May 28, 2018

Review: GREENHOUSE by Debbie Fong

Maybe it’s because I’ve been spending so much time alone lately. Maybe it’s because I’ve gone days at a stretch without uttering a word to another human being. Maybe it’s because the world outside is seemingly more and more hostile and merciless. 

Or maybe it’s because it is a really great work of art.

Whatever the reason, reading Brooklyn-based cartoonist Debbie Fong’s new risograph-printed mini-comic GREENHOUSE was a keenly visceral experience for me. In 24 pages of panels awash in black, white, gray, teal, and straw-colored art, Fong lays bare withdrawal and madness and delves deep into both obsession and botany with equal skill. In Greenhouse, Fong asks questions about the ramifications of a life steeped in a technology that allows us to disconnect from others as we connect to the world. When we no longer step outside, what becomes of our world within? If our inner self has collapsed in a world that asks little of us outside, where do we reach for help?
Everything in Greenhouse works in tandem to define both tone and theme. Fong’s thin lines suggest the fragility of her narrator. Her layouts expand and contract adding to the sense of pacing -- speeding up and slowing down as needed. Panel frames have rounded corners or sharp edges as need be, or disappear altogether. Fong’s use of a limited color palette heightens the isolation and claustrophobia inherent in the story she is telling. 

Fong also breaks up the narrative of Greenhouse with meticulously rendered pages from The Botanist's Guide to Tropical Plants 3rd Edition. Here, too, she is making artistic choices to further her intent. When I asked Fong about these choices, she wrote back saying, “I wanted to use those as a way to kind of benchmark the girl’s mental decline as the first few entries are mundane, common plants and then they get progressively more exotic and surreal-feeling. The two exceptions are the Albizia Saman and the Nightshade at the end -- these are both meant to reveal plot elements in the story.”
Ultimately, Greenhouse offers little in terms of solutions, rather, it serves as a cautionary tale. As actual human interactions become less and less necessary -- from Grubhub to Amazon Fresh to Netflix to Comixology to Etsy -- not to mention the ubiquity of social media -- there becomes fewer and fewer reasons to leave your house. Fong’s character even remarks, “It’s hard to believe what you can order online these days.” This convenience comes at a cost, though.

The safety networks that face-to-face interactions provide slowly disappear if you never leave your house. Someone suffering from a severe mental health crisis can stay locked away, isolated, with nobody being the wiser until, perhaps, it becomes too late.

 I sometimes wonder in my loneliness about what would happen to me were I to choke on my dinner. How long would it take before someone would wonder where I was? How long would it be before someone discovered my body?

Greenhouse reminds the reader of the importance of connection, of the need to be seen, of the paramountcy of mattering to someone other than ourselves. It posits the truth that we grow best in the open among other flourishing things, not confined to a limited sphere, shut in, regulated, alone. 

It also reminds us that mental health, at times, can be as delicate as a Nymphaea tetragona.

Greenhouse will be available soon from Pommo Press.

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