Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Comics Review: The Lagoon, Lilli Carré

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

(Note: A somewhat revised assessment of The Lagoon appears in my review of the cartoonist's "The Thing About Madeline." Please click the link at the end of this post.)

The most interesting aspect of Lilli Carré's The Lagoon is its principal formal affectation. The story is paced through the use of sounds: the ticking of a metronome, taps on a window, the hooting of an owl. These and others are used to punctuate the story and set its rhythms. One has come across this technique here and there in various comics stories over the years. The two instances that immediately come to mind are the asylum-cell scene in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's Batman: The Killing Joke, with the smacking of playing cards against a tabletop, and Neil Gaiman and Mike Dringenberg's "The Sound of Her Wings" from The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, in which dialogue is juxtaposed with the sounds of a soccer ball being kicked around a park. But The Lagoon is the first story I can recall in which the technique is used to structure the entire piece. I was especially taken with the counterpoints Carré develops between the various percussive noises and more "melodic" sounds, such as the characters' dialogue, the yowling of a group of cats in unison, or the siren song of a swamp creature. Carré brings a whole new meaning to the notion of "orchestrating" a story.

It's not hard to imagine the technique giving a striking texture to a great comics story down the road, but the reason it's so conspicuous in The Lagoon is that there's nothing else of interest going on. The story is otherwise shapeless. It's ostensibly a slice-of-life piece about a three-generation household on the outskirts of a swamp, but Carré doesn't establish much in the way of conflicts or a dynamic between the characters. The most memorable scene involves members of the family and their neighbors gathered around a pond to listen to a swamp creature's singing, but the set piece is mostly notable for its weirdness. There doesn't seem to be any point being made, and when the siren-like song leads two characters into the waters--never to be seen again--the moments of their descending are completely affectless. The characters aren't defined enough for the reader to care what happens to them. Carré also inexplicably ends each chapter with full-page panels of, at different times, a grove of trees, underwater bubbles, and a dwindling woodpile fire. One assumes they're metaphors, but the analogies are opaque. Carré doesn't do much to develop them as tropes during the story. As a literary effort, The Lagoon is a wash.

One appreciates Carré developing a complex technique to construct her stories with, but one wishes she would develop a story worth telling. I look at the work of her and so many of her contemporaries, and I can't help thinking that we have a generation of cartoonists who have no idea of how to create a story that's effective in dramatic terms. They don't know how to build a narrative through conflicts or contrasts, nor do they know how to effectively develop tropes. These ambitious talents, admirable in so many ways, seem to turn every story into an inchoate meander, and The Lagoon is no exception.

Reviews of other work by Lilli Carré:

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