Sunday, April 27, 2014

Review(s): Three comics by Lilli Carré

Illustration from Beasts! 2
The recent release of Tippy and The Night Parade, a typically high-quality kids comic from Toon Books, made me want to revisit the work of its creator, Lilli Carré (only relatively little of which I had previously written about). So I went looking for all of her comic books I could find— 2006's Tales of Woodsman Pete (Top Shelf), 2008's The Lagoon (Fantagraphics) and 2009's Nine Ways to Disappear (Little Otsu)—and read or re-read them back-to-back-to back.

I don't know that doing so necessarily gave me any great insight into Carré as a writer or artist, or to her body of work in general. She's naturally really good at drawing. She has a great sense of humor, and excellent pacing when it comes to telling a joke in a comic format. She's particularly adept at regulating the amount and style of the humor of her comics to fit the subject matter and the tone she's going for—All three books are very funny, despite quite elegiac moments in each, and despite the fact that at least one of them is a straight gag comic, while the other two are more serious in nature. Carré's a gem of a cartoonist, a national treasure and one of the many, many, many women whose books I'd like to throw at the the head of anyone online decrying the lack of women making comics, when what they really mean is there aren't enough women making DC and Marvel superhero comics of the particular sort the decrier wants to read.

Tales of Woodsman Pete is the most straight comic (meaning "of, or pertaining to, or characterized by comedy") of the above-mentioned comics (meaning "comic books"). The title character is a little old man, whose littleness seems assured by the size in which he appears in the many little square panels that make up most of the stories in the little square book, which is only about the size of my hand.

He has a long beard and lives in a remote cabin in the wilderness, he dresses in old-timey clothes that makes the precise setting seem rather timeless, and he's surrounded by hunting trophies: A bear rug named "Phillipe" that is actually his best friend ("It's kind of a shame to be inside," he tells Phillipe after seeign what a gorgeous day it is out, and he drags the rug outside with him. "Yessir...makes you feel good to be alive, doesn't it?," he tells the rug, before realizing his faux pas, "Oops--Sorry, Philippe.") In addition to Philippe, Woodsman Pete's other conversational companions include the many stuffed and mounted deer and moose heads along his walls.

Perhaps an odd subject for a comic strip, but Pete and his dead animal friends star in the majority of the 20 or so short strips of varying lengths that fill the little book, many of the jokes revolving around death, loneliness, the passage of time and the mundane nature of life. You know, comics material.

Pete's Tales are occasionally interrupted by tales of Paul Bunyan and Babe, The Big Blue Ox. Although Bunyan's the greatest lumberjack of all time, he's not really feeling completely fulfilled by his job of kicking over trees all day, and his giant size occasionally makes him quite blue (Not blue like Babe, but blue, like, emotionally). This is visually communicated in a short, two-page strip in which Paul accidentally kills a woman by kissing her.

The longest, and most serious, of the strips is in which Pete has propped Phillipe up against a tree and made a fire for them, where he tells him a mythic-sounding story about salt hills and the ocean Paul Bunyan made. It's maybe a perfect Carré story in the way it blends incidental, organic but completely absurd humor with an evocative legend about much more than what its exact verbiage communicates.

The Lagoon is probably the most serious, most literate and most visually accomplished of these three. If you didn't read my previous review, and/or forgot what I said in it, as I have, The Lagoon is the story of a family of four. There's a young girl, her mother and father, and her grandfather, who seems to be starting to lose it a bit, that or he's reached a sort of shamanic point in old age, where his eccentric behavior can be dismissed as dottiness, but is actually evidence that he knows more than other's think he does.

They share a little house near a lagoon, where a strange, humanoid fish or reptillian like creature—The Creature from Lilli Carré's Lagoon—occasionally rises from the surface to sing a strange, siren song that calls people to hide in the reeds and listen...and some to come too close and disappear beneath the surface of the water.

As a comic about a particular song, The Lagoon is pretty powerful in the way its narrative is filled with very familiar sounds—fingers tapping, a metronome ticking, a piano being played or stepped on by a cat, an owl hooting, cats yowling a dying fire crackling—some communicated through the traditional onomatopoeia sound effects, others simply suggested by the visual. But it revolves around a sound that is completely alien and foreign, a sound that, as the visuals can attest, travel far and wrap itself around a listener, but, as to exactly what it sounds like, well, that's up to the reader to imagine.

Carré's artwork is in the same style of Woodsman Pete, but with much bigger panels, and it is much more refined, as much of the art isn't really meant for comedic effect (Although Grandpa does some funny things, and has some unfortunate timing; a few images of the Creature acting rather human are also pretty funny). Additionally, much of it is white on black rather than black on white, during the scenes set at night, giving the book a more highly-crafted, labored-over look than a simple matter of applying ink on paper.
Nine Ways To Disappear is the comics collection equivalent of a short collection of poems. A tiny, square hardcover—significantly tinier and squarer than Woodsman Pete—it contains nine short works of varying shortness, with each page devoted to a single panel. Of these stories, some are short, visual jokes, others short stories, at least one of them is told from the point-of-view of a storm drain (who appears again in another story). All are stories that could only really be told in the form of a comic though. Some might be translatable into prose, but would lose a majority of their impact, as some of the more magical realist of the stories need to be seen as much as they need to be read. And some stories would simply be impossible; like for example, the one in which a blue speech balloon gradually transforms into a hippopotamus.

Like Tippy, there are all good comic, and are all worth tracking down and spending some time with.

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