Beast Week: Stuff Around Your Toilet Bowl

There's a scene somewhere in Part Two of Beast where the main character Colette, takes a break from sculpting to take a bath. The simple fact that Colette's taking a bath in this grimy, kinda creepy rundown house shows how far her characters' comfort--and confidence--has grown since the beginning of the book (Churchland is really good at this kind of squashing of emotions into a single image or scene) but as the scene moves on, more and more piece of Colette's personality rolls out. Details that stretch beyond her character's "emotional arc" and junk poke through.

Sitting in the tub, she recalls her ex-boyfriend's much nicer bathroom and this sends her thinking of/fantasizing him climbing into the bathtub with her. It doesn't go any further than that, but there's something really wise and again, economic, about how sex creeps into Beast here and then slips away. Despite it's meta-fairy tale conceit and it's magic realism, Beast is a book wrapped in tiny pieces of real-ness: dirt on the toilet seat, the "make your dick bigger" e-mails everybody gets, etc. This is not all the comic is, but it's a big part of it and it's all sticking out of the larger, more moving narrative and indeed, makes that narrative a lot more moving.

Because it feels real. It doesn't shout out "gritty" or anything, indeed the narrative is rather mannered, all stuff bubbling under the surface, but suddenly all of it's right there: Something that grounds the story in big, dumb real life. Something that slyly tells the reader "the person writing this lives a life and thinks about shit, the kind of shit a lot of us don't think about". And a big part of life is the dirty around the toilet bowl, or bigger stuff like fretting about one's passivity in the world, and weird stuff like thinking about doing it with an ex even though you basically think the person's a total douche now.

A page or so after the understated sex-fantasy scene, Colette climbs out of the tub and Churchland purposefully shows her naked body. The panel doesn't cut off at her boobs or nothing and there's no like, bathtub fog covering her up somehow, it's just right there. It's understated and it's really in-your-face. At the risk of getting creepy, it's worth nothing that Churchland gives Colette a regular, uh, "bush" or pubic hair. This isn't abnormal in the real world but in comics, it's rare to get nudity this mindfully not erotic. Paradoxically, the reality of it, the accuracy, actually makes it very attractive. I talked about that here though.

This kind of thing, these special touches of detail--sensitive, harsh, sometimes hilarious, often embarrassing--seem like a good place to begin thinking about Beast precisely because it's the kind of thing a lot of people will gloss over for the bigger picture. The genius of Beast--well, part of its genius--is how the bigger picture gains deeper, weirder, more awesome caves of meaning because of its unwavering sensitivity to the small stuff.


david e. ford, jr said...


What's great here is that you've laid out two basic aspects of the book that excel, one of which is reliant on Churchland's skills with narrative, the other on her illustrations. In the first case, the sort of economical, yet emotionally real compression is something that I think is particularly difficult to pull off, if only because you see it done so rarely. The sort of master of this kind of bold move is Stendhal and of course here we're talking about one of the GREAT masters of narrative ever. With regards to her illustrations, especially as you describe the griminess of the surroundings as they are balanced by the scene's subtle eroticism, this sort of exemplifies how Churchland's soft and marker-y yet totally real illustration style allows her to explore these sorta two sides of the spectrum of comics art, without falling overboard from either end.

brandon said...

There's one part where she asks that old broad at the house if the dog has a leash and it just cuts to the dog near Colette and her friend not on a leash--it's another cool way to move from one thing to another and cut out the unnecessary.