Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comics Bulletin’s small press review column
Why aren’t there a bunch of comics that mash up crime and horror? It seems such a natural fit to insert zombies into a noir crime story where everything inevitably goes wrong.
Maybe I feel that idea sparks because I loved Patrick Dean’s wonderful Cold Crew, a thrilling crime-slash-zombie-slash noir epic that feels dark and powerful and has a plot that seems as inevitable as the dark fate of an incidental character in a horror movie.
As the story begins, a group of three men prepare for a major heist. However, that they’re short on crew members to help them with the crime. They need burly men to hold guns and look frightening. One of the criminals has a cousin who knows how to wrangle up some zombies to help them. They can follow simple orders. Or at least it seems straightforward. But as always seems to happen in a noir, there are twists inside twists and everything spins into unexpected directions – this time including zombies and whatever the hell that other creature is who gets deeply involved in the crime.
Patrick Dean’s art really sells this slim graphic novella. It starts dark and grows darker, with loosely drawn lines and irregular panel borders that imply confusion and uncertainty and a certain type of shaky hand that matches the reader’s hand when reading it. Dean does a wonderful job of drawing his characters loosely but keeping them consistent; with just a few off-kilter strokes or with a few lines of stitching on a frightening face, he’s able to construct characters that we can imagine in three dimensions.
More than anything, though, what I come back to with this comic is blackness. This tale takes place against a dark sky in a city full of shadows and vaguely implied danger around many corners. Blood is black, building borders are black and doorways are black. It’s a blackness that matches the souls of the people whose story is being told here – dark and nasty individuals who make foolish and short-sighted decisions to join in partnerships that they soon regret (and that they know they will regret when they initiate the partnerships).
The supernatural element to this comic is fun, but it really wasn’t necessary to make this good, solid crime noir work well. Zombies or not, this is great comics. I’m going to look for more comics from Recoil because this one was so entertaining.
Entering into the cluttered world of Autobio or Confessional Comix, the first story, “She Smiled Back” unpacks what, for all intents and purposes, is another artist coming to terms with his own libidinous awakening. For Sinaguglia, the process was one of exploration because, as he writes, “in the early nineteen eighties, nobody talked about sex all that much.” It is as much a harkening back to the days of pre-internet porn, as it is an expedition into how the discovery of one’s own sexual consciousness can be a significant moment in understanding one’s self. For Sinaguglia, it becomes a moment fraught with narcissistic overtones, yet also suffused with questions of gender identity. In “She Smiled Back”, sexuality is part performance, part imagination, part control, and an encapsulation of the concept of “division”. Who is the woman who smiles back, really? And why, out of all the things that Sinaguglia was discovering on his journey to understanding, was it this act that led to things finally falling “into place”?
Which begs larger questions for me. What form does fantasy take in the mind of an artist? What is he or she really creating and what is the price of distancing the self from the immediate?
Sinaguglia explores these final questions a little further in the second three-part story in Crawlspace, “Trudy”. “Trudy” follows the movement of the titular character as she goes… well … basically nowhere. Trudy wanders into the world in her white t-shirt and black skirt, observing the bare realities of her experience and making grand statements such as: “The sky is so black,” “God, it’s sweltering,” “I have a nice window,” and such. She engages the world by commenting on it, but for the most part she draws no conclusions from the experiences.
At one point, there is a brief metaphoric moment where life is “like a merry go round, innit?” – but she quickly dismisses it as a “weird dream” and her deadpan reaction to the possibility of being more than that speaks volumes about her engagement with the world. As I mentioned before, “Trudy” appears to be an artist communicating the distance he feels from his own experiences. A creative act focused on examining detachment seems almost at cross purposes. Yet, Sinaguglia is able to create a work thick with the crushing sense of boredom and modern ennui, and still make it light, engaging, and quiet.
And he uses all the artists tricks to do so. Sinaguglia works with traditional metaphors of water and shadows, windows and curtains, but somehow, through his skills as a cartoonist, they take on a pleasantness in the midst of their possibilities. At the end, you’re not left with the question of what it is that Trudy is searching for, rather you understand that it is a journey back to the self, the self hidden in the crawlspace, the one out there in the wind and the clouds and the birds.
Crawlspace is, throughout, affirming without being ponderous in its affirmations. Sinaguglia is able to convey his sense of confusion and heaviness in overcast tones and grayness of pace, yet he is also able to bathe all of it in just enough light so as to be able to see your way out without getting blinded.
So, again, what is the price of distancing the self from the immediate? For Sinaguglia, at least in Crawlspace, it is an opportunity to unburden for just a moment. Thus freed from the burden, one can breathe, and maybe – just maybe – with each breath comes a little acceptance of who you are.