Saturday, June 26, 2010
Comix Surgery: Driven By Lemons
This isn't really a review, just a sampling of my thoughts on Josh Cotter's 2009 graphic novel Driven By Lemons (AdHouse). I think the loose format of "Comix Surgery" is probably the best way to write criticism on this particular book. This may not be true of everyone, but when I write reviews I always end up having to leave out at least one idea I had so it can read cohesively. Not a big deal with an issue of Batman, but Driven By Lemons is so full of information, so taut in its pulling against itself that to use the single "narrative" that reviews center themselves around would just be insufficient. If you want a review, here's two sentences:
This is the best comic of last year, a graphically stunning, emotionally raw descent into the harrows of depression, creation, and the daily struggles of the human mind. A profound work of true high art dealing in brutal picture-blasts and rich, fully-developed symbolism, Driven By Lemons aims at a target few cartoonists have dared, and hits it right in the bullseye.
That said, it's a very subjective and personal comic with no easy answers and more than a few attempts to openly defy any "sense" it might make. Tough reading, the kind of book that you need to go through multiple times to even form opinions on. And there's definitely no "figuring it out for sure". Hence, what follows is a very non-authoritative attempt at giving this throbbing mass of idea and image a little bit of form. It's all my own thoughts about what someone else's thoughts mean, so take it with a grain of salt; but how cool is it to even have comics that inspire a different interpretation from everyone who reads them? This is what literature and art have, this is great stuff, this is the future of the medium right here. So yeah, what follows is my reading of Driven By Lemons. Hopefully you find it interesting. Hopefully you read the book or re-read the book and make your own.
- LIKE I said, the book's symbology is rich, sumptuous stuff, really cartooning on a higher level. Cotter finds a perfect artist's shorthand for the concepts he's illustrating, like all good cartoonists do -- but his concepts are all in the thoughts running through his protagonist's head, so he ends up finding the perfect ways to illustrate stuff like "the effect of neuromedication", or "creative thought". The fact that such abstractions make their way into the visual realm of the comic at all, rather than just being the subject of exposition, is pretty incredible all by itself. How many comics go into visual metaphor and then use it to describe their character's internal lives? Can't think of too many. What's really amazing, though, is that the whole book is about those internal states, with absolutely nothing linking it back into any "real world". It's an electrifying high-wire act watching Cotter pull off abstraction after abstraction, and the effort it takes to roll with it all and try to put sense to it is exhilaration itself -- a big part of the fun.
- MAYBE NOW'S a good time for some illustrations. These are pictures of the visual motifs that run through the book's three loosely connected parts. The explication of them is again by no means authoritative, but definitely the product of months of thinking if that helps. So, roughly in order of appearance:
Dionysus, Greek god of wine, revels, and sudden epiphanies. Symbol of the creative right brain, bringer of creativity. Traditionally inspires ritual madness -- the "freeing of oneself". Holds a power both great and terrible, potentially enriching and potentially life-destroying. Imbues mortals with the gift of artistic thought, uninterested in the havoc it may wreak on their mortal lives.
Lemon-y guy. Symbol of the epiphany or new idea -- pops up randomly in the story as new creative thoughts enter the protagonist's brain. The gift of Dionysus, the lemon is always both a blessing and a curse, neither entirely one nor entirely the other. Portent of...
...red shit. Symbol of the mind's process during creative periods -- manic, anarchic, unpredictable, at times even dangerous. Intimated at one point to be beyond language, and as such outside of rational, "normal" thought.
Blue shit. In Cotter's words, "metallic blue, sheer static cold... deceptive and expanding... beautiful and all-consuming. A convincing new reality." Symbol of the medicated brain in artificial "peace" or "stasis". Something to be escaped, but also perhaps the easiest, best way to live life. Always swallowing up the red shit's hot vitality and replacing it with an insidious calm.
Gray shit. Struggle. Symbol for mental turmoil, difficulty, agony. The inability to do anything, red or blue. Often blots out entire panels. Travels in Dionysus's wake.
Pink tree. A healthy way of life and thinking, incorporating both red and blue. Spiritual salvation. To be gained at any cost.
