Beast Week Coda: Wailing for her Demon Lover

"He's um . . . I don't know, kind of inscrutable." These words, spoken by Colette at the opening of Part Two of Marian Churchland's Beast in an abortive attempt to describe the book's eponymous anti-hero to her friend Jane, could just as easily be used to describe Churchland's book itself. Beast is that rare example of a comic--though we could easily apply this to novels or movies--that, by borrowing elements from other works, artists, movements, forms and genres, becomes something utterly new and unclassifiable and still somehow manages to be beautiful, meaningful and affecting. Originating from a dream that is not a little reminiscent of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Churchland borrows the structure of her favorite fairy tale, using it to construct an ambivalently Freudian, post-feminist pleasure dome, populated by Italian Renaissance artists, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and even a little bit of Byron, by way of Paul Pope.

Though Churchland's book ultimately deviates from its original in many fundamental ways, it is useful to remember that "Beauty and the Beast" is a tale that begins with a father's prostitution of his daughter. Beast's opening, in which Colette is taken by her father to a mysterious sculpting commission that he arranged, imposes a sense of ambiguity, the feeling that something is being withheld from the reader, that we don't have all the information, which propels the whole of the narrative. The relationship between Colette and her father is clearly transactional; she relies on her him to divvy out whatever "bottom-feeder" art commissions he is able to, but the revelation that he is unaware that she is no longer with her boyfriend (whose name he struggles to remember) reveals that they have long since retreated from any traditional notions of familial intimacy. The scene is a perfect, exceptionally economical opening to the book, introducing each of the book's major themes--gender politics, creative integrity, menacing and complex sexuality--in a scant few pages.

One of the fascinating things about Beast, and perhaps that aspect of the book that makes you want to keep going back to it, looking at it more closely, is that Churchland resists taking any of its elements to its logical conclusion and therefore pigeonholing the narrative. Thus, while the story has some very definite things to say about women and creativity and power, these statements are problematized by some of the book's imagery and the ambiguous sexual position of Colette vis a vis Beast. A great subtle example is the the juxtaposition of panels which show the upper portion of the Carrera marble slab atop Colette's body from the waist down. At first glance, this appears a relatively straight-forward association of the artist with her medium. But a closer look--perhaps a dirtier mind--reveals the great white phallus of the marble towering over Colette's crotch.

Of course, Colette is only able to complete her sculpture when she abandons the gradual chipping away of the chisel for the power drill's penetration. In effect, Colette denatures the marble's monotonous masculinity by drilling it full of holes. The image, then, is one in which the masculine and feminine are present together--the marble embodies both qualities.

This sort of fluidity of imagery and representation is consistent with Churchland's illustration strategies. Colette, though undeniably gorgeous and feminine, has a boy's long arms and narrow hips. The aggressively Byronic Beast, who owes perhaps just a small debt to Paul Pope's Batman, occupies a similarly ambiguous position with respect to gender, with his long delicate fingers and narrow shoulders.

I don't mean for any of this to suggest that this is what Beast is about. Indeed, as I mentioned above, it is the book's ambiguity, its consistent refusal to lend itself to one particular reading or interpretation that makes it so interesting. There are lots of other curious questions planted throughout the book, such as the hinted at association of Roz with Cecilia or Colette's highly unstable hair-length, but they aren't questions which beg resolution, they just present interesting and variable readings.

The point, of course, is that Churchland has created an admirably, no, remarkably complex and rewarding narrative that augments her already apparent (to me, anyway) illustration skills. This bodes well for those of us who like to read smart comics that aren't smarty-pants comics, comics which are personal but not sappy-autobiographical. Marian Churchland officially enters that growing pantheon of interesting and talented creators who are bucking the typical categorizations of high and low comics and in doing so pointing toward a rich possible future for the medium.


Michael Lapinski said...

"Marian Churchland officially enters that growing pantheon of interesting and talented creators who are bucking the typical categorizations of high and low comics and in doing so pointing toward a rich possible future for the medium."

Any terms starting to stick in terms of classifying this generation? It only recently coalesced for me as a new thing. I think it's well-represented by the Act-i-vate bunch along with other devotees of the medium who design and write to their strengths.

david e. ford, jr said...

it's an interesting question michael . . . the thing is, this idea of non-conspicuously smart comics is something that all of us here talk about A LOT, but i'll frankly admit that i've never thought about it in taxonomical terms, perhaps because i'm a bit ambivalent about the notion. on the one hand, the sorts of creators that we've been boostering here--people like brandon graham, paul pope, gabriel ba, fabio moon, becky cloonan, joshua dysart, vasilis lolos, marian churchland, to name just a few--are all over the map stylistically and in terms of the stories they tell. at the same time, i'll grant the idea that sometimes it takes a name (nouvelle vague, pre-raphaelite, symbolist et cetera) for large numbers of people to register the existence of a creative movement or phenomenon. so, yeah, i don't know . . .

Jesse Reese said...

Not to start a post your favorite creator wave or anything but I'd certainly add Seth Fisher and probably Rafael Grampa to that group. Even writers like Rick Spears and Jonathon Hickman fit in I think.

At SPX there was a panel called "The New Action" which kind of discussed this movement purely on the terms of the "indie" comics scene. It talked about how indie comics have been moving away from a diary based format to more action/sci-fi/fantasy stories. It's basically a matter of taking these kinds of stories seriously and imbuing them with the sort of meaning usually associated with strictly serious work.

It sort of parallels a trend in cinema of "smart" action movies like Iron Man and Star Trek

stefan autsa said...

I picked up the book thinking it was one of those "the artist was good drawing something else so we'll give them a book regardless of quality for bux" deals, but no - I found it a really good book. I don't know what kind of comic book it is, but I liked it a lot.

Another thing I took from Beast was about finding someone who appreciated your work or your abilities whatever they be, to the point where nothing else really matters anymore. From most of her meals consisting of just toast and tea, the walls of the house mostly barren but staying that way and no longer much interest in her emails or friends say she would be happy for life to find someone that truly understands what she's trying to do with her art, or whatever it is she wanted to do with herself.

The ability to live our your life with having a route to express yourself but also having someone to express yourself to who understands what you're expressing is, to me, part of the book but something I think many artists struggle with in reality. With Beast, she found someone who appreciated her and liked her for what she does and is, and sometimes that's all you need, rent money or protein be damned.

Monique R. said...

Great Piece, David.

I had a less serious thought that made me LOL in public though- if there was a BEAST movie I could see you playing Beast...LOL AGHAIANAN> all you need is a fly suit, added hair length but the role is yours. LOL AGHAIANAN>

Michael Lapinski said...

Yeah, I totally appreciate the difficulty/ ambivalence in classifying what this new breed of comics is. But, like any "movement," it takes a virtual (newsletters, agit-prop) and real community of like-minded individuals to identify it for themselves.

In Brooklyn, there are such a great number of working cartoonists. Their common denominator is the attention and respect they have for their craft and for the medium. Several shops (Bergen Comics, Rocketship) have actually taken on a Salon quality.

I, for one, appreciate the model set forth by the Hernandez Bros. = DIY art studied in past masters and fictional content within the headspace and experience of the creator. It's the lively alternative to the navel-gazing of autobio and formula of genre-fiction.