Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comics Bulletin’s Small Press Review Column
By George Wylesol
Published by Avery Hill Publishing
George Wylesol’s Ghosts, Etc. is an experience, one that utilizes form and structure to create an oddly isolating experiment of self-discovery. The book is comprised of three stories, each of which approach the concept of identity through varied lenses. Ordered and constructed together as they are, though, the whole is far greater than its parts. As a completed work, it operates like a comic book bellows, expanding and contracting around the idea of identity. Wylesol has crafted an exercise in emotional connection, one that pushes you away and pulls you back only to thrust you back once more upon completion. It is also, unquestionably, bonkers.
The opening story, “Ghosts”, is a compartmentalized and minimalist look at isolation. Its most important aspect is its first-person perspective, something akin to a mashup of an “escape the room” point-and-click computer game and an Ikea assembly instruction sheet. Wylesol places the reader into the eyes of a hospital janitor working the graveyard shift, and the clean rigid style of both the panel layouts and their depictions of an orderly hospital belie that labyrinthine effect that begins to take hold. The captioning is all lowercase and often neglects proper punctuation so that it often reads as unassumingly as a Little Golden Book, which in turn only makes the tale itself more discomforting and effective. The janitor, and in turn the reader, adopt the lives of people found in the hospital’s records and, really, this is the central idea at play: as a means of escape, embracing the fantasy of others, anyone other than you, no matter how mundane, comforts as much as it damages. Wylesol continues this idea of detachment from self until the bareness of the hospital’s design becomes an inescapable prison and the remnants of identity become nothing more than a tangled ball of wires, waiting to be plugged in. The monotony and loneliness evolve (or devolve even) into this surprisingly disturbing desire of wanting to plug in, make a connection, with anyone other than yourself.
The bellows than inhales the reader in the subsequent story, titled “The Rabbit”, and earnestly pulls you back in emotionally. And look, I’ll level with you here, this tale is a visual nightmarescape of fucked up-ness. But it is also oddly heartwarming in how the childhood rite of passage of understanding death for the first time couples with a momento mori experience of feeling impossibly unsafe. “The Rabbit” is easily the most affecting story in the book, which might sound surprising given that it has a naive amoeba-like character wearing a wooden mask at its center. The aesthetic here is that of misaligned color printing, so that colors bleed outside panel borders and leave ghost areas as though the additional color overlap missed its mark; this all serves to reinforce the idea of faded and distorted memories as Wylesol recalls a defining moment of his childhood. Visually, it is strange, it is alien, and it is wonderfully askew. Our amoeba, Wylseol’s envisioned version of his child-like self, is undefined and shapeless as amoebas are, of course, but it’s the wooden mask it wears that’s the most haunting. As children, we don’t feel fully formed, but we still feel like something or, at least, a version of something represented here by the flat wooden mask. “I wandered for days with no destination,” he claims as the ominous and garish foreignness of the forest (really highlighted by the beautifully clashing palette of oranges, reds, and yellows) reminds him that he doesn’t belong. While it’s all a pretty direct metaphor for growing up, Wylesol’s abstract representations for the horrors of feeling lost, of feeling unformed as self, are poignantly encapsulated in a story that explores the comforts of loss and moving forward.
The third story, “Worthless”, is where the bellows doesn’t just blow you backwards, it takes a bong hit and fucking cannonballs you across the room. Aesthetically, the story is a frenetic blend of late modern and futurism graphic design (hell there’s even some pop art influence thrown in for good measure), and it’s here that Wylesol turns his journey of the self towards the heavens. If all of Ghosts, Etc. is an experience, then “Worthless” is the portion that asks, “Have you ever been experienced?” in full Hendrix glory. We’re thrust on a literal drug trip undertaken by one of the “bad kids” who hang out behind the local convenience store, a scene no doubt familiar for those raised in suburban wastelands, and come out the other side a blubbery mess of commercial iconography. It’s the graphic design experimentation that’s the real wonder to behold here, the way Wylesol dismisses traditionally structured sequential panels in favor of the interplay of geometric orientation. In sharp contrast to the preceding stories, “Worthlesss” is far more pointed in commenting on the effect of the outer world on the developing self, specifically the role of consumerism as it shapes our wants and fears via our insecurities. It is the exhaust from the air conditioner unit atop the convenience store that causes the trip, and the ride concludes with a rat bait station offering up yet another trip, but everything in between is an exploration of commercial products as insatiable gods. Our modern fears of sexual inadequacy and poisoned internal organs are products of our, well, products. Our identities are shaped by what our modern world tells us they are. “Life is a tube,” Wylesol tells us, a tube that we’re pushed through like spent food through an intestinal tract. It’s bleak, to say the least, and, as such, it’s also the hardest of the stories to latch onto emotionally. Unlike the other two tales, the reader isn’t immersed in the story via a first person perspective or a more heartwarming and familiar experience, thus the result is that we’re witnessing these events and messages instead of empathizing with them. It’s a journey well worth reading for the visuals in all their arresting tricolor splendor, but one that lacks the gut punch it likely intends without a more human element to tether all the big ideas to.
Ghosts, Etc. is certainly bonkers, but it’s the way the stories explore the nature of identity from varied perspectives in their specific order that impresses most. Like a living thing, the book exhales and inhales in rhythmic synchronicity from one story to the next, and the result is captivating in how it refuses to let you get comfortable. The shift in tone and the radical contrast of how Wylesol stretches his graphic design muscles from one story to the next, all the while approaching the same theme, is indeed nothing short of an experience. Ghosts Etc. tells us that the search for self is a varied one: isolating, horrific, comforting, bizarre, maddening, mind-altering, and unavoidable. Sometimes it pulls you deep inside yourself, and other times it blows you away.
— Alex Mansfield @FocusedTotality