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When I first read this graphic novel in January, the notion of a woman self-confined in her apartment as she battles depression was novel. Four months later it’s an international norm. Gg’s portrayal of isolation suddenly speaks to millions of us. Her battle is against a different invisible enemy, but the dark specter of her depression looks a lot like our monstrous fears of CV-19. I’ve never seen a story altered so drastically and so quickly by context before.

Constantly: GG: 9781927668726: Amazon.com: Books

 

Gg is a master of the graphic short story. Stop by her website and you’ll see most of her works fall under fifty pages. (The 2017 graphic novel I’m Not Here is the happy exception.) They also all feature a young, Asian-looking protagonist who I find hard not to identify with gg herself—though who knows? The enigmatically brief bio included on the back flap of I’m Not Here, “gg lives and works in a small prairie city in Canada,” is replaced by a blank space in Constantly.

Because I assume the author has never been held prisoner in a desert asylum or worked a corporate job in a dystopian future or battled a monster made from her own cut-off hair, I think of her as a graphic novelist rather than a graphic memoirist. Still, her portrayal of a second-generation immigrant struggling to simultaneously love and escape her dysfunctional parents gave I’m Not Here a thoroughly realistic grounding—even though the mother’s arm seems to be held on by tape, and it was never entirely clear whether the protagonist dreamed she stole another woman’s life or if she somehow became her own doppelganger.

Constantly could continue that story, with gg’s avatar suffering the isolation of the same but now prison-like apartment. She literally can’t get out. All of the story’s forty-eight pages take place in the stark interiors of her new home and the even starker interior of her depression. Where I’m Not Here found its force in ambiguity and the maybe-fantastical, Constantly is comparatively straightforward in its portrayal of the protagonist’s sometimes literal battle with her own psyche. That struggle is made physical with the visual metaphor of black, half-translucent hands spinning her in her sleep, tugging her to the floor, shoving her from a doorway.

INDIE VIEW: 'Constantly' is a visual poem about the struggle you ...

Those dark forearms could belong to the hair monster gg’s earlier protagonist fought to the death in her 2015 A Mysterious Process. Though the battle apparently continues, much has changed in those four years. gg’s style has evolved into an ever-sharper array of texture-less shapes that somehow evoke photographic realism despite teetering toward total abstraction. It took me several blinks to decode the close-up jumble of upside-down limbs on the cover, an image that extends into the opening pages as the protagonist floats in the half-dark of dreams before tumbling awake on her mattress.

gg's 'Constantly' Knows Where the Monsters Go - PopMatters

Like her protagonist’s world, gg’s palette is strikingly limited: the dusty gradations of a sometimes almost imperceptible pink, and an equally thin gray that at times thickens to purplish black. The white at the gutter edge often penetrates panels to dominate images. Each page is a balance of shape and color, holding the eye long past the point of narrative necessity. gg’s style is further evidence that the comics form is not foremost literature but visual art, requiring readers to become viewers willing to pause and flip backwards and pause again, worrying less about the grammar of visual storytelling and more about the haunting connotations of images.

Layouts vary between full-page panels and sets of three equally divided full-widths. That visual rhythm creates a kind of narrative logic too, with each three-step process (trying to stand up from a yoga mat, trying to make food in a blender, trying to turn the doorknob to leave) followed by the failed and enlarged consequence (her collapsed body, a puddle across floor tiles, her slumped head before the still-closed door). Most appear as self-enclosed two-page spreads, creating tiny micro-plots floating within the large arc of the novella.

Unlike most of gg’s other works, Constantly is silent, further emphasizing the protagonist’s isolation. There’s literally no other person in her world to talk to. The novella isn’t wordless though. gg spaces a memo pad list throughout the pages, each new entry continuing the repeated phrase “I don’t want …” Things she doesn’t want include: to eat, sleep, live, die, laugh, cry, leave, be forgotten, be different, be normal.

