Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Centrala: Gosia Herba & Mikoeaj Pasinski, Malgorzata Gurowska & Joanna Ruszczyk; Lene Ask

Fertility, by Gosia Herba & Mikoeaj Pasinski. This silent comic cuts deep to the bone in its horror, making the average Josh Simmons comic look like The Care Bears in comparison. It is certainly the most disturbing piece of fiction involving rabbits since Watership Down. Herba & Pasinski start with an unnerving premise--that a certain part of a rabbit promotes fertility when ingested--and take it far, far beyond that. The scratchy line art and sickly green wash add to the atmosphere of horror, but it's the page design that takes it over the top, as Herba's tendency to cram tiny panels on some of the pages forces the reader to deal with image after image rapidly cycling by.

The story starts with four young women who have just gotten married who are already fantasizing about having babies. One pulls out a book detailing how eating a certain part of a rabbit would make them immediately fertile and so they set out some nasty-looking traps to catch, kill and dissect a rabbit. The story then shifts from their point of view to the point of view of the rabbits, who are terrified that they lost one of their own and report back to their village, where we find rabbits in little houses and sleeping in beds. Seeking vengeance, a gang of rabbits kidnaps the women naked and take them before their giant rabbit king.

Their punishment is to be buried alive up to their necks for a certain period of time. They are then raped by males rabbits in a truly unsettling series of panels. The king is outraged that this occurred when they released the women and found them to be pregnant and the offending males are called out and forced into the rabbit equivalent of a shotgun wedding with the women. Things proceed to only get worse once the women give birth, as abuse, disease and other horrors pervade both the women and rabbits alike, and the ending gives little hope that anything will change. This is a brutal and uncompromising book, and there's any number of ways to interpret it. There's a angle that gives the book a man vs nature theme, but that seems to be a facile reading. At a deeper level, the book seems to be about the exploitation and subjugation of women that's done in an exaggerated fashion but that still touches dangerously close to reality. The women in the book are both predators and victims, but the price they pay winds up being unique to the experience of women.

Locomotive/Ideolo, by Malgorzata Gurowska & Joanna Ruszczyk. This is a gorgeous-looking art object of a book that's bound accordion-style so that the pages fold out, with each set of two pages forming a single image. The back side of the book is its own entity, providing commentary on the images and adding smaller images. Created by the designer/journalist team of Gurowska & Ruszczyk, they drew influence from the Polish poet and writer Julian Tuwim. While he was best known for his children's poetry (and the book draws direct inspiration from the poem "Locomotive"), he was also outspoken about any number of issues, including fascism, capitalism, anti-Semitism, nationalism and any number of other issues related to exploitation. The book is crafted like a childrens' book in the way that the pages flip forward. Gurowska's drawings remind me a lot of John Hankiewicz or Robert Sergel in their precise crispness and the stark black & white contrasts. The use of silhouettes to depict the contents of each car looks like the sort of comics that Anders Nilsen is drawing at the moment. That starkness immediately stands out as something one would not see in a kid's book and draws the reader's eye in as we see train car after train car with different payloads.

While the first few pages reproduce the images from the poem, the authors then switch over to far more provocative images, like animals caged for testing, nuclear weapons, and people of various ethnicities packed into cars for sinister final fates. The factoids and mini-essays on the back side of the folded-out book are pointed but reserved, choosing to focus on facts related to the disappearance of the rainforest. That said, the authors pull no punches in criticizing their home country of Poland, the USA, capitalism in general, and the exploitation of animals and the environment. It's as powerful, clever and unique a vehicle I've ever seen for what is mostly a fairly straightforward polemic. Gurowska's skill as an illustrator is remarkable, as she brings a dark sense of humor to certain images, a horrific absurdity to others, and a straightforward simplicity as a baseline that is nonetheless slightly unsettling because of the almost mathematical preciseness in her drawing style.

Dear Rikard, by Lene Ask. The Norwegian artist Ask was going through the archives of the local missionary records when she came across a series of letters between a father who was a missionary in Madagascar and the son he left behind in Norway. The boy did not see his father from the age of eight to the age of eighteen, and the letters point to the ache each felt in the absence of the other. Ask imagines their lives apart from each other as they pour their hearts out in letters. The first half of the book is mostly the father writing to the son, who was, after all, only eight years old and not confident with his handwriting. The pleas from his father to write more often reflected his guilt for leaving his children behind for his calling, a job that Ask subtly critiques by illustrating his father being carried by natives into town. His father is desperate to get a sense of what life is like at home for his children, as he's confused by the fragments that his son tells him about school, his grades, etc. In the second half of the book, Ask focuses on the letters Rickard writes, where he confesses that he's gotten into fights, received poor marks, etc, all while begging his father to come home. The final letter comes years later, when Rikard is in his thirties and his father relays how proud of him he is and how much he regretted not being able to be there. Ask's densely cross-hatched, naturalistic style is remarkable for how much life she breathes into these characters. She brings both Norway and Madagascar to life, with the humidity and hurricanes of the latter and the crisp air & snow of the former. This is a vivid account of how the intimacy and bonds of family can be tested over time. It's devoid of sentiment but is remarkable in its depiction of honest despair, sadness, loneliness and heartbreak.

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