Thursday, August 28, 2014

Chicago Week: Lilli Carre'

Lilli Carre', along with Gabrielle Bell, Eleanor Davis and a couple of others, were the young artists whose work dominated the anthology Mome during its run. Heads or Tails (Fantagraphics, 2012) collects that work along with several other short stories in a coherent, witty volume that constantly plays on its title. It refers to 50-50 chances and choices, but it also refers to being in a state where one is unable to distinguish up from down. An animator as well as a cartoonist, Carre' has an angular, cartoony, abstracted and almost geometric style that is as likely to rely on its decorative aspects to reveal its narrative qualities as it is to have color significantly affect the reader's understanding of the story. Her stories are dry but witty, with an occasionally understated sense of the absurd at play. The motions in her strips often have a deliberately herky-jerky quality, as though they were inspired by her animation background and the sense that some of her drawings look like they were constructed out of paper instead of simply being drawn. Thematically, Carre' tells tales of people out place and out of their comfort zone. She offers few judgments as a narrator, other than providing witty obstacles for her characters to grapple with. That said, one senses a deep sense of empathy for each character's confusion and befuddlement.

Despite the seeming austerity of her line, Carre' loves visual jokes. At the front of the book, there's a wall with a number of different portraits of strange looking people. On the following page, we see that they were all actually standing behind the wall, and we get to see their backsides arranged in a preposterous manner. The first story, "Welcome To My Kingdon", eases the reader into the book as the decorative aspects of a single page's panel slowly start to close in on a man who talks about how much room he has. It's a series of images that grow increasingly beautiful even as they grow increasingly funny. "Wishy-Washy" is the first story where someone is forced out of their comfort zone. It's about a flower show judge who lives to pass aesthetic judgments on all things who gets into an accident and loses the urge to have opinions. It's a funny, pointed jab at narrowing one's identity two sharply, as the judge lived his life on his "taste, and strong, deliberate choices." This winds up having hilarious but deadly consequences for him. Carre's palette here is soft, going with pastels except when depicting huge crashes. There, she uses a silly and simple "crash balloon" spread over two pages, with no other art or text, filled in with a solid and strong use of yellow-orange or green.

"Into The Night" is a dream comic where she uses a series of narrative captions to plainly explain how a town's worth of people heard a noise in the middle of the night and had a variety of extreme reactions to it. Some ran around looking for the cause of the noise, some ran away from it, some stayed right where they were and some assumed it was all part of their dream. This densely-hatched story that emphasizes a lot of curly lines reflecting the shadowy, nightmarish world of this story. It's about the absurdity of dread and mass hysteria and another story whose characters only have access to absurd choices.

"The Thing About Madeline" is one of the two show-stopper pieces in this book (the other being "The Carnival"), and it's about a woman who leads an ordinary life who one day comes home to find herself already in bed. Shaken by this, she flees the house and starts following her doppelganger around, until it becomes apparent that she's now the doppelganger, having been confronted by her double, her new boyfriend (whom she knew but never had the guts to let into her life) and her neighbor. Carre' shifts the story's background hue from violet to orange as she leaves the city and creates a new identity, only to find a deranged doppelganger staring at her from outside her after a few weeks. It's a brilliantly clever story about a life flipped upside down like a playing card, changing its cycle for no discernible reason at all. Despite the brightness of the story's colors and the cartoony nature of the characters, this is a deeply unsettling account of the way chaos is at the heart of our existence.

"The Carnival" is sort of the flip-side to "The Thing About Madeline". It's about a man living a perfectly comfortable life until a bizarre, apocalyptic plumbing accident afflicts his apartment building. He then takes an hours-long drive in an effort to simply get away and live some other kind of life for a little while. The carnival theme and its games of chance are a deliberate metaphor, as is the fact that the game he tries is rigged, and the winner is a woman he takes a shine to. In this case, he's not really capable of going where the wind takes him (a recurring motif in the story) in the same way that she is, and she recognizes this when she leaves his hotel room the next morning while he's still asleep. He simply can't flip the coin and gets reset back to his old life by story's end, even as she demonstrates her willingness to try on a new life when the wind magically lifts her all the way to his city. As opposed to the single tones used in "Madeline", "The Carnival" reflects its atmosphere with a crazy-quilt of bright but still soft colors.

"Too Hot To Sleep" has one of Carre's better visual jokes in this story about incipient sexuality and frustrated sexuality, when a pre-teen boy and a slightly older girl share a weird flirtation on vacation. There's a rawness to this story that's encapsulated by the boy's total cluelessness about everything, including what the girl was doing. That said, the seashell pattern that he unsuspectingly laid down on her legs while tanning showed that she didn't know everything either. "Rainbow Moment" is a nesting narrative of stories within stories. It begins with a husband telling a story about finding his wife upside in bed (heads/tails, once again) who was flipped out by a story she was told by a bookshop clerk. That story was about how her uncle told her a story about his wife locking herself in a bathroom when her parents were angry at her. Each story flips to a different color, but every one is about the state of being in-between, of being suspended, temporarily absent from one's everyday life. It's the coin that's neither heads nor tails.

The rest of the book is mostly very short stories and illustrations book-ended by a short story called "The Flip", where two identical twins egg each on to ever-more absurd stakes for a coin flip. When they toss the coin in the air, it doesn't come down, and one sister leaves. My favorite of the short pieces is "Marching Band", about loving something that irritates you and then missing it when it's gone. Many of them see Carre' really cutting loose in terms of formal experiments, more exaggerated drawings and crazier use of color. Most of these stories came from the anthology Mome, and the short story format really suits the way she uses narrative in short, thematic bursts. It's less about giving the reader a familiar plot to sink their teeth into and more about picking out a set of emotions or circumstances and exploring the ramifications and consequences of those emotions or circumstances being upset. That state of being betwist, between and sometimes bereft clearly fascinates Carre' and powers her sometimes opaque stories that demand an attentive reader who's ready to ask the same kind of questions that she does.

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