Saturday, December 31, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #31: Luke Healy

Luke Healy's output has been remarkably consistent since his CCS days. His comics have featured a unique blend of complex and flawed characters who are nonetheless treated with a great deal of empathy, a beautifully clear line and an unfailing ability to throw formal innovations into the mix in ways that serve both plot and character. That clean line and his overall aesthetic made him a perfect match for NoBrow, and so his first long-form book, How To Survive In The North is indeed from the British publisher. Perhaps in deference to scheduling, Healy actually simplified his line even further and kept the narrative & formal tricks to a minimum. Of course for Healy, what that meant was adapting two separate historical events into narratives and then throwing a third, fictional narrative in on top of it as a way of connecting and recapitulating the longer narratives.

The first narrative in the book concerns the ill-fated 1913 Arctic expedition commissioned by Vilhjalmur Stefansson and captained by Robert Bartlett, the second narrative is about ill-fated 1921 Arctic expedition that included Inuit seamstress Ada Blackjack, and the fictional narrative follows a modern-day professor forced into a sabbatical who researches the two expeditions. The common themes include a shocking and selfish disregard for others in pursuit of one's passions, tremendous resilience and courage in the face of impossible odds, Healy smartly gives the reader a taste of each of the storylines at the beginning of the book, all of them in media res, in part to deliver dramatic moments and pique the reader's interest as to how those moments were arrived at. A running theme in Healy's comics finds glib, silver-tongued characters pressuring generous-hearted characters into doing things against their better judgment.

For example, Steffansson uses a series of deceptions to get the highly skilled Arctic sailor Bartlett to lead a vessel that was in no way was ready for the wintry ocean conditions, and Steffansson abandoned them to their fates midway through the voyage. He also convinced Bartlett to take on a group of scientists even though he knew they would not get along with his crew under stressful circumstances. The adventurers that brought along Blackjack were woefully unprepared, lied to Blackjack about the presence of bears on the island they were exploring, lied to her about picking up other Inuits along the way and one of them was openly hostile to her presence. She took the job because she felt the pressure of needing to raise money for her son's illness. Finally, the professor (Sully) had an affair with one his students, a smarmy frat boy who couldn't care less about almost losing his job because of the affair. It wasn't just that they all made bad choices, it was that they were deliberately misled into making those bad choices by false promises.

Things get much worse for each of the protagonists: Bartlett loses his ship and chooses to take a risky course in order to get help; Blackjack is stranded with a dying adventurer while the other two try to take the same risky course; and Sully is further outed. Along the way, each of the protagonists makes valuable allies who wind up being key players. For Bartlett, it's a young Inuit named Kataktovik, whom Bartlett treats with respect and trusts implicitly. That decision wound up being a sound one, as Kataktovik does most of the work that saves Bartlett's life and the life of the crew. For Blackjack, apart from her own wits and grit, she had a cat to keep her company. For Sully, it was a librarian named Kendra who looked out for him and lent him an ear when he needed it most. It's no coincidence that in the teaser at the beginning of the book, all three of the protagonists are pictured at especially low and helpless points interacting with their allies.

Ultimately, the key theme is right in the title: "survive". Survival in the face of a hostile world is a powerful act. For the explorers, it required fortitude, empathy and cooperation. Scratching out a daily existence in the face of multiple natural forces that could easily kill you is both a traumatic and peak experience. Indeed, one explorer from the first expedition found he couldn't go back to normal life after surviving and was the only member of both expeditions. In Healy's hands, he represented someone who did not understand how important empathy was to the equation, and how its lessons could be applied even to mundane, everyday existence. Blackjack was his precise opposite, as she took her reprieve as a gift and made the most of it. In the scene that recapitulates the book, Sully pushes the student out of his life after the student tries to come over for another sexual encounter after it was made clear that the student had no concern for Sully's feelings. Referencing the underlying story behind both expeditions--that they were pointless, ill-prepared and selfishly undertaken--he essentially rejects everything that their relationship had been about. In that sense, Sully granted himself his own rescue.

The use of color was the key to the visual apprehension of the book. NoBrow books sometimes have a tendency to cudgel their readers with their unrelentingly vivid color schemes, but Healy turned down the brightness as much as possible while still adding variety to the book with the green of the ocean, the blue of the skies, the red of Blackjack's tent, etc. The color effectively helps move the eye across the page without distracting it too much. Healy executed his idea about as well as possible, even if the themes were fairly simple and even predictable at times. What made the book work was the quality of his character work, bringing Blackjack, Bartlett and Sully to life and making the supporting characters fully realized characters instead of just ciphers.

I've seen How To Survive In The North makes a few best-of lists this year, and deservedly so. However, Healy's minicomic The Unofficial Cuckoo's Nest Study Companion is the far superior work and is my choice for best minicomic of 2016. It is narratively and thematically sophisticated, its characters complex and its formal flourishes are not only conceptually and visually striking, they are also crucial to the realization of both story and character. There's a certain resonance with the works of Charlie Kaufman here, like Adaptation and Synecdoche, NY. While both of those films veer off into magical realism, the comic does touch on the difficulties of adapting a written work into a performative one, as well as how obsessing over the minutiae of stagecraft can betray hidden meanings.

