Sunday, October 25, 2009

Comics Review: "The Thing About Madeline," Lilli Carré

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Lilli Carré blossoms from a promising talent to an accomplished cartoonist in this affecting, superbly crafted fantasy about finding fulfillment in one’s life.

Last year, I reviewed Lilli Carré’s The Lagoon, which I found extremely frustrating. Carré was a striking cartooning talent, with an obvious interest in formal experimentation, but the story was largely inscrutable. There was a hermetic feeling to it, as if a good portion of it was still locked up in her head. I had come to the book after reading a number of current comics where the authors had never bothered to give their material any kind of dramatic or poetic shape. In my review of The Lagoon, I unfairly lumped Carré’s work in with those meandering efforts. Unlike the peers of hers in question, she clearly conceived her work in terms of narrative effects. The problem with The Lagoon was that there was something about the story that proved ineffable for her. She gave a sophisticated surface to material that just wasn’t accessible. One was caught between admiration for her obvious sense of craft and annoyance at the solipsistic nature of her content. I read it at a point where my patience with inchoate efforts was at a low ebb, and she became a target for a bit of misguided lashing out.

But two subsequent efforts make her quite the target for praise, and there is nothing misguided about it. “The Carnival,” which I’ll review soon, is probably the single best comics story of the past year. “The Thing About Madeline,” the subject of today’s piece, isn’t quite as accomplished, but nonetheless, it is a finely crafted gem. Everything comes together for Carré. The piece is elegantly structured and paced, with meanings both clear and affecting.

The key moment in “The Thing About Madeline” is when the title character comes home one evening and finds a doppelgänger sleeping in her bed. Up to this point, Carré has methodically constructed a portrait of Madeline as someone who is dissatisfied with life. She has a boring dead-end job, and she spends her off-hours at the local bar getting drunk and singing along with her favorite song on the jukebox. The opportunity is there for a romance with another bar regular, but Madeline is too caught up in her unhappiness to make the connection. The portrait climaxes with the arrival of the doppelgänger, a trope for the intensity of Madeline’s feelings of alienation. She has become so estranged from her life that she is no longer the one living it.

The story then artfully moves from metaphor to irony. In short order, the doppelgänger takes over every aspect of Madeline’s life, but the double finds happiness there. Her morale is high at work, and the bar becomes a place to socialize rather than retreat into oneself. Romance even blossoms with the fellow she hangs out with there. Madeline finds herself literally on the outside looking in. She has become so completely shut out of her life that her acquaintances no longer recognize her. When she and the double finally confront each other, her sense of alienation reaches its apogee: She no longer recognizes herself. Carré uses personification to powerful dramatic effect.

The confrontation scene works as a climax and a second turning point. In the story’s third act, Madeline leaves town and builds a new life elsewhere. Lessons appear to have been learned from the doppelgänger episode; Madeline embraces her new routines and relationships instead of allowing herself to be defeated by them. Carré, though, is too sharp to end her story on such a pat, moralizing note. A few years later, Madeline briefly encounters a person she knew in her old life, and things have changed for him. When she last saw him, he was happy and fulfilled, but now there is an air of dissatisfaction. The story ends with Madeline being stalked by a second figure from earlier in the story, one who appears to be acting out of an obsessive sense of envy. It is a superbly suggestive finale. Carré closes the story on a portentous note, and she challenges the reader’s judgment of Madeline as a character. Madeline’s problem in the story’s first two sections may not have been her attitude. Perhaps her circumstances were inherently demoralizing after all. The ending also lends itself to a supernatural reading at odds with the one I'm presenting here. There’s a feeling of the uncanny in the final moments that cannot be dismissed.

Carré’s presentation of the story is largely excellent. The panels are clear and unostentatiously drawn. She also does a fine job of building the story’s rhythms. The story moves back and forth between expository narration and dialogue. It never feels monotonous, and the shifts in the approach to dramatization never call attention to themselves. The only things that aren’t handled particularly well are the color effects. The scenes featuring Madeline’s old life are rendered in indigo hues, with the ones in her new circumstances presented in a muted orange. The shift is clearly intended to reflect the emotional change in her life, but the meaning is too obvious. The color gray is also used, and the handling of it is confusing. Carré uses it in the outside-looking-in moments, but the feeling she is trying to evoke with it never comes across. But these are niggling flaws, and one respects the effort. It is always better to fall down by trying too much than trying too little. One’s sense of Carré is that she strives to make every element she includes serve a narrative purpose, and overall, “The Thing About Madeline” is a superb example of craft and formal control. She’s a terrific cartoonist.

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