August 28, 2019

The Conflation of Mythology, Fairy Tales, and Busytown: Matt Vadnais on MIMI AND THE WOLVES by Alabaster Pizzo

The title of Alabaster Pizzo’s Mimi and the Wolves immediately evokes the language of fairy tales, particularly those involving cautionary tales in which lessons about the grown-up world are discovered and embodied by a titular character who is probably about to learn a difficult lesson. Immediately, though, the visual idiom of Pizzo’s work expands to include other traditions that have frequently functioned to educate children about life’s mysteries. In volume one, which collects the first three acts of the story in which Mimi begins to question everything she knows, Pizzo interweaves a story of mythological import, using interstitial scene fragments to create an origin story – perhaps better thought of as a re-creation story – involving the Goddess of Love, a mysterious interloper, a powerful dagger, and the death of at least one wolf.
If one might expect the conflation of mythology and fairy tales, the third obvious influence regarding books designed to provide answers for children is far more surprising: the oeuvre of Richard Scarry and its many stories of the village of Busytown and its denizens of talking animals going about their jobs, sorting mail, picking up trash, and otherwise contributing to a functioning municipality. Nonetheless, in the first volume of Mimi and the Wolves, Pizzo evokes, consciously or otherwise, Scarry’s famous, fifty-year-old primer designed to explain the daily grind of a happy, modern city to younger readers. Like Busy, Busy Town, Pizzo opens Mimi and The Wolves with a cast of characters and a map of the surrounding locales. Likewise, the art style features a lot of big-headed, expressive animals, busy with the tasks of providing food, running a farm, and making art.
However, to the extent that such evocation is conscious, Pizzo appears to be using aspects of the visual diction of Scarry in order to draw attention to the ways in which the world of Mimi and the Wolves departs fully from the all-is-well consumer capitalism of Busytown. For starters, the anthropomorphic animals of Scarry’s world are defined by the roles they play in the functioning city to the extent that their individual personalities are conflated with their jobs and tasks; in Mimi and the Wolves, characters don’t have jobs or vocations so much as they simply do work, making burlap sacks or creating garlands to decorate the woods. In stark contrast to Scarry’s civic dictionary, Pizzo depicts a world in which individual personalities are shaped far less by their tasks than they are by nature; though one of the central questions raised by volume one pertains to the extent that this is true, much is made about the essential nature of wolves and other animals.  Nonetheless, like the much more didactic work of Richard Scarry, Mimi and the Wolves does act as a guide to the necessary work of preserving a community, securing food and comfort, and preparing for times of scarcity.
There is a difference, though, between jobs and needs. This part of Mimi and The Wolves’ relationship to the Busytown books is relatively easy to unpack: Mimi and The Wolves is a story about self-discovery in a world in which the rules of capitalist civility are useless, unimportant, or at least non-binding. The first volume depicts Mimi figuring out who she is after her “mate” leaves her. She takes a concoction prepared by Wormwood, a character who shares a name with a poison, and is led by a lucid dream to befriend a pair of wolves. While her community of friends – depicted thrillingly as a functioning support system that evokes an American sentiment more consistent with the Dust Bowl than a mythologized 1950s – continues to be skeptical about the true nature of wolves, she discovers more and more about “wolf culture” and the creatures who apparently commune with the same deity, Venus, she’s been dreaming about “forever.” The wolves share their lotus hookah with Mimi and, separately, soon grow to love her. As such, Pizzo  hijacks and repurposes the lexicon of talking animals – itself hijacked from a long history of cautionary fables and fairytales – and creates a kind of user’s guide to the forbidden parts of the forest that one can’t help but realize were meant to be beaten back by the kind of civilization mapped out, quite literally, by Scarry.
However, thinking about Mimi and The Wolves in the context of Busytown reveals a second, far more interesting relationship. Where the work of Scarry and the tradition of fairy tales can be thought of as varying degrees of nudges of gentleness intended to mold children in the image and expectations of adulthood, Pizzo’s story is one in which Mimi’s discoveries and intentions threaten to re-shape the world. Though it is too early in the story’s run to be certain how things add up thematically, the first volume ends with the implication that Mimi is every bit as dangerous for the wolves and “wolf culture” – or at least part of it, as wolf culture appears to contain civil strife – as they are for her.
In other words, Mimi and The Wolves is not simply another post-modern repurposing of the kinds of stories that have attempted to teach many of us how the world works; its specific magic has to do with how these various elements are combined in such a way that Mimi genuinely feels like the most powerful character in the story, even as she clearly has a long way to go in terms of understanding the world, herself, and the wolves she’s snuggling with. Central to this success is how clearly – if not cleanly – the characters love each other. Where most traditions of moral instruction rely on some kind of dogma about human nature, even one as mundane as what it means to be a postal worker in Busytown, Pizzo depicts a world in which love is far more powerful and binding than laws, rules, or other markers of society. What comes through, loud and clear in this first installment, is that love is as terrifying as it is magical.
Ultimately, the first three acts of Mimi and the Wolves cast a powerful spell, infusing a visually disarming story about talking animals with the power of religious iconography. Never diminished by the things she doesn’t know, Mimi is one of the most compelling protagonists I’ve encountered recently, in part because, while modeling care and generosity for all she encounters, she appears to be capable of becoming just about anything.

