Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Deadpan, Elegant and Surreal: Nine Ways To Disappear

Rob reviews the new collection of stories by Lilli Carre', NINE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR (Little Otsu).

Lilli Carre' is rapidly becoming one of the most accomplished and prolific young artists in comics. Her level of progression from project to project has been remarkable. Her latest effort, NINE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR, may well be my favorite of her works to date. It's a collection of nine loosely connected short stories centered around the idea of what it means to disappear and highlights both her influences and the way she's incorporated and transcended them. What I love best about her work is the lengths she will go to sell a gag or let a strange idea play out to its logical extreme. With her impeccable design sense, cleverness in solving problems of composition and ability to create funny looking drawings that have a deadpan quality, Carre's stories both stand entirely on their own yet have a loose kinship with several other sub-movements in comics.

John Hankiewicz is a clear inspiration for some of her more abstract stories that almost have the rhythm of poetry. "Wait" and "What Am I Gonna Do?" both have the same sort of mundane imagery gone awry that one might see in a Hankiewicz story, but Carre' takes them in a very different, more directly absurd, direction. The latter story in particular has an enormously clever use of text text literally consuming a figure in the story with the weight of its burden. The deadpan surrealism of Gilbert Hernandez also seems to be an influence, especially in sweeping epics like "Dorado Park", "Sleepwalker" and especially "The Pearl". The latter story, concerning a singer transformed into a pearl and the various places he winds up in, may be my single favorite short story of the year to date. Carre' also seems to have a certain kinship with the immersive comics of Theo Ellsworth, Juliacks, Austin English and Olga Volozova. The way she often integrates text and image and the way her visuals draw the reader into her own world are very much like those other artists, but there's a coolness to her work that creates a tension between immersion and distance. It's that tension that I find to be especially gripping in her comics.

Each short story starts with a relatively mundane premise (two sisters living in a strange house, a man with a sleepwalking problem, a singer who encounters tragedy) and runs with the theme of the book in some unexpected ways. Carre' differs greatly from Hernandez in the way she incorporates the touch of an animator and frames every story with decorative borders. Those decorative touches are never intrusive, yet somehow add to the mood and atmosphere of each story. They mesh well with the book's size, which is 6"x6" square. Carre' relies heavily on black for mood, yet still varies her approach depending on the story. "The Neighbor" and "Dorado Park" both have a lot of dense cross-hatching, creating an oppressive atmosphere fitting for those creepy, claustrophobic stories. "The Sun", "Wait" and "What Am I Going To Do?" all have blank white backgrounds, which makes sense given these are less stories than weird blackout gags. The rest of the stories make use of dense, atmospheric blacks in much the same way as her book THE LAGOON does.

Unlike THE LAGOON, this book makes far greater use of funny drawings, as opposed to just idiosyncratic character design. The way the panels are created gives the content of each a sort of stagey feel, especially in episodic stories like "The Pearl". Give the pages of the book a quick ruffle like a flip book and this sense of being on stage really comes alive. The nature of each disappearance in the stories varies widely, from getting lost in a forest to being eaten by a word balloon to shrinking into nothingness. My favorite story in the book is "If I Were A Fish", which switches gears after two pages, going from kinetic to static as we follow the existence of a storm drain. The drain tells us about its existence and the many things it collects (that disappear for others), yet it can only think about the tiny objects that slip through its grates. It's the only protagonist in the book that doesn't receive a resolution to its problems by disappearing. The drain stays exactly where it is, and pops up again later, only to continue to be frustrated.

NINE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR marks the third publisher Carre' has published with, not counting her entry in BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2009. Little Otsu is yet another small press comics publisher that has a limited but impressive set of comics and other art objects for sale. Like Secret Acres, Picturebox or Sparkplug, Little Otsu concentrates on getting design and other little details right. I'll be reviewing some other efforts from the publisher shortly. What's really started to distinguish Carre's work is her sense of balance and rhythm. She balances the depiction of sound, memory and even smell in ways that other artists don't, in part because these are all things that interest her. That sense of rhythm, developed after some false starts with her TALES OF WOODSMAN PETE comics, allows her to slow down or speed up narratives while never disturbing the reader. It's balanced by the way she uses her line and those aforementioned decorative touches, giving her a formula of sorts that creates an almost hypnotic reading experience. Short stories still seem to be her greatest strength as an artist, but THE LAGOON proved that she could play with her own formulae to create a different experience for a reader. I'll be curious to see where her storytelling whims take her next.

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