Thursday, July 16, 2020

Liz Valasco's The Seeker

I reviewed an earlier minicomics version of Liz Valasco's The Seeker a while back, and the finished version (from Tinto Press) fulfills the creepy, unsettling vision of those early pages. As alluded to in Aaron Lange's back-cover blurb for the book, the things that are unspoken in this disturbing story are every bit as important as the parts of the narrative that are made crystal-clear. It's a story about innocence, exploitation, and ultimately trauma.

The story follows a pre-teen girl who is never named. She's the titular seeker and also referred to as a necromancer. Omitting her name feels deliberate; she's someone who's been erased and feels alienated. That omission feels even more deliberate given that the rest of the cast, the older teens, are not only named, but frequently call each other by their names. They are signified. Rob, the hero of the story, refers to the younger girl as "weirdo" and "crazy," but never by her actual name.

The story opens with the seeker completing a ritual on Halloween. There are a lot of unanswered questions at work here. She uses a book of incantations with a big X on the cover; where did she get it from? The innocent-seeming shenanigans of retrieving a particular box gives way to bone-chilling horror when the plastic pumpkin she uses as part of her ritual starts talking to her after she finishes the spell. Opening that box sends a bunch of roaches scurrying into the pumpkin, providing the final key for its animation.
The story then turns to Rob and efficiently reveals that his dead grandfather wasn't what he seemed. His "class-ring" is a weird artifact, and the seeker demands it from Rob when she runs into him on the street. Rob is getting up to older-teen activities with his friend Brian, who brings beer to the forest for their rendevous with two girls, Ariel and Lana (Rob's crush). When the seeker finds them, gets the ring, and throws it in the pumpkin, the story takes a horrific turn.

The seeker is clearly being manipulated by forces beyond her control (she wants to scare Rob and his friends, and the creature wants to eat their souls), and Valasco turns this into a tightly-plotted monster story. The horrifying thing is not the fight with the monsters itself, but rather the final fate of the seeker herself, devoured by the very forces that she sought solace in.

The layers in the story unravel a bit when we learn that the seeker's father left for unstated reasons. We never meet her mother, other than knowing that she wasn't at home on Halloween. How often was the seeker simply left alone? Her interest in scaring Rob felt like a tween crush that she couldn't otherwise articulate. She wanted to be seen and validated by Rob and take back some of the power she had ceded him with her crush. She wanted to "scare them all," taking power back against a world that ignored her and left her alone. If she scared them, they had to pay attention to her. One wonders if she got the book from Rob's garage when he wasn't paying attention; it's clear that she was familiar enough to him that perhaps she came by to annoy him.

Meanwhile, Rob is far from a spotless protagonist. He's not evil, but he's a bit uncaring and selfish. He's a typical teen. He's annoyed by the seeker and doesn't treat her kindly, but he doesn't bully her either. He's annoyed by his mom but later tries to do the right thing. He's freaked out by the whole event but none of the teens seem especially interested in mourning the seeker. He has a bit of imperiousness to him that makes him just a bit off as a hero. Everyone in this story has flaws; it's just that some of them have major narrative consequences.

Valasco's drawings sell the story. She draws the seeker with a simplified face, giving her a sense of fragile innocence with her fine line. At times, she almost looks like a Peanuts character. At the same time, Valasco creates mood and atmosphere with dense hatching and cross-hatching, especially of the backgrounds. The wispiness of her line and that constant sense of impending erasure is made manifest in the frequent thinness of her line, especially with regard to characters like Rob's mother. It also gives an initial sense of cuteness to the horror story that unfolds, creating cognitive dissonance for readers and characters alike. This comic is a small triumph, leaving many questions unanswered as it asks the reader to consider the motivations and circumstances of its characters.       

Friday, July 3, 2020

Not Quite Comics: Trungles' Star Spinner Tarot

The tarot card deck became intertwined with hypermasculine, gatekeeping occult knowledge popularized by Aleister Crowley quite a while ago, adding a tinge of danger to what is less a divination tool and more a method of self-discovery. There have been numerous versions of the deck with more inclusive and diverse imagery and interpretation since the first publication of the Rider-Waite deck over a century ago. Many have been published from a feminist point of view, and several have come from cartoonists. Annie Murphy's work with The Collective Tarot and Katie Skelly's Bad Girl Tarot are two prominent examples.

A recent, exquisitely designed version is the Star Spinner Tarot (Chronicle Books) by the cartoonist and illustrator Trungles (aka Trung Le Nguyen). He sets out to create imagery for his deck that avoids Orientalism and the exoticization of African cultures in favor of one that delves into more familiar but still poignant imagery that still draws from a storytelling milieu. As such, the water-bearing chalices draw from mermaid imagery. There is abundant faerie imagery. There are many allusions to mythology. There is a diversity and balance to the images in terms of masculine and feminine, as well as racial diversity without exploitation or exoticization. The design is absolutely flawless, from the rich colors to the box itself, which self-seals with a magnetic strip.

Trungles' line is beautifully precise and fluid; with the pastel color pattern at work, it has almost a lyrical quality. His instincts as a storyteller are at work not only within each image but also within each of the minor arcana. There's a story told through the chalices, wands, swords, and coins. That said, these story images are fragments, meant to be evocative rather than directly. They are notes that are played in each individual reading, creating a special kind of music between the cards and the reader.
In terms of its functionality as a tool for self-reflection, Trungles adds a few interesting wrinkles. For example, he has four variations on the Lovers card, where the person receiving the reader chooses the one they are most comfortable with. Those variations include different configurations of men, women, and non-binary figures. Even Trungles' description of how each card can be interpreted is gentler and more thoughtful than traditional decks. Disastrous cards like the Tower and the Ten of Swords, as Trungles describes them, portend woe but also an opportunity to move in a new direction. Many of the reversed cards describe a person who is unwilling to let go of difficult emotions. One can easily see how working with this deck on a regular basis might produce a meditative, fruitful set of personal revelations.