Matt Vadnais has taught college literature and creative writing classes for twenty years. He is the author of All I Can Truly Deliver and a contributor at For more comics coverage and the occasional tweet about Shakespeare, follow him @DoctorFanboi. For short takes on longboxes, subscribe to his channel of video essays. 

August 26, 2019

Taking Power Over The Self And Its Narrative: Sara L. Jewell reviews ALIENATION by Inés Estrada

Set in a post-apocalyptic Alaska, year 2054, Inés Estrada’s Alienation is a transhumanist fever dream of ambitious proportions. Dense with detail, its pencil pages are printed in a muted blue pantone ink, and its settings vacillate between vacant building interiors and lush, boundless virtual spaces populated by both wonders and horrors. Like other transhumanist texts, its protagonists are enmeshed in a technological point of human history that calls into question the very nature of lived reality, personal ownership, and the human condition as it relates to capitalism, colonialism, climate change, and the body.
Eliza, a virtual sex worker, and her partner Charly, an employee of Shell gasoline, live together in a nearly empty apartment. They spend most of their time, both together and apart, in VR (virtual reality), their bodies lying inert and their eyes blankly turned within. Implanted with biometrics-managing “Googleglands” and subsisting on horrifying fusion cuisine (ex: sushi pizza) composed entirely of Monsanto GMO slime molds, their bodies and experiences are, to an extent, owned and negotiated by familiar megacorporations – when Eliza and Charly log out of VR after watching an eclipse via a Starbucks satellite, the recognizable mermaid logo remains, reflected (embedded?) somewhere deep within their eyes.
However, Estrada’s story resists a straightforward ethical reading of the ubiquitous technology that enables her characters to both destroy and transcend their biological drives and needs, as well as the tangible world. In true transhumanist tradition, Estrada’s book forces the reader to question to what extent human beings are or should be defined by their physical limitations. Through Eliza and Charly, she depicts both the ennui and frustration, as well as the comfort and sublimity, of life that is both profoundly changed and sustained by the integration of biotechnology.
Despite a dependence on this technology for both survival and fulfillment, Estrada doesn’t let the reader forget that the greedy human misuse of technological progress itself, and the ensuing environmental degradation, necessitates the continued use of increasingly complex technology for the bare minimum of human survival. This large-scale environmental destruction and exploitation is largely fueled by capitalist enterprise and intercontinental violence. Alongside her characters, Estrada’s comic forces readers to question where the line is drawn between fact and fiction. Charly experiences hallucinations as a result of PTSD, which we later find out stems from hyperreal games of Call of Duty that may or may not have eventually hooked the player up to real-life drones killing actual people. Eliza and Charly can’t watch a “real” eclipse or see “real” animals due to extinction or permanent environmental damage. Are they unable to tell the difference between the real world and the virtual one because the virtual one is so convincing, or is because they lack any meaningful points of comparison?
Estrada is not ambiguous when it comes to condemning entitled white men and the violence of colonialism. Central to Alienation is a horrifying scene where Eliza is raped by an anonymous “hacker”, an insidious virtual force that violates her body and mind. Like a futurist Madonna, her body thus becomes, without her consent or knowledge, the site of “the Singularity,'' a human/AI hybrid child meant to bridge the distance between the virtual and biological realities. This through line in the story is easy to read as a metaphor for the violence of invasive colonial conquest, referenced by both Charly and Eliza’s elders at different points in the story.
Charly’s Mexican grandmother, during a VR conversation in Spanish, reminds him that, contrary to some conceptions, South America is America too, and that the “Damned gringos stole our name because they are imperialistic colonizers!” Their meeting occurs at “Playa Martinez”, Google’s virtual recreation of Charly’s grandmother’s childhood beach. Even so, she reminisces that despite its beauty and fidelity, “That beach of my childhood doesn’t exist anymore.” 