Rabbit-y guy. The protagonist, creative man. Seems to be an explicit symbol for Cotter himself.
There's that -- the "key to the book" I use to make it make sense in my head. Next, some notes on the story and how these elements interact with one another. Most of my thoughts on this book and its symbolism are vastly informed by Tim O'Shea's recent interview with Cotter, which is not only a much better "key to the book" than I could possibly provide, it might be the best interview I've ever read with a cartoonist. Anyway.
- THE BOOK begins with a satirically staid portrait of William Faulkner, and the beginning of his quote, "An artist is a creature driven by demons." Naturally, over the course of the next page Faulkner's portrait is transformed into the lemon-y guy, and his quote into the book title's origin, but there's a lot in that line. Cotter is announcing right away that this is not a celebration of creativity in all its wonders, but a look at what life as an artist can do to a person, what it's done to him personally. Thus, over the transformation sequence, "demons" become "lemons", and creative ideas become something to be feared. Not only is it a stunning passage of comics art (below), it introduces the entire book's unique paradigm, the imagery's fits and starts plunging the reader into a world where damnation lurks behind cartoon grins, in the medium of comics itself.
- AFTER THAT we get two pages of dense hand-lettering over which Cotter addresses the book's readers in full-blast Dada prose and declares his intent to mess our brains around hard. ("You want a beginning?" he asks. "Maybe I'll fuck with you and put it 2/3 of the way through." Et cetera.) We go another ten pages before the protagonist is introduced, swimming through a dense haze of Cotter's visual and verbal thoughts that ends up in a total breakdown of the artificial peace brought on by the blue shit (below).
Only then does Cotter introduce his main character and stand-in, a broadly cartooned rabbit-man, a white shape with a bare minimum of detail. I'd imagine we get this particular visual as our guide through the narrative for all the typical reasons artists use animals in their stories -- more empathy, more identifiability, a nod to history, a knowledge of what works in the medium -- but Cotter's so successful at it because his pure-thought prologue puts us directly into his (the author's) mind as the book begins. Only after we've spent a few pages in it are we subject to the revelation that these thoughts are actually coming from the rabbit's mind (the second page in the image above is seen as a thought bubble hovering over the rabbit's head in the panel that introduces him). Bang, perfect empathy, perfect understanding of the high stakes following this lil' bunny, and an incredible use of formal devices to bring the reader into both the story and the protagonist's interior.
- THIS COMIC is a story about struggle; struggles with mental problems and struggles to make art. It's interesting to note how well Cotter ties the two together -- until they're inextricable really -- with repetition and symbolism. Each one of the book's three parts details an epic inner struggle before ending in a visually spectacular violent sequence. Part one is all about psychology, the struggle of the red against the blue, the unpredictable chaos of the imperfect creative mind against the precision of the medicated, "safe" one. It's a long journey through gray squiggles of agony and ends with the rabbit pulling mechanical implants out of his body, blue thoughts and red blasting from him until they mix into a dull brown and everything collapses.
Part two details the rabbit's descent into depression and subsequent time in a Kafkaesque hospital, moving queasily through doctors and days until he turns inward for a more spiritual cure. The answer is found when he lets the two halves of himself, red and blue, die. They are replaced with an admonition to "beware of Dionysus" and the pink tree, the integrated whole with which it is possible to live a happy life. But with the rebirth of the healthy soul comes the rebirth of the lemon of creativity, a portent of more hard things to come. We get a one-panel look at this unwanted gift, and then everything goes black. The fight with mental illness is visualized as giving birth to creativity; you can't have one without the other, and for the artist new ideas are the burden that comes with the blessing of sanity. Art is, perhaps, an expression of the potential insanity that lurks inside the rabbit.
Part three depicts the newly sane, post-pink tree rabbit talking on the phone and telling us how much better he feels now. At first we swallow it -- we want to swallow it after bathing in the horrors of the previous two chapters -- but as the conversation moves into a full-page panel taken up almost entirely by a speech balloon full of disjointed rambling and blacked-out words, we can see that the lemon has derailed the rabbit once again. Just to slam it home, at the end of his monologue the rabbit picks up the phone to find it's disconnected, no one on the other end of the line. He gets into his car with the lemon and is suddenly blasted by a vision of Dionysus, who claims him (for the comics medium, I assume) with the exclamation "You got the touch!" before flying away, gray masses of struggle in his wake. The end.
