May 14, 2018

The Pool is Now Our Prison: Austin Lanari reviews ARCHITECTURE OF AN ATOM by Juliacks

I can’t write about comics. 

Ok, that’s dramatic: I find it very difficult to sit down and write about comics anymore. 

At the beginning of this year I told myself I’d write something every week, and if I failed to do so, I’d quit. In my lack of writing about comics qua art as was intended, you could say I have unintentionally followed my own ultimatum. Instead, I’ve become a serial tweet-threader; a semi-professional micro-blogger with mostly one thing on my mind: the stale (to be generous) economic position of cartoonists, and a culture that is implicitly hell-bent on distributing resources—including the two most precious ones, time and attention—to everything except this very same staleness and immobility: 

A most mundane plundering. 

And so, every time I try to start writing—every time I try to put my fingers to my 1980’s Diamond Flower Inc. keyboard and try to evince some semblance of some kind of opinion about something artsy—all my little doubts and ticks and procrastinations spiral, inevitably, into a question: Why do I do this? 

-2, +2, +4, +6 
Published by 2dcloud, Architecture of an Atom by Juliacks opens with a love affair—or, at least, one side of one. Two of the story’s more important characters—Frida and Cohl—contemplate a move to France from the nebulous version of Winnipeg they may or may not be inhabiting in the opening pages. Cohl’s affection for Frida and his uncertainty about both her future and his future with her are the subjects of several densely poetic pages before the characters arrive in France. 

Once there, we meet all eleven characters. Eventually, I think readers will agree, that there is a twelfth character as well: “The Metal”—or, “The Infinite Whistle.” If I were to follow the atom analogy through and be a little too on the nose, I would suggest that the human characters are themselves electrons and The Metal is a big fat proton: it lies at the center of the story in a way that is hard to miss, but is impossible to explain beyond its existence as a powerful, compelling force that pushes the characters in directions that are hard for us to understand. 

In order for me to explain any of the plot--in order for me to explain The Infinite Whistle, or the adult children, or what death means in this book—requires being able to speak Architecture of an Atom’s language. 

Luckily, fairly early in the book, Juliacks offers us some clues. 


I guess I write about comics because so many have moved me in ways that, over time, have felt more and more tangible. As the medium began to make sense to me and I felt like I could share that connection with others, what better way to evangelize people than to yank at the threads that weave together the most exciting work of the medium and jam them in the eye-sockets of unwitting friends who… probably… probably aren’t going to read this anyway. 

I didn’t keep writing to make other people excited about comics. I very much doubt and am skeptical of my capacity to do that at a scale that is significant, even when I’m at my best. Even if I did have a further reach, I’m also skeptical of that being worth anything, especially as a critic. After all, I’m not in marketing… am I? 

And even after all of that, surely I didn’t go into this trying to get others excited, for before I dove in and started writing, I didn’t know how any of this worked. Why did I start doing this again?… 

-3, +3, +5 

Early on, Juliacks makes use of a rectangle in the middle of her composition, filled with amorphous shapes that just barely come together to form a four-sided shape taller than it is wide. When it first appears on the second page of Frida and Cohl’s prologue, it is an ephemeral destination: a cross-section of the horizon, a doorway to open-ended possibilities for the characters as they drive off into the distance. Just a few pages later it encases the coagulated “red and purple” that make up our organs, “healthy, beating hard.” 

Once all of our characters are together in France, the rectangle is revealed in its true essence (or at least the truest one that Juliacks gives us for free): a swimming pool. All of the students—our eleven strange characters—are not considered to have a sufficient amount of integration within France, and so they must naturalize by taking a course. The curriculum? “Swimming Pool.” 

After reading the letter of naturalization, the reader turns the page, seeing a two-page spread dedicated to generic images of children swimming, separated by a banner of words from more detailed renderings of the characters below. The words in the banner read: “Today we learn to breathe.” 

The sequence that follows is my favorite in the book. An admittedly strange but otherwise mundane scenario of kids learning to swim in order to obtain citizenship rapidly descends into madness. The tone of the sequence largely speaks for itself, thanks to Juliacks’ ability to iterate on the liberties she takes with any given page. Some of what thrills me is hard to describe without sounding pedantic, but one obvious thing that carries through in the sequence is the continuous callback to that same rectangular stamp: 

The Swimming Pool. 

By the time the students have ended up lost in the mountains and crashed, they come upon an abandoned pool. Suddenly, the very image that Juliacks has been using as a callback is now something that yanks the reader into the characters’ present circumstance. Just then, when the characters register the presence of the abandoned pool, the readers are treated to a spread that depicts the new pool, fleshing out the splotchy rectangle with the colors one might expect to find in a mountainous forest. The pools are vertically flanked by the words “There is a pool in the mountains; There is wind in your nostrils.” 

Earlier, when trying to naturalize into a man-made nation, the children had to learn to breathe. Here, in the mountains, the wind is just… in their nostrils. There is nothing to learn. “Your hair blooms like flowers,” it says, on the bottom of the same page. The world of these children has changed from an imperative one to a declarative one, and the very next moment, along with all moments that follow, spin out of this dichotomy. The closest I can get to speaking the lyrical-yet-broken language of Architecture of an Atom is in fully witnessing that first breath of fresh air. 


How ironic that I should finally publicly confront this material tension in the comics discourse when I have the chance to write about a book that would largely not exist if not for a series of internationally, governmentally funded residencies, during which time Juliacks composed not only the conceptual nucleus of this entire work, but swaths of the work itself. The context Juliacks offers at the book’s end—that this is part of a larger project featuring an hour-long film, a series of short films, individual paintings and collages—nests it even further inside of contexts which begin to look like a Russian doll the more you take them seriously. 

