Monday, February 23, 2009

Review: The Lagoon

I’m as impressed by, enthusiastic about and fascinated with the broad powers of this medium we call comics as the next guy (or more so, depending on who I happen to be standing by at any given moment), but I’ll be the first to admit that there are some things comics are somewhat inadequate at addressing, particularly when compared to other media.

Like sound. Sure, some creators are wizards at evoking particular sounds—Doug Moench, for example, can create onomatopoeia for virtually and sound effect, and certainly the Walt Simonson and John Workman can make a reader flinch at the thundering and roaring of their action scenes—but rhythms? Melodies? Songs?

They may not be completely impossible to convey in comics, but, if not, they’re awfully close to impossible, and certainly can’t hang with, say, film or live theater.

Now Lilli Carré’s graphic novel The Lagoon (Fantagraphics) would be an impressive work regardless of the way it faces the challenge of sound in comics, but that’s the element I find myself most in awe with a few weeks after my first reading of the book.

The story is a short-ish one at just 80 pages, and although a few stories are told from one character to another, much of the narrative occurs through the actions Carré depicts. This leaves a great deal up to the imagination of the reader, which (as is so often the case) makes for a slightly challenging but extremely engaging reading experience.

There’s a family of four—a grandfather, his daughter and her husband and their daughter—who live in a house near a lagoon. In the lagoon lives a creature that sings a very beautiful song on certain summer nights, a song that’s so beautiful that it sticks with those that hear it, it lures them to the edge of the lagoon to listen in and, occasionally, it compels listeners to walk down into the lagoon, where they’re never heard from again.

So what’s such a song sound like, and how would an artist draw it on a page?

I don’t know the answer to that first question, and I don’t think Carré does either. The fact that music can’t be transmitted through comics effectively is turned into a benefit here, as the reader can’t hear it, can’t even really imagine it, but knows it’s there, due to the visual representation of it. Carré simply draws a white ribbon through the art, the color of a dialogue bubble, only elongated, and draws a stream of music generic music notes through it.

It wafts through the panels like smoke, or like a delicious smell in an old cartoon, so the reader’s eyes can see where it comes form, where it goes and what it does, but not how it sounds. The impression is that it’s a song so beautiful you can’t know how it sounds without actually hearing it for yourself.

A weakness of the medium is thus turned into a strength for this particular story; Carré practices comic book judo!

While the siren song of the lagoon creature is the most important sound in the story, there are plenty of others. The grandfather sings the lagoon creature song as best he can; he whistles it and taps it and sometimes taps his piano meters mindlessly in his sleep. A group of neighborhood cats sing their song at one point, the girl plays the piano, the metronome atop it goes TAC TAC TAC. Sometimes these things occur in various combinations.

Here, for example, is the grandfather singing along to the cat yowl song:

I hesitate to say much of anything else about the plot, but it is the exact sort of story I like the most, the kind my college writing teachers referred to as magical realism. The kind where there’s a more or less normal person or people, and then something fantastic happens, and it’s not necessarily explained to death or even treated as fantastic, it just matter-of-factly occurs, and the plot proceeds from there. That’s the case here; there’s a family that lives in a neighborhood near a lagoon where a creature sings.

The art is such a stark black and white, often with more black area than white, that I now find myself intensely curious about how it was created. Were white pages filled with black ink, or the blackness removed from those pages to create the whites? Much of the story occurs at night time, and Carré’s use of color is thus especially effective, as the same characters and settings are so thoroughly transformed by the time of day.

It’s also pretty funny. For example:

Ha ha, I love that.

And there’s a later, better scene where the granddaughter discovers her grandfather in a weird place doing a weird thing, and that weirdness is shrugged off just as casually as the fantasy of the lagoon creature.

It’s kind of too bad I didn’t get around to reading this until this month, as it definitely would have made my best-of 2008 list had I read it a couple of months ago. Ah well. A great comic is still great whenever you read it. And The Lagoon? It’s a great comic.


MarkAndrew said...

I was really, really excited about this after reading Tales of Woodsman Pete and, yeah, some neat stuff going on here. And the Palomar/Kim Deitch laid-back fantasy genre is generally my favorite, too.

But the ending just lost me. It felt like there should've been a whole 'nother half-a-graphic-novel there somewhere.

Sea-of-Green said...

Intriguing! I'll have to check this out, especially considering you're absolutely right about most comics having trouble interpreting sounds/music.