These info-motion days, shallow-thought bubbles of corporate jargon and mindfulness-balloons fired by new-age rhetoric float through the frames and panels of our chattering, screened-off networks. Rebooting old-world stories with the cozy, comforting formulations of post-modern psychobabble, Eleanor Davis’ How To Be Happy melds myth and management talk, legend and self-help speak, sci-fi and positivity patter. It’s a fantastic idea only demi-fulfilled.
Befitting its myth-matter, Davis’ art offers span and scope: broad-shouldered male silhouettes; the trunk-legged statue of a woman’s “best self;” the iconic faces and looming torsos of seminar participants. In-between long stories run brief interludes, often whisperingly pencilled—the eeriest may be the study of a fox pelt skinned by a group of women. “In Our Eden,” the first long story, stamps striking, motif-like images around a man’s serene platitudes and socio-political criticisms. Other entries drift, though. A ferryman’s sepia-tinged story falters; the tale of two brothers’ tenuous bond, though using shifts in scale wonderfully, seems out of place. But then an interlude about a bus ride, suddenly breaking from its aptly cramped sense of cross-country coach-travel into a sublime full-page spread, soars. At its best, Davis’ book tantalizingly snatches at something forlorn and yearning—ancient, primal needs for acceptance and belonging updated to the 21st century—about all that self-expression and earnest striving behind today’s bubbles and balloons of double-talk.
Carol Swain’s Gast, its charcoal drawings on nine-frame pages, patiently and quietly reflects its protagonist’s pencilled notes and drawings in her field book. Helen, who’s just moved from a city in England to the Welsh countryside, observes barn swallows, sheep, dogs and other creatures on her treks over hill and dale. But then she learns about a “rare bird” who killed himself—Emrys Bowen, not your typical farmer. The tale’s too broken up by chapters (21 in all), but otherwise it’s a lovely, gradual exploration of one introspective girl’s faintly developing sense of herself, gently gained by her investigation of Emrys’ outsider-status, her inquiry into the deaths of humans and animals, and her conversations with nature.
Wild nature is cooped-up in “civilized” space in Jaybird, Finnish siblings Lauri and Jaakko Ahonen’s delightfully Gothic, short-film-like book. With its echoes of Psycho and shades of historical isolation and besiegement—remote Finland, taken over by the Russian Empire in the 19th century, then fought the Soviets twice and Germany once during the Second World War—this near-wordless story pitter-patters along in dark blue nightmare-visions, boarded-up and cobwebbed spaces, and sparse bedrooms.
One bedroom’s where the title character tries to sleep, wide-eyed and often panicked about what’s outside the cavernous house’s walls; the other bedroom’s where he tends to his sick mother by day. In-between are long halls dotted with framed photos of ancestors, a trinkets-garlanded rope running through these corridors, up along the ceiling, so mother can call son any time by tugging a bell-pull beside her bed. As a piece of wallpaper unfurls, though, or eyes peek in through a slat in boards nailed up over an opening, the story hastens towards a Poe-like ending. Both bayonets and beaks stab their spite and suspicion; nightmares gash and slash in black and white. The gorgeously painted frames hurtle us helter-skelter through the scared little bird’s paranoia to a spooky, dread sense of family haunts turned ghoulishly inward—parents are faded ghosts and siblings become mortal enemies. Home’s remodelled as a fear-filled fortress and tomb in this sumptuously macabre little epic.
Caretaking is what Roz Chast recounts herself doing for her aged parents in Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?. But, the New Yorker cartoonist notes, “I wasn’t great as a caretaker, and they weren’t great at being taken care of.” Cartoonist Alison Bechdel has called Chast’s style “quavery” (apt, given that Chast’s father “chain-worried”) but it’s also faintly quizzical here and more gloriously quirky than usual in its observations of the idiosyncrasies of these two elders hemmed in by the small frames and tight panels of their little lives. (Chast’s parentage explains so much of her magazine-cartoons’ concerns.) So there’s her fiery mother Elizabeth’s declaration to husband George in their now grime-ridden Brooklyn apartment on September 12, 2001: “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to march right down to that Afghani restaurant around the corner and HAVE LUNCH THERE! I want them to know that we don’t think they’re ALL nuts!”
Chast’s magnificently episodic, unwaveringly candid, and often very funny (blackly, kookily and cringingly so) character study teems with such odd stubbornnesses, her parents’ avoidance of death talk (because of family histories blotted by cholera, poverty, the Depression, the Second World War and the Holocaust), phone conversations, signs you’re still in “Child Mode” with your parents, the epic cleaning-out-of-the-home, suitably quaint caption-language (“scrimpings were scattered hither and yon”), bleak hospital- and then nursing home-visits or whimsical illustrations of “the moving sidewalk of life” or “Why tempt fate?” It’s also poignantly broken up by, say, an actual photo of her dad and mom below Chast’s writing of their names, marriage day, Chast’s own birthday and their death dates. This scrapbook of not just parents-child moments but a daughter’s surges in emotion—from grudging love to heartfelt melancholy—riffles and runs and turns into one twitchy, tender, ever-so-touching memorial and coming-to-terms story.