Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Behind the Curtain: Black Is The Color

The key phrase in Julia Gfrorer's remarkable book from Fantagraphics, Black Is The Color, comes when the two protagonists (a doomed sailor and a mermaid) are cuddling together in a boat. After coaxing all sorts of stories and confessions out of him, she tells him that he really doesn't want to know about her. When pressed, she replies "You think you do, but you'll be happier if I let you wonder about it." The reason why this phrase is so important is that it underlines the relationship between mermaids and humans: the mermaids have their own society filled with precisely the same sort of petty concerns and backbiting as human society, but the mermaids prefer to be fantasy figures to the humans. In that way, they remain above them. Sure, the mermaids are objectified and reduced to fantasy objects, but in Gfrorer's world here, they always maintain the upper hand. They regard humans as a kind of entertainment, as it's cruelly revealed when a crowd of mermaids and mermen float in choppy waters in order to see a lightning storm set a ship on fire. Its puerile, mean-spirited entertainment, yet the mermaids also display the capacity for compassion and beauty as well. Gfrorer offers only hints of mermaid society, but she reveals enough to let the reader know that mermaid society and modern society are fairly interchangeable. It's not an accident that the book's cover features the mermaids and mermen floating in the ocean, waiting for something to come along and entertain them. Preferably something gruesome.

I've included Gfrorer as one of the stalwarts of what I've dubbed the "Coal Mine School": artists who plumb the depths of despair, torment and degradation to find nuggets of beauty and even humor. (Others include JT Dockery, Anna Bongiovanni, Chris Wright and Caitlin Skaalrud). Indeed, every one of Gfrorer's comics is told with the same pitch-black sense of humor, especially in terms of its dialogue. I especially enjoy the frequently anachronistically modern dialogue she employs in tales from the past; it heightens the sense of humor and distance even as the reader is dragged straight into tragedy and suffering. In this story, Warren is forced out to sea by his captain because of diminishing provisions; it's essentially a death sentence. Things get worse when Warren contracts tuberculosis from his fellow cast-off. In Warren's mind, whether or not the mermaid is real is an open question, but the comfort he receives makes this irrelevant. There's no doubt that the mermaid is real, given the scenes that Gfrorer depicts of mermaid society. I suppose that the entire back half of the book could be an elaborate hallucination, but Gfrorer plays fair with her readers.

The most interesting segment in the book comes when it seems like Warren has somehow made it home to his wife and baby. He shakes off any warmth in order to immediately have sex with her, a need that Gfroer makes palpable and desperate on the page. It's a passionate, tender scene that of course is revealed to be a dream--or is it, given that we see his wife wake up with salt water in her mouth? Is it her dream, his dream, or a gift from the mermaids as he's dragged down under when he does? Gfrorer wisely leaves that to the reader's imagination, as Warren is dragged down into the depths of the ocean that become blacker and blacker until they become white. There's no question that the scratchy intensity of Gfrorer's line is the key to the book's success. What she tries to get across on many of its pages is the view that Warren sees as he goes in and out of consciousness: the sea, the sky, the clouds, a set of lines that become more abstract as they are frequently the only thing he sees. There is stultifying boredom relieved by visits from the mermaid, but even those visits are a kind of assault on his sanity as he understands it. Every line is an assault, from the tiny stilettos that comprise the dense waves to the darkness of night that is almost invasive. Warren doesn't get to live on like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, but he does get a last chance at comfort and goes out on his own terms. In a story where death is a certainty, that kind of dignity represents a kind of triumph, one more authentic than if Gfrorer had let the happy ending be real.

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