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

Tag Archives: Rikke Villadsen

I always find it disconcerting when the uniquely U.S. genre of the Western ends up in the hands of a non-U.S. author. It’s like blinking into a fun house mirror and trying to understand what you look like through the distortions. Cowboy eBook: Villadsen, Rikke, Villadsen, Rikke ...

Since the western is already a massive distortion, the warpage can be a kind of corrective, especially in the artful hands of Danish artist Rikke Villadsen. Cowboy is her second English-language graphic novel, a kind of thematic sequel to 2019’s The Sea, also published by Fantagraphics. I’m already looking forward to whatever new Villadsen book they put out next year.

Though so many U.S. pop culture hero types cry for feminist revision, the pseudo-historical and hyper-masculine gun-slinger is at the top of my list. Since the western is probably best known through films, comics are an apt medium for re-exploring the genre since they are equally visual but are also fantastically unbound by physical reality. Lisa Hanawalt’s 2018 Coyote Doggirl offered a useful gender-flip (with a dog-headed cast) while maintaining a love for landscape and horses, while Frederik Peeters and Loo Hui Phang’s 2017 The Smell of Starving Boys scrambled sexuality with a muddled mystic take on Native culture. Villadsen’s approach is something entirely different.

Fantagraphics Books on Twitter: "Cowboy by Rikke Villadsen is out ...

First off, don’t expect a plot—even though the novel does open with a “Starring” page of six seemingly archetypal characters including “The Sheriff,” “The Whore,” and “The Coward.” Yet how archetypal is “The Smoker”? And I’m embarrassed to admit that I paused over “The Window,” wondering if such a glaring translation typo could have snuck through book production. Villadsen both means and doesn’t mean “The Widow.”

Queering the Western? Questions of Genre, Gender, and Normativity ...

That sort of intentional disconnect describes Villadsen’s overall aesthetic. Readers can never be entirely certain if they’re in the right story or not. Or I should say viewers, since Cowboy is predominately a visual experience of Villadsen’s entertainingly idiosyncratic style. Her lines are entirely black and blue with a looseness and sometimes sketchy incompleteness that gives her story world both an expressively raw energy and a weird indeterminacy—as if any moment could be crumpled up and redrawn differently. Her pages vary around a pleasantly sloppy 2×2 grid. Sometimes figures and objects partially overlap the thin lines dividing panels, but not as if breaking frames for action effects. It looks instead like Villadsen’s lines just like to wander sometimes.

Her narrative structure overlaps similarly. The six character-perspective chapters partially backtrack, trodding on each other’s time frames, but without clarifying an overall structure. Did The Smoker shoot The Coward before or after The Window looked through her window? Did The Whore orgasm and float through her window before or after The Window dressed herself in The Coward’s clothes? And after The Wanted man argues with his talking image in his Wanted poster, does he wake up on the previous morning before the novel began? If so, does his physical transformation into The Window mean the whole novel is an endless loop?

Queering the Western? Questions of Genre, Gender, and Normativity ...

Of course none of these questions are answerable, and they shouldn’t be. It’s not the enigmatic events that matter but their conversations with Western tropes. Sometimes those conversations are literal. Villadsen’s idiosyncratic lines extend into her scraggly talk bubbles and looping letterforms. The Smoker spends pages trying to complete a single, faltering sentence: “There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend. Those with a rope around their neck and the people who … And the people who have the job of doing … of doing the … the … the …”

A short paragraph on the final page explains that this and other dialogue is excerpted from classic Western films including Sergio Leone’s 1968 Once Upon a Time in the West.  I’m always happy to see an excerpt credited, but the note is odd since any reader who hasn’t noticed that Villadesen “deconstructs” the genre by “subverting its masculine framework” will surely never make it to this concluding page. It’s also redundant since the John Wayne cameo makes the “homage” explicit, and is there a way to read the novel other than gender subversion?

After the Coward dies his cowardly death, The Window strips his corpse while striking erotic poses that if drawn by a male artist would probably make me lose trust in the project. The sex scene between The Smoker and The Whore is similarly disturbing. There’s nothing erotic about the interior view of the woman’s vagina as the erect penis crushes a fly trapped on its tip. Did the fly’s death cause The Whore to orgasm through the window? Will she remain there forever lassoed above the saloon by The Smoker’s rope? If so, it’s a better fate than the rest of the cast.

I’m not sure what counts as a spoiler for a loopingly surreal mash-up of metafictional events, so I’ll just say the death count increases. What matters more is the implied gender critique behind all the genre chaos. It seems no woman, even a woman who perfectly impersonates a man, can ever occupy a man’s Western-defined role. It also seems an attempt is doubly self-destructive, because regardless of her eventual physical fate, the transformation requires a woman to perform and internalize woman-destroying misogyny.

It’s less clear what Villadsen has to say about women who do conform to gender roles. Is The Whore equally tragic, or is her inexplicable defiance of gravity also a social defiance? I would prefer that interpretation, but her bobbing bare breasts suggest otherwise.

Queering the Western? Questions of Genre, Gender, and Normativity ...

The fate of Villadsen’s men are similarly ambiguous. Likening the “useless hole” of The Coward’s bullet wound to a vagina reinforces Western gender, and so is that the point? Is Villadsen critiquing by making the norms explicit through exaggeration? And The Smoker’s death by bizarre smoking accident and The Wanted’s own gender transformation, what beyond surreal entertainment do they suggest?

In the end, Cowboy is more than a political diatribe. It’s an aggressively peculiar take on an already aggressively peculiar genre. Little wonder the fun house mirror never comes fully into focus.

Rikke Villadsen (Person) - Comic Vine

[A version of this post and MY OTHER RECENT REVIEWS appear in the BOOKS 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.

Image result for rikke villadsen the sea


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.

Image result for rikke villadsen the sea

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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