Young Lions is a lovely object and a confounding story: a book that doesn’t quite hang together but makes you wonder whether “hanging together” is a fair criterion to bring to bear. Its narrative is wispy, evanescent, but likely to inspire certain kinds of reader to a spirited exploration. I couldn’t escape the feeling that there were depths unplumbed or meanings unrealized (by me, anyway) in its vaguenesses; certainly there’s a challenge and a pleasure its exquisite gestural openness of line and form. I found it teasing and a pleasure to look at, but frustrating too.
Described by author-publisher Blaise Larmee as a “graphic novella,” Young Lions has a story that, in terms of incident, is vanishingly slight, a snowflake on the tongue’s tip. The way the plot unfurls, though, is challenging. Settings are minimal; dialogue is frequently elliptical and disjointed, backstory denied. I was reminded of Seiichi Hayashi's Red Colored Elegy, the plot of which flickers and evades in similar fashion (that's a book I liked and Craig didn't). The story concerns a trio of self-styled conceptual artists who perform vaguely occult rituals at parties and other happenings. At the start, the three find themselves at an impasse creatively; they appear to be drowning in their own anomie. Two of them appear oddly childlike. One, Cody, is a boy who typically has clownish spots on his cheeks, like some kind of preadolescent Pierrot. The other, Alice, is a dark-haired girl often shown with a flower, say a lotus blossom or orchid, in her hair (I think this connotes ethnicity, but I’m not sure). The third member of the group is Wilson, who looks older by dint of his squarish head, receding hair, and black-framed glasses. He has a veneer of worldly wisdom or at least collegiate pretension. The plot has to do with these three taking on a fourth member, or would-be member, the enigmatic light-haired girl Holly, another seeming child. They meet Holly at a birthday party and take a road trip with her as if to “test” her. The trip leads south to a remote, ill-defined setting, part forest, part derelict house: Holly’s old “home,” an empty shell in an eerily idyllic no-place. Cody is drawn to her: what sort of creature is she? The drawings of the two convey an intimacy that is all the more erotic because it isn’t too obvious:
There is a sense throughout that having “found” Holly is an important thing, yet the (ir)resolution of the plot suggests a failed connection or at least a looming uncertainty. At the end, tears run; an attempted return ends in mystery and, I think, grief. Is that a spoiler?
The drawings throughout tread the line between gamine innocence and an exploratory sensuality. I’m reminded of Henry Darger and Marcel Dzama, Darger for his androgynous Vivian Girls and both artists for their fragility of line. Larmee has said that he imagines Young Lions, the book, as a person “ambiguously gendered, fragile, with strong hands,” and that seems about right for the characters within. They are adult-children. Interestingly, a naked baby picture illustrates the brief author bio on the book’s back flap. Another artistic lineage is detectable in the book’s nods to Conceptualism and performance art, made must obvious by its repeated invocation of Yoko Ono (subject of one of Larmee’s earlier zine comics). Ono’s name shows up at odd moments: for example, Cody picks up an abandoned cell phone in a museum gallery and takes a call from “Yoko.” In fact there’s a pattern of allusions to Ono that seems crucial to the book’s climax (read it yourself to see what I mean).
All this may sound precious. It is. The book risks falling into youthful self-absorption as do its protagonists. Larmee, I think, is beholden to received ideas of avant-gardism that give his work a rarified and claustral air. And yet… Young Lions is fascinating testimony to a vaulting, headstrong talent. It’s cool.
For one thing, it’s an interesting artifact in terms of global design and hand-feel. Larmee himself calls it an attempt to create “an ergonomic fetishistic object.” A slender digest-sized album with French flaps, it boasts a hazy but arresting cover and almost nothing in the way of paratexts. There is no interior title page, no indicia, no dedication. Nothing stands between the cover and the start of the story; the book wants your complete, undiluted attention on every page. Only two elements, the minimal bio and David Heatley’s blurb on the back cover, concede anything to the commercial imperatives that typically govern how books get packaged and delivered up to us consumers. But for the flaps, the total approach is spartan.
Larmee’s drawing, rendered in pencil, has a tender delicateness that recalls not only Darger and Dzama but also Christopher (CF) Forgues (Powr Mastrs, Kramer’s Ergot). The pages testify to Larmee’s process, that is, his handiwork, in all its messiness and indecision; he makes no effort to hide the handcrafted nature of what he’s doing. This will alienate readers wanting crisp professionalism but mesmerize others. Erasures, revisions, remnants of under-drawing, smears, faint scribbling, even fingerprints: they’re all here, but the resulting pages aren’t ugly. Mostly they’re elegant and strange. Many are beautiful.