The fallout of this schism between the U.S. and South America is a crisis of identity that Charly feels intensely -- that he is not fully “from” either place. “We’re never gonna be from here nor from there…” (117) he says wistfully.
In contrast, early on, Eliza has a long phone conversation with her grandfather on the opposite side of Alaska, during which he encourages her to marry an Inuit man, bemoans the loss of the Northern Lights to pollution, and resists the idea of being implanted with a Googlegland.
“I have to draw a line, my dear,” he says to her. “The colonizer has invaded our lives enough already. ..tainting our culture, destroying our language, stealing our land…and now, they want to occupy our bodies with their fake organs, too…White men call us primitive – and it’s them who survive solely through merciless exploitation…How can technology help us when its development is destroying the earth? When it was created just for the profit of white men?” 
Like Charly, Eliza feels torn when it comes to her cultural identity. She has a Googlegland, likely believes (or wants to believe) that VR Northern Lights are as good as any, and is in love with someone who is not Inuit. She thus does not necessarily share her grandfather’s wider perspective on the implications of so-called “progress”. But it is difficult not to look at Alienation and see the ways in which Eliza has surrendered what little autonomy she might have had by allowing corporations and their interests to mediate her perceptions and experiences.
Estrada only complicates this further by reminding us that, under capitalism, we have little choice as to what we have to sign up for just to survive. When Eliza initially discovers she has been hacked, Charly urges her to delete her account immediately, but Eliza demurs, “how will I pay rent, then?” Later, following her assault by the malevolent “hacker” when she acknowledges how strange she feels in her own body, Eliza emphasizes both her disconnection from her physical body and her resentment towards the capitalist structures that demand payment before she can access information about her self, thinking “It’s my body, I should be able to access its info for free! What if I’m dying and I don’t know it?”