Most poignantly, she also writes that she doesn’t want “a body.” This is ironic since Constantly is a study of the protagonist’s (and presumably the author’s) body. There’s no nudity, but the form-fitting clothes and underwear highlight rather than obscure, creating a double intimacy when coupled with the emotionally charged subject matter. The novella keeps the viewer at the protagonist’s round shoulder, peering into her sealed-in life. Though gg’s drawing are never sexualized, they do evoke pleasure in the human (and specifically female) form, creating a paradoxical even disturbing beauty through a portrayal of mental suffering.

The visual motifs of a clock (dark fingers keep pushing the mechanical hands backwards) and a set of cell-like window blinds (that quietly echo the horizontal lines of the memo pad) add to the feeling of enclosure—though not claustrophobia. Despite the story’s psychic darkness, gg’s pages are oddly light, as if inching slowly toward the intangible. Other than the almost-black comforter threatening to swallow her in her sleep, the protagonist’s world and body are in greater danger of fading into an opposite kind of nothingness. Those black hands might be the only things keeping her on the page. In the end I’m not so certain who was writing on the memo pad or who tore it up. “Who are you? What do you want?” are exactly the questions someone needs to be asking.

But Constantly offers no easy answers and certainly no plot-closing solutions to depression. The older gg apparently no longer believes monsters can be battled to the death. They move in with you. Escaping the struggles of an old home means facing the struggles of a new home. Struggle is the constant.

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

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Okay, the year’s not quite over yet, and, no, I haven’t read nearly all of the new graphic novels published this year, but from my personal perusal here’s by far my favorite.

GG—the pseudonym of a presumably female, Asian-Canadian comics creator living in an undisclosed prairie city—is little known except to her community of followers on Patreon and visitors to her website ohgigue.com, which includes about a half dozen of her comics short stories, several also published in other venues. They range from the early sequences of rough, hand-drawn 8-pagers in her 2014 “Five Stories” to the sharply digital 48-page “I’m Crazy.” Her equally excellent 14-page “Don’t Leave Me Alone” appeared in the 2016 Best American Comics, but I prefer “Semi-Vivi,” another 14-pager that defines GG’s signature cropping effects and gutterless 4×2 grid. Judging from the content of her website alone, I would predict that GG will be a major comics voice of the next decade. And now she is already realizing that potential with her first full-length graphic novel I’m Not Here, released in September from Koyama Press.

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The novel is one of the richest and gently disturbing I’ve read in recent years. It’s young female protagonist goes unnamed as she navigates the streets and hallways of her and her aging parents’ suburban homes and the memories of her second-generation immigrant childhood. No narrating voice grounds the story, so events move from the present to various moments of the past and possibly future without guiding explanations. By speaking only in dialogue, the main character seems to have no more insight about herself and her troubled situation than does the reader. We travel with her, suffering the same confusions that define her life. All we know for sure is the isolating distance she feels from her increasingly estranged mother.

I’m Not Here builds on GG’s earlier short works by approaching the long form in discrete, almost stand-alone units. The novel consists of eight closely linked vignettes, most between six and eleven pages, though the longest extends for twenty-four and the shortest five. Initially black and then gray two-page spreads divide all but the concluding vignette which is separated instead by two non-facing blank white pages. The movement toward white, though literally brightening, is paradoxical since GG’s use of white space within the narrative suggests loss as margins widen around the daughter’s isolated figure as she knocks at her mother’s door and the repeating image of the mother’s younger, cropped face fades until indistinguishable from the page. The novel also opens with two blank pages before a similar progression of panels darkens into grays and then eventually blacks. But if white is oblivion, black is no better. The dementia-suffering father concludes the second vignette by driving into the black of the margin, leaving the figure of his silhouetted daughter merging with the shadows of the street at night. The father never reappears.