The mini is a hybrid of a script and a comic. There is a strong meta level here where the reader in essence becomes not just the audience, but an essential part of the story, even listed as part of the cast with a clever footnote. It's one of many meta references in the play that remind the reader that what they're experience is performative, something they are watching that is both real and not real at the same time. The story features four principle characters. There's director Robin Huang, who was drummed out of theater after a disastrous reinterpretation of MacBeth. There is novelist A.B. "Dave" Cadbury, the pen name of a minor author whose book, The Cuckoo's Nest, stunningly won a major literary award. There is Robin's daughter Natalie, who is in detention for coming into conflict with one of her teachers. Finally, there is Wally Milk, the set designer who is in constant conflict with Robin. There's another character, a producer, but he's more of a plot-mover than a fully-formed character. The producer introduces Robin and Dave and says that she wants him to adapt his book to the stage. Wally is hired to design the set, and he has rather firm and immediate ideas on how to do so.

Robin knows that this is her one chance to reclaim her career, though the producer puts all kind of pressure on her in terms of time and adds the dubiously positive news that the premiere will be aired live on BBC. The problem is that the book defies adaptation. It's about a young man in Ireland who grows up without a father and doesn't even know his name until his mother lets it slip on her deathbed. He joins and then deserts the IRA when he gets to Dublin and finds his father's house. The rest of the book is about him painstakingly searching the empty house and making occasional comments, and it ends abruptly and without any resolution. Healy carefully but casually establishes the strained relationship between Robin and Nat as well as the strained relationship between Robin and Wally. Not unlike How To Survive In The North, Healy casually but carefully sets up each character's storyline and then lets it play out like a finely-crafted mechanism, which happens to be the central metaphor of this comic. What's different about this comic is the astonishingly deft bits of misdirection that Healy throws at the reader.

In many respects, the story revolves specifically around Robin and Nat. The reader is given access to their thoughts and feelings in a way that's denied to them for every other character. What becomes clear is that despite her moodiness (which Healy initially uses as a smokescreen), Nat is the one character who has real insight into everything and everybody around her, only nobody will listen. The essence of her observations is this: wasting time trying to fix an event from the past is completely pointless. It is a lesson that every character has to learn in the story. There are any number of other lessons to be learned, like it's important to listen to others and set aside preconceived notions, that the world is a far smaller place than we might think, and that the encomiums of an audience of strangers is far less important than genuine connections with our loved ones. Above all else, it is impossible and irresponsible to try to connect to an absent figure in one's life when there are actual people needing attention.

A lot of this is communicated by that metaphor of the mechanism, wherein trying to reduce something that is in actuality irreducibly complex will only lead to breakdowns, physical and otherwise. The stage Wally is building is a startlingly complex series of rooms moved about through a series of gears, levers and pulleys, and it's so specifically realized in his mind that any other craftsmen who try to help can't help but botch it and injure actors in the process. By the same token, a script is in itself a kind of schematic for a mechanism, wherein actors and stage come together with precision according to her version of someone else's vision. It is not stated explicitly, but the fact that Robin is an Asian woman plays into the story in an important way. She's a double outsider in the theatrical world of London, and it's telling that her MacBeth failed in part because she gave Lady MacBeth and expanded role, including much more dialogue. A woman giving another woman greater prominence in a play written by the playwright of playwrights, it is implied, was an unspeakable crime.

Healy creates a rhythm in this story with a rough four-panel grid wherein certain panels contain a four-panel grid of their own. Other panels are entirely dedicated to the script, which allows Healy to neatly pack a lot of verbiage into the comic without overburdening any individual panel. Indeed, there's a perfect balance of text and image in each panel, and Healy's simple, clear-line style allows him to go small without losing any fidelity in a given sub-panel. Another key formal tactic of Healy in the comic is inserting photographs into the comic. For example, when Robin meets Dave, he reminds her so much of her ex-husband (someone who is otherwise not spoken of) that she superimposes her ex-husband's image on top of his in photo form. The set that Wally builds is so intense and exacting that it too is rendered as a photograph. The contrast between the photos and Healy's clear line style is meant to be deliberately jarring for the reader and conveys a certain kind of bewilderment on behalf of the characters.

Of course, the comic is written and structured as a three-act play (written by Luke Healy), even as it's about someone writing a three-act play; it's as though Healy is laying bare the structure of how a story is made but using that apparent reveal for a specific reason. Indeed, all of that formal cleverness is suddenly made absolutely essential to character and plot in the third act, where a series of revelations (all cleverly and repeatedly foreshadowed by Healy earlier in the comic) served as far more than a brilliant turn. The revelations served to humanize the characters even further, to build empathy and underline connections in a sharp and deeply personal way. The ending, in a story about adapting a story with no ending, is as perfect and apt as Nat's own interpretation of key events, and it absolutely earns the quietly powerful emotion of the final page. The final irony of a comic written like a script is that this particular story was impossible to do in any other medium apart from comics. It's both a brilliant example of comics storytelling and a loving tribute to it.

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