Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Koyama: GG's I'm Not Here

I'm Not Here was my first real exposure to the work of the Canadian artist gg, other than an anthology story here and there. There's something vertiginous about reading her comics, thanks to a push-and-pull in style and tone. On the one hand, her naturalistic style is so precisely rendered that there's never any question about what the reader is looking at. At the same time she draws the reader in, she simultaneously pushes them away by creating a cold environment that defies inspection from the reader. The story itself is very simple: a nameless young woman is taking care of her emotionally abusive mother and also trying to take care of her father, who seems increasingly addled by dementia but also incredibly mean-spirited. The young woman has photography as a hobby, and one day she takes a photo of a young woman who looks very much like her, in front of an apartment complex. She goes to the apartment complex and gets let in by the elderly landlady, who mistakes her for the actual tenant, who was supposed to be out of town. She luxuriates in the apartment, even sleeping in her doppelganger's bed. She has a series of horrible dreams/reminiscences.At the very end, her landlady offers her a chance to extend her lease.

The cold, almost sterile drawing style of gg is a deliberate tactic for this story. This is the story of a woman who had learned to push her emotions all the way down and numbed herself to the way her mother so nonchalantly and unrelentingly put her down. At the same time, she is trapped, with seemingly no way out. It's the "life of quiet desperation" that Thoreau talks about. Everything about this comic relates to seeing and being seen, and the panel-to-panel transitions more closely resemble a series of photographs than a more typical comics-oriented transition that's more fluid. The page-to-page transitions have more to do with film than comics: lots of fade-ins and fade-outs, blackouts, the camera lingering on a single image. The opening two pages provide a number of clues, we fade-in on the young woman methodically putting her hair up, her back to the reader's gaze. Even when we first see her face, it's mediated through the surface of a mirror. There is then a quote about "to live is to be somebody else", meaning that we must change on a day-to-day basis in order to be able to feel.

Later, when a street vendor questions her about her photography hobby, she responds that she's trying to capture how things are. His reply is that how things are is always changing; in other words, attempting to capture that sense of change by freezing it is foolish. That's when she sees her "double" and she begins to think about this other person, this other world. That feeling is accentuated when her mother essentially tells her that she's a failure, unlike her younger sister, in the most blase' tones possible. Then she encounters her father driving around at night, confused and belligerent. The photos she takes aren't really to capture how things are, but rather to capture an idealized version of how things are that don't truly exist. It's her refuge.

Receiving an invitation into someone's life is a kind of continuation of that refuge, and it's in that escape that she's able to not only confront years worth of abuse, she's able to cry because of it. There are multiple fade-ins and fade-outs to painful memories (drawn with a lighter tone of wash than the present-day events, which are by nature more solid), including one where she finally moved to act after being berated by her mother. gg leaves the story open-ended; she's essentially given an opportunity to be this other woman (where she went is unknown is unclear: did she move to escape her own life as well). Given a chance to truly confront her feelings and learning that her double was more of an opposite than a twin makes that choice far more difficult than one would think. The cover itself provides a clue, as the other woman wears her hair down (a symbol, perhaps of her more carefree but uncaring nature) and the two hairstyle are lined up, but upside down from each other. It's not just a mirror image, but almost a mutation or transformation, at work here. She's left to wonder not just what kind of person she wants to be, but also what kind of world she wants to live in, as the book fades to black. This is the kind of book that reveals itself to the reader slowly, and over multiple attempts; but once it does, it is a treasure trove of ideas related to family, identity, duty and ethics.