The confining quality of the gray palette is reinforced by GG’s layout. Instead of her previous gutterless 4×2 panels, the novel’s physically smaller proportions suit her rigid 4-row grid of full-width panels. When the grid is not overt, it is implied, with the top two, middle two, or bottom two panels merged to create a double-sized panel. More often both the top and bottom panels merge to create two-panel pages. GG is especially adept at using her gutters in relation to the black and white shapes within panel images—the white frame of a photograph, the white rectangle of a bandage, the horizontal line of a grocery shelf, the vertical lines of a window pane—sometimes merging gutter and panel content to further augment her cropping effects.

Like the unframed panels, her internal images consist almost exclusively of opaque shapes with no contour lines separating them. Each shape is defined only by its internal and uniform gray gradation. The style produces a stark and simplified world devoid of not only color but texture too, with each figure and object precisely isolated—effects that express the novel’s overall narrative tone. Though often reduced to absolute simplicity in terms of image density, the contours of GG’s shapes also evoke real-world subject matter as if derived from photographic sources. The result is not the simplification of cartoons but a brutally stripped-down realism.

Image result for gg i'm not here

GG’s use of words is stripped-down too. She wisely ignores the conventions of thought balloons, talk balloons, and even conventional caption boxes. Words appear only at the bottom of panels in panel-wide strips. Sometimes the strips merge with the black of the panel or the white of the gutter, with words rendered in either black or white. GG never varies font or font style, and, since the novel includes no narration, she forgoes quotation marks for dialogue too. She draws no sound effects within images, but includes the “knock knock” of a door in her caption strips, marking it typographically with brackets. Voices on answering machines are bracketed too. When GG uses dialogue it is effective, but the majority of the novel is visual only. Fifty-six pages—over half of the novel— are wordless, and another dozen feature only one line of text. Like GG’s visual simplicity, the linguistic silence adds to the novel’s stark reality—especially during moments of literal silence, as the daughter and mother pass a wordless meal together.

GG’s austere realism plays well against the novel’s narrative content. While the situation of a daughter feeling estranged from her aging parents is realistic, GG disturbs that baseline reality with moments of inexplicable surrealism. After a comparatively mundane opening sequence of the daughter tying back her hair and preparing to go for a walk to take photographs, she finds her mother sitting in her bedroom with one of her arms detached. “Can you help me tape this back on?” she asks.

The daughter applies bandages to her mother’s back too, but GG draws no wounds or stumps, so it is intentionally unclear how the severed but apparently bloodless parts attach. GG’s stark style obscures the would-be details of her characters’ reality, flattening the world into dream-like imprecision. No like incidents follow this brief, unreal moment, but by placing it in the first vignette, GG colors the rest of the narrative with its potential. Is the father literally driving around the block in search of his house forever? Is this dementia or an afterlife variation on Sisyphus? Does the daughter literally become another woman or does the woman’s landlady simply mistake her when she lets her into the apartment and later hands her the lease? Is the daughter literally knocking at her mother’s locked door or is this a metaphor of her dreaming mind? GG leaves such reality-defining questions unanswered, leaving her main character drifting between realities too.

Image result for gg i'm not here

Like most graphic novels and stories in general, I’m Not Here could be reduced to a summary of its story content—though GG’s fractured plotting resists even that narrative norm. But aside from its surreal plotting and striking stylistic qualities, the novel is significant for GG’s way of expressing its content visually and so overcoming the limitations of script-based comics storytelling. I doubt GG began by describing her plot and panel content in words and then executing those descriptions in images. Instead, her story emerges from the images themselves, and so they and their intricate relationships cannot be simply summarized. The page, for example, of silhouetted tree tops and street lamp below a full moon and vast evening sky does not mean anything linguistically or even narratively, but its placement after the mother criticizes the daughter is emotionally evocative. Such images do not tell a story but are the story—a fact true of all comics but rarely so well achieved as here. And I’m looking forward to more such stories from one of the most exciting new voices of 21st century comics.

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

 

 

 

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