The Whale, by Aidan Koch. Gaze Books.
My favorite comic of the year is stripped down to the bones. As a package, not a piece of art or a story but a thing, it's like a challenge. It's smaller than a superhero comic or a manga digest or a bookstore-market graphic novel, thinner, lighter. It doesn't jump out at you from store shelves. You have to be looking to find it. There's something to that, an intimacy. You go in search of a book and you're speaking with it before you've ever even seen a copy. And then you find a copy -- I found a copy -- and when it's opened up, the pages, the art and the story, the comic part of the thing, is just as stripped down, as bare, as intimate. The Whale is about life and death, the natural and the supernatural, land and water, grief and acceptance, and the uncertain places where all those things meet. And it comes naked, even its secrets still clinging visibly to the pages.
Comics art as it's most often published is covered up and then covered again. Penciled inked colored is the procession most readers know, so much so that the word "drawn" almost sounds affected, too grandiloquent for the subdivided reality of the comics medium. But all pictures are drawn, and it's only because we're so used to seeing the drawings encased in blacks and hardened in hues that we forget. The Whale, though, is drawn and left alone, a book of pencil marks and nothing more. The first thing you notice is the incredible softness of it. A lushness. A million different gradations of the color gray. Look close enough at one of Aidan Koch's pencil lines and it stops even being a line. Uniformity of tone drops away, the unpredictability of pencil lead on paper bursts forth, and everything is flickering, trails that veer from almost solid to barely there. And they veer, but they never quite come down in either place. They never disappear entirely or turn to pure black. There's always -- and at this point you are looking so closely at the lines that it's impossible to deny the fact that they've been printed, that on the page they aren't lines at all but clusters of tiny dots -- and in even the fullest depths of black dots there's always a spot of white, and even in the blankest stretches of white space there's always a dot of black. The Whale is an in-between, a liminal space from beginning to end.
Koch isn't the only artist drawing comics in pencil. She's not even the only one who drew a terrific comic in pencil this year. But her pages more than anyone else's range far and wide across the space between black and white, presence and absence, that the tool affords. As colorless comics it's got the fullest range of expression I've ever seen. Where comics art traditionally concentrates on creating a single, baseline look from which it can deviate for dynamic effect, Koch's drawing is much less calculated, and achieves something much greater. It's all dynamics, panels filled to bursting with stormy scratchmarks giving way to boxes of blank, a few trails of steam or spray wisping across them before fading out. No baseline, no steady center, no familiar equilibrium to be safe in. Frame by frame, The Whale catapults itself from dark to light, from thick to thin, from full to empty.
Unlike the rest of the pencils-only garde, Koch seems less interested in markmaking than texture, less focused on the telegraphing power of single strokes and more on creating an immersive whole from groups of them. She has no "line" in the usual comics-language sense of the term, no iconographic way of trail-making that signifies the identity of the artist at work. Sometimes the strings of graphite waver, lightening as they go, wobbly things of great fragility that betray the human touch behind them. Other times they are deep and certain, laid down where they are with no doubt that this is the only place they could go. What emerges in line's place is texture, a deep sensuality that diffuses into every panel. Pencil grain, smudges, erasure marks, the dust that spreads itself like carpeting across the pages. Everything in every panel of The Whale, from salt seawater to slick windbreaker-fabric to hard shell, is marked out as really feeling how it feels -- but there's another texture to it also. Koch never lets us forget that her printed comics were sprung from a real substance, graphite dust on paper, and from one drawing to the next she controls the ebb and flow of that substance with a skill that borders on alchemy, peeling it back to a thin whisper before stretching it out from corner to corner with a thunderous roar.
The Whale, then, asks more of the reader than most comics: something of sequence is given up to the total power of single images, pictures that hit so hard and hold you in for so long that the between-panel connective tissue of comics wears paper thin in places. The relationships between these images don't always carry the continuous flow of film, nor the A to B thrust of traditional comics, nor even the slow progression of storybook illustration. The connections are whatever you make them. The pictures are pictures and they mean what you think they mean. Koch dictates the particulars of her narrative less with the content of her panel progressions and more with the all-encompassing tone set by the individual images. Though the story is never unclear or even muddy in the slightest, the significance of certain frames is not immediately apprehensible either. There are panels of tiny black-gray pencil dots that might be sand or rocks or mental fog. There are panels so taken up with darkness -- darkness alone -- that they lose all depictive meaning. They are only feeling, evocation, the power of seeing the work of human hands presented so undeniably and in such great measure. Plenty of the frames can read two ways: there is the surface of them, the abstract haze of substance on substance, gray on white, and then there is the depth, the fog-blanketed lines of perspective they shoot deep back into their compositions, pulling you down into the story, making you feel it.
