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

Tag Archives: Vivisectionary

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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