Comics Time: The Whale

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The Whale

Aidan Koch, writer/artist

Gaze Books, September 2010

64 pages

$10

Buy it from Gaze

If his own Xeric Grant-funded book Young Lions and this inaugural release for his Gaze Books imprint are any indication, cartoonist and newly minted publisher Blaise Larmee could certainly do a lot worse than cranking out tastefully designed, inexpensive perfectbound softcover books with brightly colored covers containing softly pencilled, elliptically plotted comics about longing for however long he feels like doing so. Even with all the vitality artcomix has right now, this is an underserved aesthetic, overwhelmed by inkslingers whose work tends to be either tighter and angrier or choppier and wilder. I’d imagine that this material is going to click hard with a group of people who just aren’t getting the comics that might speak to them elsewhere.

I’m not sure how hard it clicked for me, for whatever that’s worth, despite it being a really lovely comic I’m glad I read. In a weird way the lettering, of all things, gives the game away in terms of why this story, of a young woman coming to terms with the death of her partner (whose gender is unclear, and unimportant), didn’t hit me the way it might have. (Or the way Anders Nilsen’s comics on this topic, for example, actually did.) Stick with me for a minute here: Koch draws like a slightly beefed-up version of Larmee–her sensuous, slightly tremulant line shored up by more detailed and realistic figurework and portraiture and a more frequent, textural use of light and dark grays. She has a knack for using filmic techniques like eyeline matches–between her main character and her tiny, adorable dog, to name one memorable example–to make panel transitions pop. And many of those panels are strikingly, intelligently composed: I’m fond of a splash page of boats along a dock at the bottom of the page, the water filling the rest of the page with just a few suggestions of waves and ripples, which echoes a similar “shot” of our protagonist’s bare feet protruding from the bottom of the page as she looks down at a rug partially covered with boxes of her late loved one’s possessions. We get bird’s eye views, seal’s eye views, close-ups, panoramas, and through it all the sense that we’re not just seeing some figures move back and forth in tiny boxes someone drew, but that we’re in a world someone inhabits, and which that someone colors and contours with her emotions and thoughts. It’s confident comics-making.

Then there’s that lettering. It’s not unpleasant, don’t get me wrong–nice simple all-caps block hand-lettering, in pencil, slanting slightly forward. It’s just that relative to the size and tone of the drawings, it’s a bit overwhelming. The handwriting might obscure that everything’s being said IN ALL-CAPS ITAL, but that’s what it is, and it wrings a lot of the nuance and quietness out of the emotional content of the words. This in turn draws attention to how several of the story’s beats are, if not cliches, then at least familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the literature of loss. Boxing up their stuff, grabbing/being grabbed by certain memorable possessions; survivor’s guilt (“THEY SAID I WAS THE LUCKY ONE“); the soothing and saddening presence of the sea; the fairly on-the-nose metaphor to which the title refers, and so on. It’s grief in all-caps ital, if you will.

This, perhaps, is a weakness of this style: losing sight of the fact that feeling something intensely is, in itself, value neutral. How you express it counts more than that you express it. There’s one genuinely moving bit here where that’s clear: The protagonist calls for her dog, and the second time she does so her word balloon has suddenly sprouted another tail, pointing to a ghostly figure who once would have done the same. It’s a killer detail, unexpected and immediately powerful. It’s worth more than any all-caps emotion.

4 Responses to Comics Time: The Whale

  1. zack soto says:

    Dang, yr site always lags on comments, double posts and forgets my info no matter how many times I click the “remember me” button. But yeah, Aidan is a young lady.

  2. Got it. Thanks, Zack.