My mother has these prayer cards she carries with her whenever she’s away from home. Each has become foxed and fuzzy, straight edges now rounded. On one side stands a saint, the Christ child or the Virgin Mary, on the other a prayer or intercession. Most come from funerals she’s attended.
I don’t keep any saints or saviors in my pocket when I’m out of town. Maybe I should. From now on, perhaps, I will take Vincent Stall’s Things You Carry. Like those prayer cards, it too possesses an intrinsic value best to keep close at hand, a meditation … on comics — a comic’s comic.
Things You Carry curls its toes around the edge of the Ultima Thule catch-all critics call: not for everyone. It’s an art comic. So there’s that. Yet for all its artful vigor, if one simply follows along there’s no getting lost or being intimidated. Taxonomy limits, directs and reduces; the exact opposite of what Stall achieves with his open-ended and open-to-interpretation narrative. Here is a cartoonist who doesn’t tell a story as much as share a story, a dream. Stall asks: ”what do you see?”
This is a comic of feels.
The only word in these ninety-six pages is ”now” and it appears on page one, panel one. Less a word or piece of text and more like stylized shapes resembling the letters ‘N’ ‘O’ and ‘W.’ Each letter appears as a swath of paper or cloth amidst clouds or whales or souls in the shape of interior organs, maybe. Whatever its composition, it is always ‘now.’ Such a start provides Things You Carry with its playful open-ended-ness. Rather than artsy preciousness, read ‘now’ as an invitation or, better, an act of implication.
Devoid of words, Things You Carry fires a different set of synapses and allows for new trips through fresh wires. Stall pares comics to the molecular level. Some component in my lizard brain — a goofy sub-conduit in the flight or fight response — short circuits when I’m presented with the purest essence of a thing; I am overwhelmed by simplicity, I guess. Maybe it’s me. Wordless stories in visual mediums (especially film or comics) provide a reminder: storytelling is relative. I’m not saying words are superfluous or vestigial to the process. Stall only proves words are also not always necessary, either.
The main character of Things You Carry looks like what one would expect from a wordless art comic, a humanoid shape empty of expression and full of emotion. Stall never names his tabula rasa. A googling reveals her/him/they/it to be Bastard Saint. It’s easy to imagine this protagonist as singular, a lone wolf (perhaps even a wolf) out and about. It’s easy to imagine BS as animated by a ghost or ghosts inside some machine, perhaps a mysterious mecha, a mini Gaiking or another super robot in 1/6 scale.
Comics track in projections. Stall does nothing different from other creator-Gods like Siegel and Shuster who put their dreams and desires onto and into their handiwork. The perceived emptiness of Bastard Saint generates an open source code for the imagination. Such is invention. Such is revolution.
A blank slate, Bastard Saint both conveys and acts as a conveyance. In the course of the journey, suitcases get piled into a cart, some fall out, while others go along for the ride until they are left behind too. So goes the cart as well. I hesitate to write ‘abandon’ because there’s no indication what BS leaves behind won’t be reused. It’s a continuum, yeah? The items we pick up — and, yes, even the comics we read — discard or allow another to borrow reflect the interlocutor as much as the item itself. What gets left behind says as much about you as those things you carry. The medium is the message here. I don ‘t believe Stall wants to narrow the narrative or curb interpretation with anti-consumerist doggerel or riff off of some flaccid hippie ideal of ‘things are just things, man.’ Things You Carry works as a ‘submitted without comment’ kind of comic. Stall wants to observe and inspire, not hector or moralize.
Each page of Things You Carry contains only one panel. Such construction gives Stall a way to slow down the process, let the narrative soak in, to make an intercession for art and see for certain the message carries and is received. The absence of words allows a surplus of detail. Every image seethes with detritus, leftovers and oddments, a world full of stuff. Boxes, bricks and beams in splinters pile up in every available space. And paper, lots and lots and lots of paper. On one page a chair with a broken back sits against a shattered wall where hash marks account for … what? Time? Friends? Buckets? How does one read a sign or a mark on a page or in a panel when it’s left to interpretation? Stall understands cartooning engenders conviction and trust from the artist in covenant with the reader. Why and how is it we grok cave paintings in Lascaux, France or understand other aboriginal rock art?
Comics, is there anything they can’t do?
Oddly, those tiny lines on the wall (or on the page or on the wall on the page) show up again to make their most indelible marks on paper. More portable than limestone, I suppose. Paper becomes the conduit that brings Bastard Saint to adventure and to transformation. Hash marks will out.
Towards the end (?) of BS’s travels, this anti-personal pronoun navigates a wild world where paper alights in orderly stacks. Stall may pen and ink rubble-filled landscapes full of bits, bobs and bric-a-brac, but he also favors tidiness over all out disorder. The piles of paper lead BS to a keep where inside sits a fabulous contraption of Stall’s imagination, a collector, a carrier, a recorder, a hash mark maker (maybe) or even, perhaps, a cartoonist. In an Apollo Mission-era helmet, a space suit out of 2001 and gloves with darkened fingertips Stall presents another silent guide. And so Mute leads Mute.
Unlike BS, this traveler has yet to eschew possessions. She/he/it/they (and ‘they’ remains a distinct possibility here) takes great effort to tie off, catalog and anchor. The gatherer in us all will recognize a fellow fanboy complete with long boxes, bags, boards and custom built niches to display special collections. The garret where this being abides is as chock-a-block full as the wider world BS navigates; however, it feels lonelier and emptier for all it possesses. This character is not an avaricious sort, more of a begin docent than damaged hoarder. Perhaps it is a memory palace, a fortress of solitude, place to think, to sort, to take stock. Again, Stall wills the reader’s imagination to account.
In the end, fate brings these two characters to coalesce in an ashes-to-ashes-dust-to-dust-worlds-within-worlds sort of way. The reader becomes party to it too as Stall racks focus, pulls in and allows the final image to subsume all. The quality of the final page feels right, proper, open.
Small press comics intuit possibility. By their idiosyncrasy, the nerve to overreach and punk aesthetic, DIY comics come off as less disposable than more mass-produced mainstream offerings. Odd. Maybe the alchemy of quirk and a devil-may-care desire for expression acts as a governor to bloat. As readers we crave the personal. We’re mad for it because it underlies our own creative impulses; recognition makes promulgators of us all. One of the many things you (and I) carry like prayer cards like comics.
Things You Carry is available at 2D Cloud
Keith Silva has renounced organized religion for comics. If he’s wrong, he vows to renounce on his deathbed. Follow: @keithpmsilva