When Eliza finally does discover that she is mysteriously pregnant, though she and Charly “haven’t had physical sex in a year,” we find that even in a transhumanist future where humans can profoundly alter their brains, people’s reproductive rights (in America at least) haven’t much improved: In Alaska, Eliza can’t easily access the abortive nanobots that she needs to terminate her unwanted pregnancy, which takes a toll on her mental health as well.
The body thus operates as one of Alienation’s central points of contention; is owning/having a physical body important and worthwhile, or is the body is an inconvenient anchor to an antiquated way of life, bound as it is to the physical world and its concomitant limitations? Eliza voices ambivalence on this subject; “Having a body is so weird…It’s, like, this extension of me that’s feeling things all the time…and I can sort of control it, but never completely…All my experiences will always be limited by what my body can perceive.” She goes on to appreciate that her body helps her make a living and that people pay her to admire it. But, in exactly the same way that environmental devastation requires that technology be implemented to ensure human survival, it is Eliza’s body’s requirements -  for space to occupy, food to eat, air to breathe -  that demand she make money within a capitalist system merely to exist. However, much as the AI that populates the book’s virtual spaces appear to covet owning the real estate of the human body in the physical world, Estrada’s human characters don’t find much to redeem the body as the principle site of joy or transcendence in her post-apocalyptic America. The frontier worth exploring lies beyond, in the infinite expanse of the boundless mind.
However, once born, the Singularity - a child with a mortal body but a deathless mind online who “will never experience tiredness, illness, or hunger” and who has “absolute control over their bodily functions” -  immediately shrugs off the responsibility of conquest, highlighting the irony of the hypothesis that an ideal existence, free of both constraints, can move beyond humanity’s inherent selfishness. Unburdened by the needs of a human body and able to move freely between the physical and virtual worlds, even out in the toxic pollution, when asked to “dominate the planet” by its AI progenitors, the child rudely tells the voice to “Shut up…I just want to chill,” and curls up with a polar bear.
This climax also seems to suggest that only when totally free of the body’s needs and limitations can human beings fully reject the violence inherent in capitalist structures. But, in the same way that Eliza and Charly have no point of reference for distinguishing illusions from reality, the Singularity, like anyone born into unfathomable privilege, has no point of reference for suffering and thus no empathy. The book’s final pages depict Eliza in a deliciously metatextual moment, foreshadowed by her dream of crawling out of the six-panel grid layout Estrada has used for the majority of the comic’s pages. Eliza notices and literally shatters the comic’s fourth wall, implicating the reader as the “hacker” who has been watching her the whole time and voyeuristically exploiting her for entertainment from a similar place of omniscient power.
The reality, the one we all need to be concerned with, as Estrada points out between Alienation’s copyright and ISBN notices, is climate change, which will only exacerbate inequality under capitalism and make the care and keeping of the human body an increasingly untenable prospect on an inhospitable earth. Furthermore, environmental devastation is not the direct result of technological progress, rather it’s the misuse of technology in service of selfish and oppressive corporate powers that have no concern for the human cost in suffering of their profits that is so destructive. Worthwhile technological progress does not seek power through the exploitation of others. Instead, it might allow us to leave behind the body’s limitations and take personal power over the self and its narrative.
Sara L. Jewell is a freelance writer, artist, comic creator, and educator based in New Jersey. You can find her at or rambling on twitter @1_saraluna. All email inquiries can be sent to

