Friday, May 22, 2020

Laura Knetzger's Before & After

Much of Laura Knetzger's work is about healing. Even her Bug Boys series is about gently exploring the difficulties of the world and how friends navigate it and their own differences. Before & After is a surprisingly emotionally affecting story about what is essentially a thought experiment. What if there was a version of you who existed who was you in every fundamental way, only the lifetime of trauma that you've acquired had somehow been scrubbed out?

That's the premise of this cleverly unfolding story about a very damaged genius neuroscientist whose clone knocks on his door one morning. The bemused scientist is surprised and not especially pleased to see his clone. His clone is there wanting...something. Answers? Connection? Closure? For someone without a lot of long-term memories, he wasn't completely sure what he wanted. It takes most of the comic for the scientist to regard the clone as an actual person, instead of as a feverish wish to have some aspect of him not be broken emotionally.

This comic is also an interesting little lesson in neuroscience, with regard to implicit and explicit memories; the former is regard to things like learning a language or important life skills, and the latter connects specific bodily memories to specific events. That's what makes this such a fascinating exercise, because it's more than the old Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind memory-erasing treatment; it's a full-on physical alteration of one's nervous system like a Fate cutting out a string. 

Visually, Knetzger contrasts the clone and the primary person through their dress and hair. The original is a mess; attempting to go through therapy has been so debilitating that he's taken a sabbatical and just lounges around in his bathrobe, his wild hair totally unkempt. The clone has a shorter haircut, looks relatively dapper, and his general mien is just less twitchy than the original. Even if the original tries to deny the personhood of the clone, cutting him off from even the idea of family, there's a hidden level of joy in him, knowing that his plan worked. His clone was healthy, even if facing a life without memories and roots was creating a new kind of trauma of its own. The question is if the original tells the clone it's not a good idea to know him for the clone's own good or because he's selfish and heartless. It's open for debate, though the ending has just enough ambiguity to imply that it won't be the last time they meet. All told, this is a perfectly-realized nugget of a story, where Knetzger vividly makes both of the characters flawed and human in their own right, and not just cyphers to move along a plot.

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