BY TED NAIFEH AND TRISTAN CRANE
COMICS LIT, 96 PAGES, $18.95
BY JENS HARDER
COMICS LIT, 144 PAGES, $34.95
COMIC ARTISTS ROUTINELY get snubbed for practicing a lazy man’s art.
Reading word balloons is too easy, critics carp, and those illustrations are just there to push
the story forward. But it’s in their mix of words and images that these artists are so expressive,
as two new comic art novels remind us.
How Loathsome, illustrated by Ted Naifeh and written by Naifeh
and Tristan Crane, is set in San Francisco’s underbelly of alternative lifestyles and ambiguous
genders. The heroine Catherine is shape-shifting. She looks either like a guy or a girlor
both. We see her topless, and she has flat breasts over ribbed abs, only in the panel after her lips
are full, her cheeks smooth, and she’s got a strap-on. Few of the characters look typically male
or female, except for Catherine’s heroin-pushing friend Nick, who accosts a blond babe that turns
out to be a trannie. It’s a sensuous hall of mirrors where everything is gorgeous, a nightly sheen
of glossy blacks and textured grays, until you peer closer. Talking about her bed partner Chloe,
Catherine waxes faux-lyricism: "We’re all the same brilliantly flawed creatures at times stumbling
but finding our way through the endless lonely night." She’s seen too much, but doesn’t know nearly
enough, and the gap between the book’s vivid look and tone-flat wording drives the point home.
There’s no written dialogue in Jens Harder’s Leviathan. Apart
from quotes, mostly from Moby Dick, and occasional lettering, he drops the use of text,
an omission that complicates our understanding of the story. The one word that does stand out is
the title, of course a reference to the biblical sea creature thought to be in collusion with the
devil, as well as Hobbes’ metaphor for the modern state. Here we get a sperm whale who’s both sovereign
of the sea and cold killer taking down Noah’s ark, Captain Ahab, the Titanic and an entire fleet of
naval marines. Except we’re more drawn to the Leviathan than its victims. The whale is almost human,
frowning at one point, with a streak over its eye looking like a brow. The people on the other hand
lack one faculty that would set them apart from animals: With few exceptions, they have no speech.
Harder takes an old theme and adds a dispiriting spin. Here, the moral
is that no matter our progress, in the man-nature showdown, the beasts ultimately win. He finally
kills off the Leviathan only to resurrect it, showing its shadow gliding out to sea: solitary, strong,
nasty, brutish and eternal.