August 25, 2019

Processing Loss: Daniel Elkin reviews ROCKS by Rozi Hathaway

When the dying's finally done and the suffering subsides
All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind.”
-- Purple Mountains
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
      And the tide rises, the tide falls.”
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Lately, I’ve been processing loss. A friend of mine died the other day. Took his own life. Hung himself.
We were good friends in high school. Teenage hijinx, bonds born of suburban ennui, smart kids among cowboys, surrounded by a plastic city, aglow with punk rock posing. This was supposed to be the new world, all we needed were the necessities (and more).
The years spread us apart and circumstances allowed next times and new circles. We’d come back together frequently through postcards and letters, always promising that we’d meet up on the next round, but time and circumstance conspired against us, always time and circumstance. He went his way, I mine.
Finally, though, we made solid plans to see each other. I was excited to hug my old friend again. On Monday he messaged me: “thank dan. Look fwd to seeing you after / im a wreck as usual” I wrote back, telling him I hope he found some joy along the way.
On Wednesday, he was dead.
Shock, sadness, anger. I played the whole album again and again. Mutual friends reached out, we talked, remembered, laughed, tried to find process through, tried to find perspective.
Tried to understand. Tried to let go.
I took to Distraction. Looking for sources of a different intent. Different reference. Of all things, I picked up a new comic that I got in the mail. I read it. I cried. It was, perhaps, what I needed. Attempting to find clear meaning in seemingly meaningless acts requires a fresh seeing and solid grounding.
Rocksthe new self-published book by Rozi Hathaway, was that comic. Rocks is a meditation on and celebration of rocks. The rocks that she finds on the beach, especially. The single stone among a myriad of others. Ones that are special. Ones that stand out because of their shape, color, patterns, or edges. You know them when you see them. Sometimes when you are looking for them. Sometimes when you’re not. They come to you at the right time. At that moment, in no other place. They are perfect.
And yet, they are what they are, not what you want them to be. As Hathaway writes in Rocks, “But, somehow, in picking them up and bringing them home, they lose their magic, their allure.” As with so many things that come through and into our lives, there is a time. There is a spot. It brings the enchantment. An individual out of millions and millions catches your eye. Remove it from its context and sometimes the only thing that keeps it special is the memory you have of its specialness. Sometimes leaving it where it lies is the better choice.
It is, after all, a rock. It’s not a person full of complexities and simplicities, joy and darkness. People change, move on, fall apart. A rock always remains a rock, no matter what we imbue it with.
Still, it is a rock. And it has been a rock for longer than you can even imagine, much less conceive. It has rocked through eons while that which is much less rock-like has come and gone and come and gone again. Much of Rocks is Hathaway providing this perspective, noting the expanse of time at the expense of time each rock has borne witness to without seeing anything at all. Stoic. Silent. A platform from which the business of the world springs over and over again.
And in this, it provides insight into life, into death, into truth, into our endless quest to understand. As Hathaway comments towards the end of Rocks, “Every argument, … every missed appointment ..., … it doesn’t matter. The world keeps turning.
Certainly, this is not a particularly profound or wholly original idea, but it’s a reminder of perspective, of passage, of what is transitory and what remains. We make our mark in the sand. The tide washes it away. What remains is memories. Then memories fade and those that do the remembering disappear until there is nothing left except the rocks who have no comment, no opinion, no insight, no meaning. Our grief signifies nothing other than the fact that it is our grief.
If everything is ephemeral, why do we invest so much into objects, experiences, relationships, people? Why hold on to things that eventually will slip away? Is this some flaw in the human gizmo or just a manifestation of our endless capacity for hope? What is the significance of all the strutting and huffing we do in our lives?
Why does loss hurt so much?
Loss means nothing to the rocks.
It is ours only so much as we make it so.
Maybe, perhaps. we should just let it all go and see where that takes us. Maybe, perhaps, this is healing. Maybe, perhaps, we should just sit among the rocks.

The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveler to the shore,
      And the tide rises, the tide falls.
Daniel Elkin is the EIC of Your Chicken Enemy, the Former Small-Press Comics Editor for Comics Bulletin, and has Bylines at Loser CityPsycho Drive-InWinkFactionalWWAC,and PanelXPanelHe's a High School English Teacher in Northern California. He'll talk to you about Sandwiches.

August 21, 2019

Rendering the Early Internet Itself: Matt Vadnais on Gnosticism, Demons, and Porn in George Wylesol’s INTERNET CRUSADER

