unpleasant form of public transit. It’s good in small doses. Lacour’s 136 pages sounds about right. My wife blinked at every one of them.

Image result for Kate Lacour Vivisectionary

Like “horror,” “graphic novel” might be the wrong word. Unless it’s possible to have a novel without such things as characters, plot, and settings. The back cover calls Vivisectionary a “compendium,” and the front cover a “convocation.” It is most certainly “biological art,” and the images both are and are of “experiments.” Lacour explains in her afterward that her inspiration came from the natural museum dioramas that fascinated her as a child, that grotesque combination of plastic, taxidermied animal flesh, and story fragments captured in cadaverous, three-dimensional freeze frames. She says they filled her with wonder. Her art fills me with something a lot more disturbing.

Image result for Kate Lacour Vivisectionary

Imagine you just pulled a textbook from your medical school library shelf. It’s leather bound, with one of those official-looking marble patterns on the inside of the covers. The following series of sixty two-page spreads feature individual “plates,” image on the right, number and title on the left, and a decadent swath of greenish beige space between. The first seems normal enough. Two rows show the parallel development of two egg embryos, a bird’s and a snake’s—until they hatch simultaneously and the baby snake kills the baby bird. While the weirdness of that should be obvious (medical illustrations are supposed to represent general phenomenon, not specific events), Plate No. 2 is significantly weirder: a how-to diagram for twisting off the cork from a champagne bottle, only wait, the bottle is suddenly a swan’s neck, and now you’re pouring the champagne down a funnel inserted into its mouth, before removing its head and extracting a row of white pill-like objects from the perfectly bisected wound. These are instructions for what exactly? And for whom?

Image result for Kate Lacour Vivisectionary

Things only get worse: a woman morphing into a caterpillar—which is somehow related to both a butterfly with petal-like wings and a flower with wing-like petals depending on how you follow and interpret the flow of panels. (Is there a correct interpretation?). Soon a mouse is cocooning itself into a cocoon-winged bat, a hybrid dog-baby suckles at a woman’s breast (is she wearing Victorian clothes?), and pigs grow into squares and worms into bologna rolls convenient for food preparation. It turns out snakes and swans can be surgically combined—though for less self-apparent reasons. Brains also make great yarn and/or snakes, and mermaids evolve into land lizards. And that’s just “Phase I.” “Phase II” involves people: snake masturbation, penis bongs, food blenders for skeletons, sex with roasting chickens, babies born from ejaculate wounds, brains with vaginas, hummingbirds sucking life from fingers, frogs growing from eyeball placenta, bisected embryo reforming into kissing twins.

Image result for Kate Lacour Vivisectionary

I could go on (I didn’t even get to the drug theme: shooting up ground unicorn horn; snorting sands of time surgically removed from your own spine), but I will leave you to imagine the rest of Phases III-V. There might be a way to read a plot into the mounting discomfort, but if so the viewer is the main character, and the images are your deranged antagonist.

The horror isn’t just the skin-prickling discomfort the images evoke. It’s the implied but wholly ambiguous circumstances of the images’ production. Not Lacour’s actual images—she’s fully in charge of those—but who or what is responsible for the surgical operations Lacour documents? Whose undrawn body controls the scalpel? While the notion of a medical lab staffed by rogue physicians with macabre ethical standards would be sufficiently disturbing, the problem Lacour proposes runs considerably deeper. This isn’t a medical book documenting the gone-terribly-wrong. In Lacour’s universe, this is standard practice. And although the prospect of the entire branching field of medicine conforming to the norms of Vivisectionary is again thoroughly disturbing, it’s nature itself that appears to be most deranged. Human medicine is just responding to the inhumane absurdities Lacour’s naturally unnatural world produces. The mad doctor dictating from his operating theater must be God.

Image result for Kate Lacour Vivisectionary

It’s also uncomfortably possible to interpret Vivisectionary according to its cultural and political moment. Is this a treatise on transphobia? I don’t think so. But I doubt someone contemplating reassignment surgery would leave it on their coffee table. Is this a bizarre backdoor entry point for pro-life positions, including the sanctity of stem cells? Again, doubtful. But the volume does communicate visceral distrust of those wielding medical power, and these (often female) subjects have little control over their own (often headless) bodies.

Image result for Kate Lacour Vivisectionary

That merperson (their gender is strikingly ambiguous) on the cover, did they opt to have their tail removed and replaced with mechanical legs? Is there such a thing as mermaid conversation therapy in this funhouse mirror of a reality? Are these specimens volunteers? Did they have to sign a waiver permitting the use of their images in this collection, or is that just standard practice too, the way organs and other bodily content becomes the property of a hospital once removed? As far as all of those fetuses grown or removed from heads and brains and hearts and eyeballs and amputated fingers and forearms, if you’re pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or pregnant and considering getting an abortion, Vivisectionary is almost certainly not for you.

But if you’re comfortable with discomfort, and you like your graphic novels to experiment with the DNA of the comics form, then Kate Lacour is definitely your deranged doctor.

Image result for Kate Lacour Vivisectionary

 

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

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