Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Pyrite Press, Part 2: K.Wroten's Crimes

K.Wroten is one of the most thoughtful and philosophical cartoonists working today. Their first major full-length book, Crimes, was published by Pyrite Press, and it's remarkable for its complex, ambiguous, and well-realized characters who ruminate on questions essential to their very identity. At its core, it is the tale of Willa, a burnt-out artist in her 30s, and Bas, a young poet and polymath who is just starting her career after a nihilistic adolesence. It's a story of friendship and betrayal, obsession and repulsion, and desperately wanting to be anyone other than who we are. For Wroten, it's a fascinating snapshot in time to when their line was much scratchier and less polished, but their cartooning was still so strong and expressive. 

Wroten plays around with chronology in a way that's a bit confusing at first, until they really dig into the main narrative. We're first introduced to Willa as a teen, arguing the existence of god with her disingenously argumentative father. Then we flash forward to learn that her best friend, Simon, has been found dead on a camping trip, and she is coping badly with it. All she can do is start to paint in is honor, an act that triggers the flashback to how Willa meets Bas. 

Bas was Simon's girlfriend. Simon and Willa were platonic friends, and Willa was immediately repulsed by the clear artifice that went into her persona. At the same time, she was drawn not only to the lengths that Bas went to in the construction of her personality, but also at how effective it was. Wroten depicts a now-smitten Willa with a "badum" sound effect to indicate her rapidly-beating heart, but also a sense of impassioned panic. There is a feeling of inevitability regarding them eventually hooking up, as Simon encourages Bas working in Willa's studio space, and there are seemingly coincidental encounters that draw them together. 

The key segment in Crimes is a conversation Bas and Willa have about whether or not evil exists. Bas reveals that when she was a teen, she sometimes deliberately sought out the company of a group of men because she knew they would do fucked-up things. It's implied that some of them were done to her, but it's explicitly stated that she did a lot of things that she shouldn't, but who cares, right? It was freedom! Wroten hear is hitting on Plato's Ring of Gyges story, where a man finds a magic ring that gives him invisibility and freedom to do whatever he wants. He chooses to rape, kill, and rob because there are no consequences, giving rise to the idea of the degree to which ethical behavior is simply a function of a fear of punishment. For Bas (which is not her real name), she chose to live that way until she didn't--there was a sense of deep down, understanding that what she was doing was counter to the nature of what it is to be human. There was no god to punish her, only her own revulsion and eventual decision to leave it behind. 

Wroten cleverly skips the scene where Bas and Willa hook up, instead moving on to Bas performing a poem about it to a crowd that includes a rapturously supportive and utterly clueless Simon. They both encourage Simon to go on a herpetology camping trip, but even as they earnestly encourage him, Bas knows what she's really doing. She feels guilty but does it anyway, circling back around to this concept of evil. Bas asks Willa to come over since she has a spare key, but it's all a ruse for seduction that Bas knows Willa wants and won't resist. Here, Wroten gives us the sex scene and the important pillow talk afterward, which leads to guilt and an attempt to clear their heads at the beach. Just as Bas nearly broke down (and nearly died of what may have been a drug overdose) years earlier with her depraved friends, she breaks down again when she gets the phone call that Simon's dead. It's the other shoe finally dropping, something the reader had been waiting for the whole time, but the revelations about them pushing him into it, their own betrayals, and an attempt to even justify it are rendered irrelevant in the moment. There is only grief, and guilt, and a profound understanding of how one's choices create one's identity. It also ties into the beginning, where we see Willa trying to cope with her grief but don't see Bas, as it's clear that they've split. 

The intricacy of the characterizations, the verisimilitude of the dialogue, the highly effective plot twists, and the liveliness of the cartooning all make this a strong debut. That said, it is very clearly the work of a young cartoonist who badly needed editing and graphic design help. There are a number of examples of poorly-blocked word balloons, poor flow due to confusing placement of word balloons relative to the characters, shaky lettering, and other technical flaws that could have been cleared up with a good designer. It's telling how much Wroten's technical ability improved with Cannonball, and I would imagine this was due both to greater experience and a stronger editorial hand at Uncivilized Books. Technial problems aside, Wroten's devotion to exploring how philosophical problems play out in relationships makes them one of my favorite young cartoonists.

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