Monday, December 5, 2016

Thirty-One Days of CCS #5: Sophie Goldstein, Laurel Lynn Leake

Sophie Goldstein's House of Women is her best work to date, and the third of three issues does not disappoint. This sci-fi story about four women from a colonial & religious entity called The Empire comes to a violent and tragic end as the meddling the women do on the planet comes back to haunt them. Throughout the series, Goldstein explored ideas related to gender (the women were trying to civilize the female, "primitive" species on the planet because the men were too warlike), class, colonialism and empathy. Each of the women had specific missions on the planet but wound up personifying their roles so much that they were incapable of acting in other ways. The scientist had no empathy and hid a crucial secret (that one of the female natives in their midst was actually a male who hadn't sexually matured yet) as a way of manipulating the others. The nurturer who loved the natives as her children also had a paternalistic attitude toward them. The wise woman was judgmental and offered her wisdom too late. The leader was a romantic, both in terms of how she viewed her mission and her fellow explorers as family, as well as succumbing to the charms of a male operative on the planet.

In the end, the scientist became deranged from a lack of human contact and mistook obsessive longing for real interaction. The nurturer lacked any sense of pragmatism and she paid dearly for her mistake. The wise woman acted too late to do anything, and the idealist, romantic leader had her head in the clouds for too long to make any kind of decisive actions. Ironically, the only character with real agency in this chapter was the native male, who killed one person out of fear and killed another to protect a friend. The behavior of that character spoke to the ways in which the paternalistic understanding of the Empire showed how limited it was and just how much potential the people of the planet had as empathic beings, but by that point it was far too late. It wasn't the natives that were the undoing of the mission, it was the flaws of those carrying it out.

Stylistically, Goldstein continued to channel the crisp precision of Jaime Hernandez with the wild expressiveness of Gilbert Hernandez. The opening pages, when the scientist Rhivka is carefully washing her hair in front of religious iconography found on the planet, is a triumph of design in lockstep with content. Her deranged expression is not unlike a Gilbert character, but the boldness of the black and white contrasts reminds me of Jaime. The structure of these pages is also a clever recapitulation of the story, as that iconographic image portends a demonic presence on the planet that will bring disaster. Others have noted the influence of German Expressionist filmmaking, and that's certainly in evidence, especially in terms of the baroque character of the decorative aspects of the comic. The formal structure of the images is what allowed Goldstein to get away with the more melodramatic, larger-than-life elements of the story, as it allows them to become allegory instead of more sensationalism. Goldstein also throws in flourishes like a double-diecut cover that reveals new aspects to its images over a three page span. As I've noted before, it will take a special designer to do justice to what she's done on her own when this book is inevitably snapped up by a publisher.

Laurel Lynn Leake's Poly Morphous series is much a case of an artist prescribing good advice to herself and others, hoping that both might take it. Issue #4, subtitled "Adrift", proclaims that its contents are "sensitive, scribbly comics about mental illness, isolation and longing". Leake is an interesting artist in that she's always had tremendous insight into both the analytical and personal/emotional aspects of mental illness. Her self-described scribbly drawings are expressive and nuanced, as they manage to depict the war that goes on inside the head of someone struggling with mental illness. In particular, the ways in which one's rationality can be used as a weapon against oneself is something that Leake nails when she states that her illness "lends me iron logic to determine my badness". In other words, one can get trapped in a recursive loop that doesn't allow the possibility of outside perspectives and instead encourages extrapolation and catastrophization at all times. Leake talks about how accepting one's own limits is the only way to snap that particular Gordian knot.

Issue #5 discusses the frustration with the constant feeling of being sick, of not feeling like a person who can interact with others, of feeling like a person comfortable in their own skin. Here, the drawings of Poly are especially expressive, tumbling down and getting blurry in the same way the text talks about feeling out of focus. There's an essential playfulness that the Poly character possesses, even when the character is a reflection of Leake's own particular issues. Poly is a best self in many ways, a self that struggles but always manages to retain a certain lightness. That's true even in issue #6, when Leake discusses intensely violent negative emotions that are aimed at herself; Poly looks like they're about to snap in two due to the pain. Leake gets at another crucial point in this issue, as the extremes of mental illness often seem eternal and infinite in the moment, but they inevitably pass with time. As long as one practices forgiveness for oneself and accept not being perfect or "well" as part of one's being instead of personal failures, then one can negotiate these moments of despair. One can practically see Poly practicing deep breathing and grounding at the end, with their eyes closed as they sit on the ground. Leake also gets at a concept called "wise mind", where one is able to take two contradictory thoughts about oneself and finds ways to accept the truth of both in the middle.

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