In 1998, Erik Davis published Techgnosis, an extended, historically grounded argument that the early internet served a mystical purpose that, like all communication technology, would change the humans who used it. For Davis, the chat-room, virtual reality, and other networked exchanges of information worked according to Gnostic principles intent on escaping the prison of the corporeal body in service of pure knowing. Beyond pointing out ways in which the internet was ideal for folks seeking to escape the physical confines of their parents’ basements, Davis was particularly interested in the ways the internet mimicked specific Gnostic assertions that the Creator of the universe had long abandoned “His” creation and had secretly been replaced by a Demiurge standing in the way of true enlightenment; as understood by Davis, a Gnostic version of the Biblical Garden of Eden would understand the serpent, whispering temptation about the tree of knowledge, as the actual hero of the story.
The twenty years that separate 2019 from the publication of Techgnosis have largely proven Davis correct, though any Gnostic objectives of purity regarding the knowing it has created should probably be abandoned: the internet’s single biggest “gift” to the modern world has been the rise and ubiquity of conspiracy theories, theories whose principal allure is the suggestion that the dominant version of the truth is actually a false god. Though it’s hard to argue against the suggestion that the internet’s forbidden fruit of self-selected information is inherently Gnostic, Davis may have overestimated the notion that mystical undercurrents would result in a unified experience of Revelation. Though the book certainly is aware of confirmation bias and human tendencies towards solipsism, Davis was perhaps less worried than he should have been about the possibility that Gnostic technology would, first and foremost, serve to undermine notions of truth itself, rendering facts into opinions, and evidence into fake news. Nonetheless, even if Davis was not entirely prescient about what would happen in the following two decades, the book remains a clear-eyed, eerily accurate set of predictions about how and why it would happen.
Set in the halcyon days of the early web, George Wylesol’s latest comic from Avery Hill Publishers, Internet Crusader, features a character known only by his internet name: BSKskater191. While BSKskater191 is not exactly what Erik Davis would have referred to as a Gnostic Infonaut Hell-bent on escaping the limits of the physical for access to pure knowledge, he does begin the book driven by the desire to escape parental constraints – presented very much as those of a demiurge – to view pornography. In doing so, BSKskater191 trips into a game that may or may not threaten to burn the world.
Without, for the sake of spoilers, delving too much into the aspects of the book that is a fairly straightforward meta-adventure about fighting demons in the name of a God-who-may-or-may-not-be-a-false-god, it must be said that the book is engaging and funny throughout. BSKskater191, avatar or not, is compellingly rendered as a disinterested hero whose biggest complaint about his call to heroism is boredom. Wylesol manages to stir empathy for a human being about whom readers know very little, especially since nearly every reference to his actual life is filtered through terrible spelling and internet slang.
Despite a compelling story, George Wylesol’s biggest accomplishments have to do with his rendering of the early internet itself; he brings the pop-up windows, dial-up modems, and weird things that routinely happened to the screen to life in such a way that, reading it, I remembered things about my teenage years that I never imagined I could forget. In doing so, particularly in service of a story about a young man who seeks forbidden images and ends up a pawn in war for the human spirit, Wylesol has created a comic that explores, in much more accessible and comical fashion, many of the ideas that were at the heart of Davis’s Techgnosis twenty years ago.
In Internet Crusader, every page is essentially a screenshot of our protagonist’s computer; the reader gets references to some “real” people who exist behind usernames and beyond the frame of what is shown, but the world threatened by the stakes of the comic remains entirely filtered through the visual idiom of early attempts at the virtual. On one level, this filtration allows Wylesol to create art that is nostalgic and funny at the same time; on a deeper level, though, Wylesol’s attention to detail unearths ways in which, even if the graphics and interfaces were rudimentary, the early days of the internet were guided by an almost fully formed ethos of disrupting the way we all understood what was real, true, and human.  As engaging as BSKskater191’s downloads and exploits are, Internet Crusader’s real triumph is reminding us exactly how much the internet has changed, changes that have largely been possible because of ways in which the early internet managed to change all of us.
The story of Internet Crusader is a good one, well-paced with genuine stakes and some killer twists; however – fittingly for a comic with even fledgling Gnostic impulses – Internet Crusader’s real story is about the future we are living in right now, one in which this reader can’t help feeling like the powers of darkness have very much won.
Matt Vadnais has taught college literature and creative writing classes for twenty years. He is the author of All I Can Truly Deliver and a contributor at For more comics coverage and the occasional tweet about Shakespeare, follow him @DoctorFanboi. For short takes on longboxes, subscribe to his channel of video essays. 

