Comics Time: Tussen Vier Muren/Between Four Walls (La Stanza/The Room)

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Tussen Vier Muren/Between Four Walls (La Stanza/The Room)

Lorenzo Mattotti, writer/artist

Oog & Blik, 2003

176 pages

$16 (€12)

Buy it from Forbidden Planet

What a lovely book. Consisting solely of 86 portraits (well, almost 86–we’ll get to that later) of recumbent couples (at least I think it’s couples, plural–we’ll get to that later too), this reproduction of a Mattotti sketchbook is a master class in how a few sketchy lines on paper can suggest a world of emotion and intimacy. The curve of two bodies on a bed (or at one point, memorably, on a beach); the differences between the ways eyes and mouths look when people are talking, making love, or simply luxuriating in one another’s company; playful POV shifts that transfer us from a voyeuristic fly-on-the-wall to a you-are-there observer under the covers at the foot of the bed; the placement of legs, arms, and hands on another person and what that immediately communicates about this relationship and this moment–Mattotti nails it all, with figurework that suggests calligraphy as much as portraiture. Perhaps I’m more conscious of cost with books that I actually plunked down cash for at MoCCA as opposed to bought with a credit card or received for free, but Tussen Vier Muren was my final purchase at this year’s show, from the Bries table, and I remember wavering: “$16 for a wordless little sketchbook by an artist whose work I’ve appreciated in theory but rarely in practice before today?” Golly am I glad I took the plunge. This is one of my favorite comics in quite some time, and a more romantic comic I think I’d be hard pressed to name.

Ah, but is it comics? I don’t go in much for that kind of debate, most of the time–seems to me that if something has given you enough cause to wonder if it’s comics, it probably is. But the issue is pertinent here, if only to help us understand what we’re looking at from page to page. Comics generally implies sequentiality, which itself frequently means a progression of sorts. So are these sketches meant to be “read,” in order, like a story? There are context clues for and against. If so, certain aspects of the book take on a whole new meaning. The book opens with a series of sketches that are both the roughest/loosest and most evidently erotic/sexual in the whole book–a thick, almost oily pencil line, one that slowly gives way to tighter, finer whorls and cross-hatching as the images lose their overt nudity and sexuality. Meanwhile, the male in these early drawings has a full head of hair, which soon disappears. So perhaps we’re meant to see these initial drawings as a portrait of a young couple in the full heat of infatuation; after a time, their need to prove their attraction to and affection for each other to the viewer diminishes as such things evolve into the shorthand language of a mature relationship. But what are we to make, then, of the drawings that crop up near the book’s midpoint, and again briefly toward the end, where the male figure/character at least appears to be a totally different person? Is the woman cheating? Are they playing the field, taking a break, seeing other people? Or are these sketches just inserted at random, devoid of any kind of narrative implications? Depending on where you fall on that question, the book’s final two images, which I won’t spoil for you, may take on entirely different, and potentially devastating, meanings. It’s all pretty rich for a silent sketchbook, and it will be enough to keep me coming back to this little thing for a long time.

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