Monday, April 13, 2009

Immersion: The Comics of Juliacks

Rob profiles emerging young artist Juliacks and does an overview of her comics work to date.

The work of cartoonist Juliacks is a bit hard to pin down. She's part of an emerging trend in comics where the plastic qualities of text and image are equally emphasized as objects of one's aesthetic gaze. Words aren't used simply to impart information, drive a narrative or otherwise act separately from pictures. Instead, the actual letters themselves become part of the imagery, creating a reading environment that immerses the reader in the work in a way that can be exhausting and rewarding. This act of apprehending each page in order to make sense of the narrative is very different from the typical comics page in that in the latter instance it's much easier to compartmentalize one's reading experience, either looking at images and then reading text or vice-versa. Most readers don't consciously consider the choices they make reading such comics pages, and any skilled cartoonist can approximate a synthesis of the two experiences. Juliacks and the other practitioners of the "immersive school" (which includes Austin English, Theo Ellsworth and Olga Volozova) instead seek a true synthesis, where neither word nor image is privileged above the other and other forms of signifiers are used as well.

It can be a bit daunting to engage these sorts of comics; they demand that you accept them on their own terms or not at all. They can be difficult to begin and adjust to as a reader. Of course, once a reader has locked into this style, the stories become impossible to put down. It doesn't hurt that Juliacks has excellent compositional chops as a cartoonist, seamlessly assembling a number of complicated images on each page. Her figure drawing is simple and ranges more toward a primitivist technique, but it's also not unusual to see her go a bit more abstract in the way she represents her characters. Juliacks stuffs every one of her pages with powerful imagery, drowning the reader in drawings intended both as information and decoration (and frequently designed to do both). Trying to process that much information on a page (especially when the eye is not led to value one image over another) can be draining as a reader, and Juliacks often goes over the top in jamming her pages to the brim. Still, one can sense the raw energy and excitement present in her comics, and the level of detail certainly rewards repeated readings.

While Juliacks' narrative structure isn't as straightforward as Volozova's, there is always a fairly simple narrative, centered around one or more characters. She uses comics as one springboard to explore those ideas that she finds interesting: memory, loss, aging, grief, disease and emotional trauma. She slips in and out of first-person and third-person narrative but will present either in a sort of stream-of-consciousness fashion. That's entirely fitting with the immersive style of comics, given that stream-of-consciousness is all about creating structure without intentionality; that is, what appears to be random is in fact subliminally creating a narrative.

While Juliacks' comics are certainly self-contained entities, it's interesting to note that she's very much a multi-media artist. In fact, she often adapts her comics as performance art, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that both comics and performance art are different outlets for the expression of her ideas. The themes are all the same, but the experience of the pieces themselves couldn't be any more different. The live performances are built on a series of explosive moments instead of a more still, immersive experience on the page. If Juliacks' comics are the equivalent of being submerged in her ideas, her performance pieces are like having those themes splashed in one's face. It's fascinating to see a cartoonist reaching out to a live audience in such a way, achieving a sort of immediacy of reaction that is lacking in comics. These performances can be viewed on her website, but I'm guessing those clips fail to capture the viscerality of an actual live performance seen in person. What is obvious is the way Juliacks is able to completely rework her ideas into something that takes advantage of a live performance. The clips of her are kinetic, even frenzied, emphasizing body and movement on the stage as a complement to the way she exaggerates emotion on the page with her figure drawing and decorative flourishes.

It seems clear that Juliacks doesn't privilege one type of aesthetic experience over the other, and it may well be that she finds herself needing to engage in one type to balance out the time and creative energy she spends with the other. That said, it seems that comics may ultimately be a more effective way for her to explore her ideas, because it allows a greater degree of control. At the moment, restraint is not an attribute she seems all that interested in, but I sense that as she evolves as an artist, it will become something she seeks out.

One of her earlier comics (from 2006) is THE TALE OF OLD LADY MERRELL. It's about a woman living in a now-condemned house with the dolls that she's created, pondering what to do after she's learned that she's going to lose her house. This comic shifts visual tones on a page-by-page basis, making it a jarring (if involving) read. There's a density to each page--sometimes black & white, sometimes full color--that pounds at the reader. The line drawings are very typical Juliacks--thick black lines, grotesque figures, quirky decorative touches and text-as-art. However, as long as the reader commits and latches on to the narrative, it's a powerful experience.

The story is about what lies beneath the urge to create. The woman in the story created dolls, or rather, used the physical medium of creating dolls to tell stories. Those dolls were a form of therapy, embuing the essence of a particular event into physical form. It was no surprise that she viewed them as real, because as active agents of memory (and what is reconstructed memory but a kind of story?), they did have their own lives. With each doll, she disassociated a little more, after being separated from her own life for unspecified reasons. After an incident where two neighborhood girls freaked out when Merrell showed them a particular set of dolls, she became an outcast and created a doll that forever put her on the outside. For Merrell, the dolls were all she had left of life; she had long lost the ability to feel and connect to people. It was heartbreaking to see her give away her dolls, until she was only left with her first doll, an avatar of sorts. She left this world not just because her dolls were in danger, but her ability to continue as an artist and see her handiwork was being squelched. The reality is that this urge to create is what kept her alive, when she had no other reason really to live.