It's a beautiful approach to comics, truly individual in the sense that it only works as well as it does because of the raw talent in the artist behind it. And it finds a perfect parallel in the book's story, which is equally raw and expressive. Just as most of The Whale's pages stop at one or two spare but deeply evocative panels, its plot is skeletal, a tracing of a very few events that carry immense feeling. The story of a nameless woman dealing with a loved one's death, it's light on words and even lighter on dialogue (five word balloons total). The narration moves us not through the pictures but into them, where the real meat of the content lies. Close-up after close-up of the book's protagonist bring us into her interior much more accurately than verbal explanations of her thoughts could. Her facial expressions and subtle body movements are a masterful performance of acting-in-pictures that forces a nearness into the story, the sense that all its disconnected panels are simply expressions of the alternating numbness and turmoil inside this one person. The way Koch uses lettering as a tonal element is also worth special mention: laid out in rows of large, delicate italicized capitals, it feels easily as much a drawn element as anything else in the book, and the expressiveness of its forms combines with gestures and glances to create a language all its own, a way of communicating that makes the meaning of the words themselves something luxurious, lovely but not strictly even necessary.
It's a story and a way of story-making that you focus on as a whole more than move through as a journey, and Koch uses that wavering stillness to create an unusual, deeply affecting narrative shape. Though there are still multiple scenes that proceed from beginnings to logical ends, The Whale basically discards forward story motion for a dive from surface to bottom into one thing, one stage of grief, one feeling. The disconnected panel sequencing is a large part of that -- we never feel much pull, only a thickening of what is already on the pages, a single idea being elaborated and elaborated upon until it forms one perfect crystal of a story. The book opens slowly, Koch's nameless woman walking along a wintry beach over stippled shells and erasure marks, reminiscing. Shots of beach detritus, a dead person's clothes. "There's not as much as I thought," the narration muses. The sequence is spare and quiet in the extreme, not even properly there as a story yet, but it works because it's so obviously a concerted exploration of that spareness, of how still things can be on the page and in life. It explores the farthest corners and peeks into the crevices, a dazzling array of different pencil tones exhibited from one panel to the next -- and what it finds is emptiness, absence. Rarely has a lack of something filled pages so convincingly. The book is almost halfway over before even the smallest shift clicks in and the woman asks herself "What do I do now?" Then it's off the beach and into the water, a rowboat towing her through the waves, the panels building up a tidelike rhythm -- and suddenly, with a jolt, the stillness stops.
If the book's first half is decompressed comics at their finest and most elegant, the second half is an equally astounding whirl of parallel stories, linked images, memories, and reverberating symbolism. Ghosts, suicide attempts, dead whales, car crashes, and dreams are chopped up into stunningly composed pages and pieced together into an exquisite corpse of indirect meaning that nevertheless hits right at the heart of the idea, the tone, the beyond-story something Koch is striving to portray. The uncomprehending desperation of a dying animal nails down part of it. The blaze of oncoming headlights another. The icy, titanic push of deep-sea waves a third. And so on. What that it is isn't really a word or even a concept, not something you can name. But it's something you can feel. And by the end of the book it's in every panel, every line, every word and every nerve. Everything has been saturated with it. As the woman walks down her frozen beach, away from us in her final panels, visible erasure finds its most hauntingly poetic use ever in the comics form as the narrative box containing the forward motion we've been waiting for, the thing we've seen so many times before in stories, is made something else. "Echoes in the empty space," it says in those fragile letters. Beneath those words, rubbed out so that it's almost invisible, is "I'm okay." Meaning on top of meaning. The reality that you can't say things like that for sure. And then the last page. "And then quiet." Closure is literally erased, hinted at but not truly there. As long as memory exists it can never be, after all. Like with a comic, we open things back up.
In a year of incredible comics, my favorite year in the medium since I've been reading the stuff, The Whale jumps out as my favorite not because of its incredible craft -- though it's beautifully made there are other books that also were, and beauty is cold and hard and not worth much alone. It's not because the story is so moving, either -- though Koch plays with the fire of highly manipulative plot elements and acquits herself with a seamless, haunting grace. It's not even because it has both those things, the cold of beauty and the warmth of feeling intertwined, the story-and-art that make the medium bent to each other in such a stunning display -- though that's why I think this book is important, something a lot of people will be moved by in a way comics haven't moved them before, something a lot more will learn from. No, for me it's because so much that was good and brilliant and inspired this year was so about itself, so inside comics.
The best of 2010 showcased influence and homage, the received wisdom of the medium's history reimagined and commented upon, satirized and vindicated, brought up again in new lights or brought back to where it started. And that's exciting and worthwhile and everything else comics can and should and have to be. But the real thing, the thrill, the joy, the thing that makes this medium so much more important to follow than any other right now, is that we have artists like Aidan Koch making books like The Whale, bringing comics onto the page not from other comics but from inside themselves. Trying, failing, succeeding all at once, making beauty and emotion and even more, making those things that aren't words or pictures but both and neither -- making comics -- and making them completely new. Reminding us that though we've seen so much here already it's still moving forward, and there's plenty still to come. And that matters at least as much to me as whatever that plenty actually turns out to be.
Odds are you won't be able to find a copy of The Whale in your local comics shop, but you can order it direct from the publisher here.