Sunday, January 29, 2012

Comics Review: Nine Ways to Disappear, Lilli Carré

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Lilli Carré's elegantly packaged collection of short strips is a rich gathering of allegory and surrealist play.

What sets Lilli Carré apart from the bulk of her peers in contemporary comics is her interest in poetic narrative. The few comics creators who make use of poetic technique tend to rely on it for decorative effects: the metaphors and whatnot enhance the material; they don’t define it. Carré’s stories, by contrast, are invariably designed as allegories. The metaphors are the content. Efforts such as “The Carnival” and "The Thing About Madeline" are not constructed in terms of plot suspense or emotional identifications with the characters; the drama is entirely in how Carré builds her tropes and creates new meanings out of them. She’s not the most rounded storyteller; her all but exclusive emphasis on allegory denies her the range of effect creators such as Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell, and Chris Ware have developed. Her work doesn’t achieve that level of richness. But in a field dominated by trudging literalism and surrealist meandering, Carré’s material is a welcome change of pace. One can’t just read her stories; one also has to think one’s way through them, and that demand is invigorating.

Nine Ways to Disappear, a 2009 collection of short strips, is an enjoyable assortment of allegories and surrealist vignettes. It is ostensibly organized around the motif of disappearance, but it is not a thematic departure from Carré’s other efforts. Disappearance was also central to “The Carnival” and "The Thing About Madeline." The constant of Carré’s protagonists is their propensity towards withdrawal in response to the stresses of life, and the characters of those earlier stories are no exception. And there as well as here, she uses fantasy and bleak humor to render the varieties of alienation she depicts. One almost always appreciates her imagination and wit. Sometimes, as with “Dorado Park,” the most accomplished piece in Nine Ways, her allegories hit potent emotional chords.

“Dorado Park” begins with a harsh satire of the circumstances of workers in our capitalist society. The residents of the park are the victims of “cigar smokers” who “spin them around and leave them disoriented on the grass.” They spend their days looking for shelter or a way out. The tenors of the various tropes are reasonably clear. El Dorado is the mythical city made out of gold, so the park is defined as the place of the mythical happiness money brings. The cigar smokers are the business owners--a rather clichéd trope there--and their victims are the workers they exploit. All the workers can hope for is a way out of that environment, either by finding an independent livelihood or journeying out into the unknown. Carré presents working for others as a demoralizing trap.

The story then introduces a counterpoint: two sisters who live in a nearby house and support themselves with a joke-writing business. It’s a happy contrast, made up of autonomy, a mutually supportive family relationship, and fulfilling work defined by laughter and creativity. But as quickly as Carré sets this divergent situation up, she undermines it. A wedge comes between the sisters in the form of a boyfriend. This begins the funniest section of the story, as Carré presents the analogues for love, romance, and sex through the prism of the unattached sister’s hostile eye. The boyfriend’s romantic leanings are portrayed as taking to the sister “like an overly affectionate cat that wouldn’t leave her lap,” and the sound of sex between the two is described as “wild animals scratching at the door.” This is followed by a hilarious panel of the boyfriend simultaneously attacking and fending off the paramour sister with a chair. In the metaphors that follow, Carré shows the sisters becoming gradually more estranged, until they finally no longer exist to the other. The unattached sister is ultimately forced out of the house. The concluding panel is disturbingly poignant: the unattached sister enters the park, with the accompanying caption reading, “I knew what I was getting into.” The story’s overall tenor is clear enough. A family is a haven, but its members eventually seek fulfillment elsewhere. Those left behind are ultimately forced to find new connections, and the connections fostered by work and career may offer no fulfillment. However, there also may be no choice but to go along, as the road of romantic relationships may prove even lonelier. The allegory of “Dorado Park” is darkly, achingly resonant.

The other allegorical strips are nearly as effective. The most lucid (and probably for many the most enjoyable) is “If I Were a Fish,” which uses the personification of a storm drain to illustrate the idea that no matter how much one has, one always focuses on that which falls beyond one’s grasp. “The Pearl” dramatizes that value is relative; the worth of something is what the possessor projects onto it, and the possessor may have no understanding of what he or she has until it is too late. “The Neighbor” shows how associations, no matter how unique the original circumstances, can follow one throughout life. “Sleepwalking,” which uses the activity of the title as a metaphor for disengagement, is probably the most developed of the stories after “Dorado Park.” The weakest of the strips is “Wide Eyes,” which shows the attractions in a romantic relationship becoming oppressive as they become a metonymy for the relationship’s pressures. Carré tries to end it on an ironic note--she draws an equivalency between the trope for the oppressions and the one for the attractions--but it doesn’t quite come off. Still, no matter how much the ending falters, the piece works well until that point. All of these strips are worth returning to repeatedly; Carré’s tropes are frequently wondrous, and there’s an enduring pleasure in seeing them built into a larger, coherent whole.

As I indicated above, not all of Nine Ways is allegorical in nature. Three of the pieces--“What Am I Going to Do?,” “The Sun,” and “Wait”--are surrealist exercises in metamorphosis effects. “The Wait,” which at the end refers back to “If I Was a Fish,” is probably the most entertaining, although more erudite readers will probably get a kick out of “What Am I Going to Do?” and its allusion to the great minotaur trope of 1930s surrealism. These strips may seem somewhat out of place when considered relative to the narrative density of the other pieces, but they’re spaced out from one another in the collection. If one is reading the book in a single sitting, one may find the lulls they provide refreshing. One may also enjoy their similarity to Carré’s animation efforts; they are designed around the visual breakdown of movement, and as such, they could easily function as storyboards for her films.

However, as dissimilar as these strips are from the allegories, they aren’t discordant in terms of her visual scheme. The work in the book follows a very specific format. The book’s dimensions are square. The panels are all the same size, and there is only one to a page. Each story is given a unique decorative border with which to frame the panels. The blank pages between the stories are patterned, with a similar though distinct design used for the blank pages in the front and end matter. Contrasting (though muted) monochromes are used for the jacket exteriors and interiors. The drawing and frequently dense rendering of the panels is of course superb. The artwork and design choices all come together to make the physical book a quite elegant objet d’art.

In short, Nine Ways to Disappear is a fine addition to Lilli Carré’s groing library of work. It’s enjoyable to look at as well as to read. And the reading is richer than nearly anything else offered in comics today.

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