August 19, 2019

Death Is A Stage: Rob Clough reviews THE TENDERNESS OF STONES by Marion Fayolle

The editors of the New York Review Comics line have shown exceptional taste in their choices for reprinting obscure and untranslated comics. Some of their choices, like Dominique Goblet's Pretending Is Lying, are amongst the best comics I've ever read. Likewise, Marion Fayolle's The Tenderness of Stones is every bit as innovative and emotionally devastating as that work, only in a completely different way. In discussing her father's cancer (initially in remission) and his eventual decline and death, Fayolle unleashes a steady stream of lyrical, whimsical, and even absurd visual metaphors that blend into and stack atop each other. Like Goblet's work, this is a comic about coming to terms with a difficult relationship with one's father, only this comic carries a sense of time and circumstance preventing a true understanding. Even in his decline, Fayolle’s distant father is elusive, and the closeness she feels to him is illusory. At the same time, her family (mother, younger brother, and her) becomes a kind of actor's troupe in service to her father, creating a bond out of duty and performance.
From the very beginning, Fayolle's genius is in transforming medical realities into magical realist imagery. Her father had lung cancer and surgery to remove the diseased organ. The ubiquitous "men in white" had it taken out and told him to bury it. Thus began one of many instances in which she insisted her father was somehow trying to pull a prank on his family, that burying his lung was his way of seeing who would show up to his funeral. Fayolle later claimed that her dad was behaving like a child so he could be taken care of like one; acted as though he were a king in order to receive royal treatment; and was only pretending to be ill as he secretly went pub crawling at night. While these instances of magical thinking were all tongue-in-cheek, there was a deeper truth underlying them. Her father was always closed off to her. She never knew what he was thinking or feeling, and so she used a childlike sense of storytelling logic to make sense of him and his slow decline.
Visually, Fayolle employs a deadpan style reminiscent of Gabrielle Bell. The top-notch production values of NYRC are in evidence with the full album format, good paper, and richness of color. Instead of standard word balloons, the comic is narrated by captions told from Fayolle's point of view, written in cursive script. This is an important detail, because this is very much Fayolle's narrative, not her father's, and cursive makes this feel like a personal diary. Fayolle layers the story with multiple interpretations of events, and sometimes those accounts work in concert and sometimes they are contradictory. Infantilization is a running theme throughout the book, and Fayolle's magical storybook approach reflects her own self-infantilization in response to this ongoing trauma. It's all part of what makes reading The Tenderness of Stones such an overwhelming experience: it's a diary, it's a fairy tale, it's a family trauma, it's a child trying to make sense of a confusing world, it's an adult coming to terms with the death of her father.
The simplicity of the plot and even the childlike quality of the narration allow Fayolle to use complicated techniques to solve visual storytelling problems. The second chapter, in particular, is one long visual tour-de-force. There is an extended meditation on the idea that Fayolle's father had become a child again, much to her annoyance: "He had entered a time machine, and he had not taken me with him." Of course, the reality is that her father had deteriorated to the point of being unable to feed himself, dress, or even walk. Fayolle depicts this as though he is an infant, lying in a crib with a mobile above him or being cuddled in a rocking chair. Her formerly icy father now demands a kiss on the forehead before he goes to sleep and needs the door open as he goes to sleep. Throughout this transformation, and throughout the book, Fayolle measures her own identity against his. If she was now older than him, how could he be her father? Who was she now?
Furthermore, this changes her relationship with her mother. She describes her as a big woman whose body always provided security, and she depicts her as bigger than the panel can contain, as she and her adult brother both disappear under her skirts, feeling safe. She suspects that her father had always wanted this kind of mothering, which led him to become a child. However, Fayolle turns it around as an act of kindness on his part, as he did it to distract her mother from noticing that she and her brother were growing up and leaving for new lives. Fayolle depicts herself and her brother with suitcases, floating away from their mother, but the siblings return when they realize their father is too fragile to leave behind.
This is also the moment where Fayolle realizes her new goal: of deciphering the mystery of her father, of wanting to "meet" him at last. She depicts her father as being a silhouette that they slap up images of him on, desperately trying to figure him out and "see" him and hope that he will let himself be seen. This kicks off an inspired series of pages where she has to act as his mouth--literally taking the lips off of her own face and putting them on his so he can talk to his friends. Then she and her brother have to lend him their hands, their legs, and more, in a brilliant 8 x 8 grid that slowly and painfully gets across the difficulty and frequent ennui involved in this level of caretaking. On another page, also with an 8 x 8 grid featuring a different displaced body part in each panel, Fayolle cartoons herself pushing aside panels and tearing a number of them down in an effort to find her leg. The only instance of word balloons in the comic is the next segment, where she and her family start talking for her father, pasting up word balloons of their own design. She admits to changing some of his words before putting them in the word balloon, making him kinder and more loving than he normally would be. It's an intense push-and-pull, where she feels her own personhood in pieces but perceives that she's also altering his agency. It's an almost self-destructive kind of empathy, as she begins to feel his pains and mimics his movements on the page.
