There was a good turnout and in addition to a couple readings by Kyle, both Kyle and GG spoke about their intentions and decisions behind the books they were promoting: Everywhere Disappeared which is a collection of short comics spanning over a number of years in Kyle’s career and I’m Not Here, GG’s haunting story about an immigrant family.
Both cartoonists gave thoughtful presentations about their work and everyone had a great rapport during the panel discussion. I especially appreciated hearing GG’s approach to her comics and how she resists presenting easy-to-consume, plot-thickened narratives that seem to have found their home as addictive commodities in the Golden Age of Television. As someone who doesn’t find television particularly compelling (at least not compelling enough to binge watch), I was actually also going to ask GG if she was influenced by film because I find there is a distinctly cinematic quality in her work. (I mean, even the dialogue looks like subtitles!) It turns out I didn’t have to ask: GG mentioned both Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard as influences, the former of which I see very strongly in her work in terms of a spacious and humanizing gaze applied.
In this way, GG’s work strikes me as comparable with the comics of Sam Alden. Although Alden’s comics are very different in style and content, they also have a powerful cinematic quality that makes them resistant to being commodified.* We complain that comics take forever to draw and are so quickly read, but comics by GG and Alden permit no speed reads.** They ask their reader to consider and contemplate as they read and multiple readings are rewarded (as an aside, I’ll just note here that rereading a comic is far easier to do than rewatching a film which makes comics so ideal for this approach to representation), not simply to “understand” but to allow the comics to cast their haunting spell over you. With GG’s and Alden’s work, you linger over panels not because they are crammed full of the obsessive details we find in the alt-comics of the 60s or because it’s stylistically experimental and entrancing like a lot of indie comics today, but because their comics raise more questions than answers, because they are so evocative of a mood, of a tone, of something you cannot yet articulate and maybe never will.
GG described I’m Not Here as being made of clues and feelings rather than answers and I think the way to approach such a work is to be sensitive to the clues and feelings and the possibilities they open up rather than to attempt to reach any definitive answers.
How to begin describing the density of clues one comes across and collects over close and repeated readings? There is the careful use of tone and negative space to impart emotional impact. There are little images and acts – Mickey Mouse, the eating of grapes, disembodied hands, how the protagonist keeps touching the blemishes on her chin – repeated in different contexts. There are the unanswered questions: Who is the woman our protagonist photographs and what is their relationship?
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to consider consider one clue in depth. This is not an attempt to “explain” the comic, but an example of how rich I’m Not Here can be for the careful reader.
Early in the comic, GG devotes six panels to reference The Book of Disquiet, a work of literature described as a “factless autobiography,” written by Fernando Pessoa, a man who published his work under heteronyms. The Book of Disquiet was also published posthumously; imagine a book published by someone who literally is not here. As such, we are immediately introduced to the notion of unstable, changing, multiple selves and layers of fictional identities that deflect attempts to grasp an “authentic” self or perhaps even criticizes our modern notion of a true, inner self and the presumed autonomy that follows. GG quotes Pessoa: “To live is to be somebody else.”
Our unnamed protagonist may not construct and work through distinct identities like Pessoa, but she is something of a cipher. She is an evasive one. Throughout the comic, she evades her parents, she evades the people she interacts with, she even evades us, her readers. But she is not entirely absent despite the comic’s title. Through the course of the comic, she emerges into view as much as she fades, much like the comic’s panels which fade in and out of light and dark – or more directly, as the photograph she develops in a dark room.
We can begin by considering the negative space, which is employed so well throughout the comic. We know who our protagonist is not and it is through the contours of her absence that we might begin to understand who she is. She is not, like her younger sister, “successful,” a quality that is clearly defined as having “your own family and a job and lots of money.” Her childhood response to her mother’s hopeful vision for her successful future is, “Will it be sad?”
As a child, our protagonist sits dangerously at the edge of her window, unable or unwilling to articulate her own desires, although we have the powerful sense of her need to be released from her mother’s suffering and the financial struggles of new immigrants trying to succeed in Canada while remaining bound to her family.
As an adult, does our protagonist manage to escape? How well does she navigate her ambivalent wishes and what might those look like?
If photographs serve as records of a reality that is constantly changing, who is the other woman in these photos? What identity or identities does she have? Does she want to travel to Europe, fall in love with another woman, ignore her mother or does she want something else? GG provides no definitive answer, but it is this other woman who cannot be contained within the mother’s definition of success and the person she believes her daughter to be, a person who doesn’t exist.
So our protagonist vacillates, declining a path of full participation in a singular life, rejecting a commitment to one identity and one narrative. She chooses the discomfort of remaining within a liminal space, to perch herself on her window sill’s edge of uncertainty – and invites the reader to do so as well.
There’s so much more that could be written about this comic but this post is already too long. But I hope that my thoughts have piqued your interest in reading I’m Not Here, or if you have already read it once or twice, to read it again. Perhaps you will find a new perspective on how identity is constructed and what happens when the environment you live in forces you to adopt identities you never wanted nor imagined for yourself (e.g., new immigrant, dutiful daughter, etc.). Perhaps you might even feel something new. And confronting new ideas and new feelings I think, is basically the best outcome one can hope for in a work of art.
I’m Not Here is probably my favourite work by GG so far and in elevating ambiguity and mood over a more conventional narrative approach, it is her boldest. Definitely check out the rest of Koyama’s new lineup because it’s looking 🔥🔥🔥. You can pick up both I’m Not Here and Everywhere Disappeared from The Beguiling. The full list of retail options, including purchasing digital copies, can be found at the Koyama Press website. Many thanks to Annie Koyama and staff at The Beguiling for organizing a great event ❤
* An ideal commodity is defined in part by its singular usage. Once a proper commodity has been consumed, it cannot be consumed again. For example, oil, agricultural produce and so on, are all examples of “proper” commodities. Capitalism expands its markets by commodifying that which does not bear the traditional characteristics of ideal commodities: labour, information, your own identity (self-branding), and of course, art.