The three parts can be read as sections of a longer sequence, or as the same story repeated three times in three different ways. Either method of reading ties mental illness directly in with creativity, resulting in something far more interesting than a simple comics narrative. In many ways this book is polemical, providing a pretty extreme viewpoint and using sheer artistic virtuosity to back it up.
- FOR ALL the talk about the "visual language" created by another big artsy 2009 graphic novel, Asterios Polyp, that book's use of form and color to provide story shorthand has nothing on this one's. David Mazzucchelli's comic used formal devices of color and drawing style to serve a rather pedestrian plot, but in Cotter's work the eye-burning colors and the shapes they make out of the panels often are the plot. As such their dominance of the pages is never showy or trite, as Polyp occasionally could be -- it simply feels right. Where Mazzucchelli's formalism was always popping you out of the narrative with what sometimes seemed to be mere "tricks", Cotter's formalism is a direct expression of the action occurring.
It all hinges on the different levels of sophistication the artists bring to their respective color cosmologies; both use reds vs. blues to denote the main conflicts of their story, but while Mazzucchelli's dichotomies were pretty obvious and at times even hackneyed (red = femininity/intuition/flow, blue = masculinity/logic/structure), Cotter's evocations of fractured mental states are supremely personal, totally unique to the story he tells. The symbolism, both in cartooning and plot mechanics, of Cotter's book is simply more subtle, original, and well-integrated than that of Mazzucchelli's, and where it gets overbearing in Asterios Polyp it provides Driven By Lemons with incredible narrative power. (Not trying to bash Mazzucchelli, just pointing up something Cotter excels in. Take issue in comments if you must.)
- COTTER'S INTERVIEW isn't incredibly clear on this point, but to me it reads like a resignation from comics. This book, which is as good an expression of the creative person's inner struggle as I'm aware of, is what really makes me think he might be gone for good. If one-tenth of the agony described here goes into Cotter's creative process I admire him for even having the ability to put pen on page.
- PART TWO, in which the rabbit is hospitalized and ends up curing himself with the power of his own mind, is a pretty savage indictment not only of the byzantine absurdity of the US health care system, but of Western psychomedicine in general. Cotter seems to be saying quite explicitly that psychiatry and drugs are only further problems, and the only way to be cured is to cure yourself. Like the yellow stop sign on the last page of the book says: Let go. The internal curative process shown, a confrontation between the rabbit's red and blue halves and an all-powerful, all-wise one-eyed flaming fox, points at once in every conceivable direction -- religion, sprituality, philosophy, self-reliance, acceptance, even death -- everything but modern medicine. Try something else, the book says, because the current method simply doesn't work.
(The rabbit's violent removal of his life-support system in part one is along similar lines, I think.)
- CHRIS WARE on Jerry Moriarty: "His work set a new tone and target -- poetry -- for comics." With Driven By Lemons Cotter hits that target and sets it up even higher. If Moriarty is a Wordsworth or Whitman, a humanist with a gorgeously stentorian command of his medium, Cotter is the avant-garde wave of modernism; a T.S. Eliot or even a Tristan Tzara. This book is a masterful use of the comics medium that takes it to a place it's never been before.
- LASTLY, I'VE got to give it up to AdHouse for the brilliant book design, which is a facsimile of the Moleskine notebook Cotter drew this whole comic in -- right down to the rounded corners and yellowish paper. Comic art never looks better than when it's printed at original size, and the lack of any mitigating material like introductions or house-designed title pages gives a great "artifact" feel, very intense. This book is just a brick of art, all part of the one big thing. Like all the best it is what it is, and no more.
I'll almost certainly say other stuff about this book at some point, but it might take me another six months. So look for Part 2 like you'd look for the sequel to a movie you just saw. And please feel free to share your thoughts, spesh if you don't agree with mine. Together we will reach understanding! Or not! Even better!