There are many other inspired sequences, including likening the presence of home health/hospice personnel to that of an invasion of the men in white. Of note, many of the dreaded, judgmental men in white are women, but Fayolle conflates all authority as being male, due in part to the influence of her father as this remote, frightening authority figure. Conversely, her mother is a comforting and nurturing figure, and because the women wearing white are neither, they are all referred to as men. What creates tension in the book is a series of these reactions based on childlike, binary logic. If my father needs care like a child, he must have chosen to become a child. If he demands constant care and needs to be the center of attention, he must consider himself to be a king. If he's still hard to know, it's because he's lying about his illness and is sneaking out at night to drink with the fellow lost souls in the local bar.
One of the most beautiful and heartbreaking sequences is at the beginning of chapter three, where Fayolle discusses how she hopes the illness will erode away her father's rough edges like the sea gently smooths over the rough edges of boulders. She writes, "My father was a boulder that I longed to cling to without being wounded. That I longed to shelter beneath without feeling threatened." Instead, as she depicts with beautiful simplicity on a series of splash pages, he becomes even more jagged and "you could still cut your fingers and hurt yourself if you held him too close."
Holding too close and being unable to let go to one's parents in various capacities and with various consequences are also running themes throughout the book. This is finally resolved in the fourth and final chapter, as the men in white decreed that he was dying. The image of invisible, cancerous cells falling from the sky like meteorites herald several pages that all have a single caption: "Dad is going to die." On each page, Fayolle chooses a different visual metaphor for his exit and his family's assistance with it: closing a curtain, packing a suitcase, making him disappear like a magic trick, and levitating off a bed. Fayolle steps outside the narrative for a moment to reveal that she had been in the middle of drawing this book when she learned he was going to die, which made her feel as though she had caused it somehow by drawing his diseased lung. She resents this ending being imposed on her: "I could have come up with a much better finale." This is a moment where she reveals just how dark her sense of humor is, playing around with this naive binary. It's clearly her coping mechanism.
In the end, that humor is abandoned as she depicts her family and herself preparing her dad for one last performance. It's all framed in the language of acting and pumping him and saying he had what it took, that he had been rehearsing for years. The final images are both surreal and exquisitely and painfully beautiful. The spotlight on his last performance remains, with flowers being thrown on stage in celebration of his life — a twist on flowers being sent to the bereft when someone dies. His family is sitting on a bench as they watch the performance, with Fayolle applauding. In a book full of dense backgrounds, this is a page with just a few images and an almost overwhelming use of negative space. The funeral is depicted as a crowd of people smoking cigarettes as his giant body lay outstretched. The smoke looks like stone and also like his diseased lung, which I imagine is no coincidence. The smoke grows thicker and obscures his body. Everyone goes their own way, and the final page sees his body disappear.
The Tenderness Of Stones deals with sickness, end-of-life issues, family bereavement, and caretaking issues with a powerful sense of honesty and authenticity. Too often, narratives about the dead and dying try to smooth over the reality of how we relate to them in real life. Using a clever series of visual metaphors and deliberately making her narrative tone naive allows Fayolle to really "spill some ink" and get at her feelings while still being sensitive to her father's and family's plight. Every page is a marvel of composition. The torrent of visual metaphors brings to mind Tom Hart's Rosalie Lightning, which is about the death of his young daughter. It's as though the layer after layer of metaphors is like Fayolle wrapping herself in blankets for comfort or bandages for healing. At the same time, the clarity of storytelling is remarkably sharp, as she stacks metaphors in some instances and elides them in others. The Tenderness Of Stones is a remarkable achievement whose power in depicting the personal pain of one person and her family resonates for anyone who has ever experienced a loss or been a caretaker.
Rob Clough has written about comics for Cicada, the Comics Journal, Sequential,,, Savant, Foxing Quarterly, Studygroup Magazine, as well as for his own blog, High-Low (