Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sequart Reprints: Henry Chamberlain & Jesse Moynihan

It's a bit difficult to give a proper critique of Henry Chamberlain's Alice In New York. The author informs us from the start that it's the beginning of a graphic novel. As such, it feels like a work in progress, in more ways than one. It's clear that there are some overarching themes and subplots being planted early on, but it also seems that the artist is learning on the job. Indeed, Chamberlain alters a number of his artistic techniques from the first issue to the second, and it's conceivable that the eventual finished project will be completely reworked.

Chamberlain uses a very loose and sketchy but expressive style. At times, his line is so loose as to look like something popped out of a sketchbook, but there's an energy and immediacy to his style that's appealling. It's possible that he understood just how loose things were and he at times used some tricks to balance this out. Some of his techniques are quite appealling: when the lead character shows someone a page from his sketchbook, the sketches we see simulate a heavy charcoal drawing. Other techniques are just distracting, like the heavy use of zip-a-tone and other "special effects". Rather than balance a panel, they are just distracting (and sometimes employeed seemingly at random). Happily, Chamberlain abandons their use in his second issue, and utilizes a bolder line.

Thus far I haven't said much about the story. What we're shown is fairly intriguing: a young man comes to New York City in 1989, looking for a purpose. The woman he's staying with (apparently at a B&B) takes an interest in him, and a number of serendipitous events fall in line for him. The young man (named Henry) is an artist who immediately falls in love with the city, looking for (and finding) some kind of magic around every corner. It's a feeling I can certainly relate to, having had those sort of experiences every time I visit New York.

At the same time, we get flashes of an underlying story. Alice, (yes, THAT Alice, of Wonderland fame) apparently is now some kind of magical overseer of New York. The White Rabbit tracks her down in a taxi to tell her that Henry has arrived. Henry has a conversation with a drug dealer in Washington Square Park that's straight out of Lewis Carroll (he even puts on a Cheshire Cat head!). Where exactly all of this is going is unclear, but it is fascinating.

Indeed, it's the small touches that interest me the most. Chamberlain gives us glimpses into the characters we meet, but no more. His host once was in Paris, posing nude for an artist she was involved with. Henry meets a young woman who takes an interest in him. Henry visits museums and is overwhelmed by the sheer visceral experience of the city. The "less is more" approach keeps the reader wanting more.

The first two issues are a little all over the place as Chamberlain the artist is trying to find his way as much as Henry the character is. But the energy in both his line and his story is palpable, and I'll be interested to see if he can retain that energy while refining his style. It'll also be interesting to see how he merges the slice-of-life elements with the magical realist elements. It's certainly an intriguing start for a comics newcomer.

The Backwards Folding Mirror is another 2 issue series that's a demo of sorts for a larger graphic novel. Its creator is Jesse Moynihan (check out, an artist who is totally committed to his vision and his own visual language. The best way to describe this book is as surreal, in the original sense of the term. Surrealism was a movement dedicated to unlocking the secrets of the unconscious through the use of stream-of-consciousness in both word and image. Eventually, some branches of it become more codified, where certain repeated images took on fixed meanings.

What I believe Moynihan is doing is telling stories that are quite clearly autobiographical, but coding them in images that blur reality and force the reader to really engage the page. We are introduced to a young man wearing a conical hat, the world he lives in and the people he associates with. There are no narrative boxes to guide the reader: we are simply thrown straight into a bizarre situation from the first. The young man is making out with his girlfriend in a forest when a bizarre animal runs past them to a tree whose very existence seems to invoke horror. The young man wanders off with his friend (a naked devil), goes underground, magically winds up in his living room and is stabbed in the temple by a doppelganger.

The work demands multiple readings simply to get used to what's happening, but it certainly rewards the reader. Once one becomes accustomed to its visual language, a reader can get at the meat of what's going on here. Moynihan's approach takes the reader out of their comfort zone of what is expected in an autobiographical story and instead tries to depict the emotions and thoughts surrounding real-life, with an absurdist (and often hilarious) touch. There's one scene where the young man is having a conversation with a snail. The snail is decrying its existence ("I'm just a lowly turd of a snail...I'm bird food. Why should I have kids?") and the young man replies "We all play a part, man." The snail spits out "Fuck my part. Seriously."

The themes Moynihan is grappling with are complex. There's the divide between indoors and outdoors, of course. Scenes set in the forest always have an element of terror in them, like something bad is about to happen. In the first story, the young man's girlfriend has to look away from a tree that Moynihan depicts as terrifying. It's a very existential moment (almost straight out of Sartre's Nausea) where the very is-ness of the tree was something intimidating.

Sex, reproduction and different forms of death are also repeated themes, all often in the form of dreams and dream logic. Reality is very fluid here, with characters waking up from dreams only to confront elements from their dreams in waking life. Despite the weirdness and ominous tone, the overall feeling of these comics is not bleak. Indeed, the young man is continuously grappling with his world and not submitting to the frequent despair of his friend the devil or the snail. The young man is often angry, not despondent; he's connected to his world, not detached. He's trying to figure things out but sometimes gets in the way of his own exploration.
Death and violence are often shown as modes of transformation. After just two issues, it was difficult to see where the overall narrative arc (such as it is) was going for our hero, but there did seem to be subtle transformations from story to story within each issue. Moynihan's line becomes much more assured in the second issue, creating scenes that had a stark and raw beauty. The result is a comic where the visuals were much more in the forefront than in the first issue, which relied on its narrative and visceral power to get its points across. I think the more refined his style becomes, the more precise control he'll have over the narrative and the emotions he's trying to depict. It's definitely refreshing to see authors to approach autobiography from different directions, making the specific universal.

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