In her stories "Invisible Forces" and "Like Lace", we shift back to teen-aged years. The former follows a character over time, while the latter deals with a couple of particularly memorable days in school. "Invisible Forces", purports to be "a prelude to an apprenticeship in a mental home", detailing the "early tremors of Rody Plane". We see Rody's early years as she feels paralyzed by a feeling of smallness in the universe, being overwhelmed by infinity. That paralysis was exacerbated by her abusive mother and absent father and became more debilitating over time. As the comic ends, she's completely frozen, unable to move or think for herself. It's interesting that the cover of this comic resembles the title pages from Volozova's THE AIRY TALES and the splotchy use of color seems familiar in that regard as well. Color didn't really seem to add much to this story; Juliacks' most effective pages tend to be in stark black & white. This tends to highlight the decorative aspect of her pages most effectively.

"Like Lace" follows the torturous thought processes of Lydia, an outcast who is humiliated by her teacher after she bungles an oral book report. In this story, one can see Juliacks' work in a more formative state. While the emotional core of the story is painful and bold, and her figures are fascinatingly grotesque and distorted, she didn''t quite have the skill to create pages that conveyed information in a way that flowed smoothly. The crudeness of her composition clashed with the ambition of her storytelling here, but that ambition on display was certainly admirable. The story also lacked a number of decorative elements that we would see in future works, and it became clear that those non-narrative elements would go on to play a huge role in creating the immersive experience of her comics.

"Antelope Eater" followed a similarly tortured youth but for a different reason. It's about a young boy whose mother is suffering from multiple sclerosis and finds himself drawn further and further into a fantasy world to avoid dealing with the brutal day-to-day existence of watching his mother deteriorate. This story was successful in terms of merging word and image together for a gestalt experience. As a reader, that synthesis really added to the sense of entering a completely different world.

SWELL, however, is Juliacks' most accomplished and ambitious work to date. It's about a woman in her first year of college who is forced to attempt to cope with the sudden death of her older sister. Juliacks worked big here; the two issues to date are both about 12" x 11". The first part of SWELL, "Open-Faced Sandwich" had covers screenprinted on construction paper. What's most striking about these comics is the way in which Juliacks' sense of composition became much more advanced. There's a page where the story's protagonist, Emmeline, recalls an instance where her older sister, Lucy, smashed a bunch of eggs that Emmeline and her friends had decorated. There are decorative touches framing the page in the form of little eggs, and the panels are framed so as to form an egg. Juliacks changes her approach to a page at a frequently breakneck pace--going from a number of tiny panels in a row to huge splash pages.

The second issue introduced us to Emmeline's parents, who were equally at a loss to process Lucy's death. Juliacks drops hints that Lucy had some kind of mental affliction or processing disorder, judging by the awkwardness she felt in social situations and her general neuroses. This first part of this issue finds them all trying to sleep and struggling to do so. They all wind up "dreaming awake". Juliacks introduced each segment with a huge splash page depicting each of the individual characters, with a decorated egg-shape in their mouth that tells us they're dreaming awake. The next page is jam-packed with panels detailing each character's fears, hallucinations and neuroses, switching between an omniscient narrator and first-person stream-of-consciousness narration. It's occasionally a bumpy ride in a narrative sense, but Juliacks had a firm hand and never loses control of the page. When a sleepless Emmeline runs away, that throws her parents even further into panic and paralysis, even as Emmeline feels like she's moving toward some kind of resolution.

This series is one of the best explorations of memory and its connection to emotion that I've ever read. Most intriguing is the way Juliacks connects the emotional to the somatic, in terms of the way that the feeling of grief is bottled up by each of the characters. Of all the emotions, grief seems to be the most connected to physiological processes: wracking sobs, shaking, and wailing acting as a necessary if painful way of finding catharsis. Juliacks zeroes in on Emmeline (her diamond-shaped eyes adding an otherwordly feel to her character, differentiating her from the dumpier Lucy) and her inability to find her voice for that grief. When buried, grief can be an enormously destructive emotion in ways that cannot be understood by the person suffering from it. That stream-of-consciousness style, where Emmeline is constantly dipping into her memories as a way of trying to process Lucy's death, is perfectly meshed with Juliacks' lettering. The entire package depicts emotion in an intuitive manner that a reader can instantly grasp without being hammered on the head. The size of the panels, the size of the lettering, and the greater abstraction of images all are ways Juliacks modulates emotion. Juliacks greatly improved the control she had over her line and figures, adding greater clarity to her work without sacrificing complexity.

Juliacks has become one of the most interesting cartoonists working in mini-comics form and is certainly due for a publisher to pick her up for a long-form work. A handsome collection of SWELL would certainly seem to be just the thing to start with. There's no question that she's prolific and diligent, very much devoted to improving as a cartoonist. Considering that her first published works are barely four years gone, it's amazing to see the way she's improved and advanced as a cartoonist. She's got a unique vision, an excellent sense of design and composition, a powerful narrative voice and distinctive visual flair. At this point, it's all about fine-tuning, refinement, and restraint for Juliacks as she continues to evolve and mature.

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