Saturday, December 22, 2018

Thirty One Days Of CCS #22: Carl Antonowicz

Buer's Kiss Volume I, by Carl Antonowicz. I only got to see the first few pages of this in minicomics form last year, but there's no question that this is Antonowicz's best, most confident work to date. He was so ambitious that he also created a stage version of this story, which played in a few different locations. Antonowicz is most interested in stories set in a fictional version of the European middle ages, mixing science, religion, magic and superstition. This comic was inspired by the story of a particular leper's colony in the 14th century and it involves the ways in which beliefs become so reified that they supersede reason and observation. That's especially true when the church and state are essentially the same entity.

Stories like this are best old at the individual level, which allows the reader to focus in on the particular affairs of someone while trying to figure out what's going on. Antonowicz starts the story with what seems to be a funeral until we learn that the woman being "buried" is not actually dead, but somehow Unclean. The penalty is to be exiled from the village, with the choice of becoming a beggar or joining a colony of diseased heretics. The woman, Felecia, is a independent cynic with a dark sense of humor, which makes her an ideal protagonist. Far from the Candide-like innocent thrown on the mercies of a cruel world, she's smart and self-possessed despite having no formal education. This is a protagonist with the kind of agency necessary to survive a world like this but also the common sense needed when it came time to compromise.

This is a story about the arbitrary nature of authority. When authority ceases to have a rational reason for being, it simply becomes a matter of maintaining a status quo through the use of naked force. That's especially true when authority trumps human empathy. Antonowicz plays this out in a number of scenarios. First, when Felecia's husband refuses to touch her, she realizes that he chose to let all of their years together be wiped out by the beliefs of the village. Second comes when a soldier on a mission to find the colony of the diseased realizes that his commanding officer is not only incompetent, he's in love with the sound of his own commands. Third is when Felecia meets the colony's doctor and is relieved to hear that the doctor doesn't believe in the proclamations of the diseased leader. Fourth is when Felecia meets a diseased man (who believes in an approximation of Islam) who warns her about everyone's belief system. This volume builds up these conflicts, while I imagine the second volume will bring them to fruition.

The story works because Antonowicz pays close attention to detail. He doesn't skimp on depicting the leprosy-like disease labeled as the titular "kiss", with boils, sores, scabs, missing body parts, etc. He makes great use of negative space throughout the comic, which is crucial since he uses a small twelve-panel grid as his default. There are times parts of the grid are collapsed to become a single, horizontal panel, but Antonowicz keeps things moving using this format. This is a visually striking comic first and foremost, allowing the character and plot to reveal themselves slowly while the reader takes in visual details. I'm eager to see the payoffs for a variety of characters and stories in the next volume.

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