Style-wise, Larmee’s saving grace is a considered minimalism that usually lets the page show through. This is why the blurry, processual look of the drawings seems open rather than clotted. Settings and details are drawn in selectively, often either faintly sketched or omitted altogether. Even bodies are sometimes left undone, though the body language is very convincing. Word balloons are loosely drawn, usually much larger than the sparse wording warrants, and vague in their position and attribution (some are unattributed outright, causing a confusion that I read as deliberate). Some balloons are empty. If this were music, it would be full of telling silences.
Larmee, in other words, practices an aesthetics of the unfinished and the tease, as if to call readers out of passivity. Or, alternately, perhaps he thinks of it as an aesthetics of complete openness, of nothing-left-to-hide: a thorough sharing of process, without withholding. In any case, his graphic story-world has the delicacy of a smoke-ring. If you could reach out and touch it, odds are it would disappear, or change shape around your fingers.
The book’s graphic approach mixes the experimental and the quiet. Page layouts are simple, with no more than three panels per. The most common layout is a triad: one large panel above or below two small panels of roughly even size. The designs are low-key; I have the impression, perhaps wrong, that the book was drawn small, on something no bigger than ordinary typing paper. This is what it looks like, in any case. For this I’m thankful, because a certain understatement is needed to open up breathing room. Somehow the work seems dense and light at the same time, and the lightness flatters those other aspects of the book that are more difficult.
Though the designs are regular, rules are broken everywhere. Panel borders are thin and sometimes half-gone. The page-shape or hyperframe does not perfectly contain the images, for the pages are full bleeds, with drawings and text sometimes rudely cropped. Despite this, most pages have roughly an inch of emptiness at the bottom. Huh? In tune with the narrative’s hazy, off-center qualities, the design and artwork conspire to defamiliarize at every turn. The reading experience slows and demands a shift in one’s mode of attention. Results will seem either generous or ungenerous, hypnotic or impenetrable, depending on the reader.
Suffice to say that Young Lions is an intriguing work. I can’t say, though, that I think it’s an entire success as a graphic narrative. The graphics are persuasive -- Larmee evokes an eerie story-world by dint of sheer visual poetry -- but the premises and progress of the narrative are so (here’s that word again) vague, so obscure, that I am not able to distinguish between what is supposed to be ordinary and what is supposed to be extraordinary. The project’s nods to Conceptualism are apt, for this is art that seeks to expose both itself and the processes of our response; me, though, I’m a comics reader who privileges story and characterization, and I’m not quite able to get a handle on the story and characters here.
Forgive me while I step sidewise for a moment: I recently attended a talk by Jan Baetens (at the 25th Annual International Conference on Narrative) regarding the notion of abstract comics, or, rather, abstraction in comics, which Baetens defined in terms of the failure or short-circuiting of narrative, or, from the reader’s viewpoint, a kind of resistance to hegemonic reading practices. By this argument, “abstract comics” is not so much a genre as a mode or move that may occur even within an otherwise ostensibly narrative project. I think Young Lions is abstract in this sense, for it wants to tell a story but does not want to that story to be understood in terms of literalism or realism. Its images do not ask to be viewed in purely mimetic but rather in generative or autopoetic terms. In my view, Larmee’s greatest accomplishment here is the realization of a style that simultaneously informs and mystifies. I just wish I understood more clearly the bases of the dreamworld he is trying to show me; I wish the style collaborated more closely with character and incident so as to show me why Holly and Cody are crying at the end. I also wish that I liked the characters more (I know, I know, likable characters are for weak-minded narcissists), or at least could empathize or engage with them in some way that didn’t involve so much guesswork.
In short, I wish that some of the exposition weren’t quite so abstract, so that, finally, the book’s moves toward abstraction and autopoesis could become meaningful to me in larger terms, including narrative ones.
Larmee may admire, as one of his characters puts its, art with “nothing left to hide,” but at this point his work gives off a sense of the hidden or hermetic, perhaps more so than he intends. Despite that, I'll continue to pay him close attention. He is a visual poet of a rare kind, a cartoonist who challenges and who has, judging by his various writings, provocative opinions about comic art, a keen awareness of the traps artists so often set for themselves, and a desire to do things differently. Frankly, the graphic novella form remains a challenge for him, but it's one I hope he’ll continue to face. I hope he'll keep on creating long-form comics that criss-cross the synapse between narrative and abstraction, even as I hope he'll get to a point where he delivers more solidly realized stories.
In the meantime, I urge readers not to take my word for it but to do their own reading of Young Lions. It’s a thoughtful, often gorgeously drawn, bravely original effort. Tell me what you think yourself.
A review copy of Young Lions was provided by the artist.