Once you have the context [once you touch the metal], Architecture of an Atom becomes more than a comic: it is a series of comics; it is a comic and a coffee table book; it is a window into museums all over the world; it is one part of a larger, interdisciplinary, multimedia art project; it is the best temporal cross-section of the very same overall art project it partially comprises at a single temporal point (its own publication); it is a relic that would not and could not exist without the explicit and sustained support of public art institutions; it is a hard-bound, shiny-black-leaved love letter to comics publishing by a publisher getting the piss beaten out of them by several different brands of toxic comics culture— 

It is a critical paradox. 

That any number of these contextual anchors for Architecture of an Atom are things that would typically only come up in an interview with Juliacks and not in any kind of independent critical investigation of the work itself is an indictment of both the pretentious, hardline anti-intentionalism of people like me and the dry intentionalism of any one of several reductive attempts at reverse-engineering any given comic or comics page. 

-3, +3, +5 

Your body shakes when you touch the metal.” 

There is something lumberingly evocative about this book. Pages of more traditional-appearing, halting sequentials crescendo suddenly into spreads that themselves give way to poetic breaks in what once seemed to be building action. Architecture of an Atom frequently steps back from itself, explicitly putting a pot of feelings built up from groups of atomized character expressions on simmer so that the reader can sit with them in a way that is more self-reflective. 

Various two, four, six, and eight-page sequences could easily appear within anthologies like Ink Brick or kus’s s series and readers wouldn’t think twice. Architecture of an Atom has been instrumental in smashing my cold, formalist, admittedly prescriptivist ideas about the medium regarding whether or not a comic can be comprised of proper parts that we might also consider comics. To focus, as a critic, on ontological nitpicking and “rules of the medium” in the case of Architecture of an Atom would be a great example of the kind of steadfast critical perching that we need to forcefully shed. 

It is a fact that this book is made up of several different narratives that were packaged together, regardless of whether the author took the time to make them more internally cohesive. It is a fact that several of the proper parts that stitch this all together were distinct works of art hung in a gallery setting. 

And what a challenge that presents to us as readers! What an absolute dare. This book dares you to open it to any sequence you like. It dares you to use your imagination to piece together the very language of each character, both as they appear on the page and in their literal words. It dares you, at its end, to actually consider what it meant for the creator to produce it. For many of us, this is the dare which we will ignore. 

I started writing about comics because I wanted to be a comics writer, or a comics editor: anything but an artist (I do not enjoy drawing). And that’s fine, yeah? Everybody loves something. Everybody has to make a living. 

But this means-to-an-end-ism is a major strain in the culture of comics, arguably one of the largest, and it is, by its very nature, only ever (at best) tangential to the nature of producing comics, at least in any way that centers and sustains creators. Architecture of an Atom is significant in that it recenters comics as a medium within a broader multimedia context at a time when comics at large are treated as launchpads to multi-billion dollar franchises and multi...thousand dollar festivals for everybody EXCEPT cartoonists. 

No individual critic is at fault purely for focusing on art or on craft when dissecting a work; but, we are collectively at fault when we collectively ignore this kind of radical manipulation and recentering of context: in ignoring the real circumstances of this kind of project we shift the focus and the discourse in and around the medium in such a way that it ends up necessitating these kinds of context-shifts in the first place. And this is part-and-parcel with our active support of the plundering of cultural capital from comics, both intellectual and economical. 

-1, +1, +3, +5, +7 

Just before Frida and Cohl die, the book steps into a more free set of poetic sequences that, despite their more experimental nature, function as the same kind of higher level syntactic thread you would find in a more traditional, meticulously outlined comic. The mode of communicating with loose watercolors accompanied by hasty, hand-lettered poetry is a formal and thematic callback to Frida and Cohl’s interactions in the prologue. Here, it is a much more brisk calm before the storm: it is used to transpose a sensuous naivety with the chaos that immediately ensues. That Juliacks manages to string together threads that hold up this well within a work that both belongs to a larger work that is not a comic and has scattered pieces of individual works within it is a feat. 

Architecture of an Atom is a feat. 

Eventually, the abandoned pool becomes a metaphorical prison, situated next to a literal prison whose mainstay is the survivalist of the group, Sergei, by far my favorite visual rendering of any single character. Death follows at least one more character in addition to Frida and Cohl. The loss of a nation, the loss of their friends, and the complete fracturing of their language and points of reference for anything resembling society turns each individual character into an arbiter of their own reality. To wit, Juliacks closes the story by rendering each character with their own spread, one by one. 

The intentional depiction of each character--or at least, the ones who lived--in a context in which they are thriving at something in spite of the obvious state of alienation that has defined their existence is so strangely comforting for a book that, at times, leans rather hard into what you might call “Dadaist Lord of the Flies”. it jams together primal themes of idol worship and survivalism with strangely-veiled contemporary political puzzles: these kids are refugees from sensible time and space itself. In many ways, Architecture of an Atom is a bare rendering of that qualia of stepping into a new place for the first time, only in a strange, stirring world where that feeling never actually leaves. 


I can’t write about comics.

Austin Lanari is a programmer by day and a writer by day also. He likes to sleep at night. He’s got a master’s in Philosophy and he’s gainfully employed, so shut up. You can find his writing on Comics Bulletin, Loser City, Comic Bastards, and mostly these days on his own site at Follow him on Twitter .

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