Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comic Bulletin’s small press review column.
By Leslie Stein
Published by Fantagraphics Books
Time is a fecund metaphor in our lives and its towering symbol, the timepiece, looms large, constantly tick tocking in our consciousness. Like the enormous ebony clock in Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, it stands stoic and chiming, reminding us that our moments of gamboling are short and finite.
Echoing in our day-to-day, time ticks terribly.
And oh, how we fill our moments. Racing here and there shoving experiences down our gullets and filling our souls until the next moment, distracting us from the final alarm bell, wearing us down, and hastening our end.
So many responsibilities and so much to do. Clocking in and pulling our shift, eyeing both all that is shiny and the dark cloud that signals it is almost time to clock out.
It’s madness if you consider how meaningless it all is in the end. All our moments of intensity — intensity of emotion and experience and creativity and connections — they may appear on our pay stubs, but we are only paying rent in the end, building little equity other than the memories we accidently inspire in those whose lives we have briefly invaded.
Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’….and ultimately, there is no future for any of us.
Even in the face of the truth of the clock…
There is joy.
Cartoonist Leslie Stein understands that there is the reality of the restricted and the certainty of glee intermixed and colliding in the twinkling of our time. This is clear in her recently published Time Clock, her third book in her Eye of the Majestic Creature series.
You don’t need to have read the previous two Eye of the Majestic Creature books to “get” Time Clock (but you should, as they, too, are spectacular). Time Clock stands on its own, quirky, sad, fundamentally true, and wildly weird.
There is so much to parse in this book. Perhaps it is best to start with the story. Of it, Fantagraphics says:
Becoming ever more ambitious in her artistic pursuits, our protagonist Larrybear attends her first sand counting convention to debut her new creation, an apple named Ron. There she meets other sand counters — who do exactly what their title implies, count grains of sand in order to make sculptures out of them — for the first time, as well as her new nemesis, the “minimalist “ counter Tim Heerling. Going back and forth between the countryside, where her guitar Marshmallow has begun a pie making business, and New York, where Larry manages a restaurant in Brooklyn, Larry begins to ponder her future. Things go awry when a hurricane hits New York and she is left to her own devices to get through the next night of work, with a packed bar, no food or beverage deliveries, and plumbing problems. To make matters worse, the new job is doing nothing to help Larry’s ever-worsening drinking problem…
Structurally, this encompasses the narrative, but peeling back the skin of all of this seeming nonsense is a meditation on the responsibilities of adulthood, an examination of the idea of place, an unpacking of the obligations of the relationships we foster, a questioning of the limitations of art, and, of course, an acknowledgement of mortality.
The book begins where it should, given its title, with Larrybear entering her identification number into a digital time clock, beginning her shift at the restaurant. “Signed in” as she has, already our expectations are that everything that follows will be “work”, regardless of context or content. Stein has Larrybear, her semi-autobiographical main character, running through the paces of what she owes others as much as those that she owes to herself, constantly seeing the absurdity enmeshed in both endeavors. Her shift, her life in this book, is either a blur of movement and moments punctuated with shots of stiff booze, or focused tightly, one sand grain at a time, in the hopes of creating some sort of space to just “be”.
Larrybear’s interactions with those she loves and those she stumbles into are confessional on either end. Though Stein suffuses much of these moments with humor or absurdity, they have an emotional truth at their core. Those whose lives she touches see their interactions through the lens of their own distractions and understandings. Larrybear exudes an endearing and surreal sweetness that brings others into her various spheres, comforting or confusing them in a manner that is seemingly just what they both need at that juncture.
Whether it be popping pretensions or providing inspiration or affirming humanity, Larrybear seems to say or do the right thing, no matter how off-kilter it is. There is nothing mean anywhere, even in the casual, but rather there is an over-riding kindness that cannot be helped.
Even as Larrybear draws inside herself and faces her own uncertainty, Time Clock seems to acknowledge that above all else, we have no other option than to acknowledge that we are all in this together.
So why not choose kindness?
And Stein, as an artist, measures all of it with a musician’s rhythm. As outstanding as her flow is throughout Time Clock, Stein’s greatest strength as a cartoonist is her use of pauses, her ability to prolong and enunciate the emotional beats she is spitting. Whether through the use of a blank panel or a wordless moment, Stein’s interruptions gives her art and her reader breathing space to pull in intent.
Take for example this page:
Stein uses a basic nine-panel grid throughout Time Clock which forms the basic ground beat and melody of the book. The progression swings throughout, but it’s when she brings in a cross-rhythm, a moment in which a different meter is expressed, that Stein really allows the reader in.
On this page, the first three panels imply the beats of the conversation, the middle panel expresses the pause that gives the third panel its weight and pathos. Panels four through six allow for Stein to show us Larrybear’s thought process. Panel six, the cutaway to the box containing Larrybear’s art piece, provides just enough information for the reader to understand that Larrybear is weighing the responsibilities she feels she owes to others versus the ones she owes to herself. Which is more important? Which ultimately gives life some sort of meaning as it swiftly flies by?
The last two panels is where Stein uses the cross-rhythm of combining panels to express decision. Panels eight and nine combine into one, opening up the space to show Larrybear and Marshmallow, framed together, sitting on the couch in the room. Subtly but on point, the reader understands that Larrybear has made her decision. She understands that the connections we make with others have, perhaps, more purpose in a basically aimless time span, by acknowledging others, we acknowledge ourselves.
Once again, it is this tenderness in the face of the inconsequential that makes Time Clock such a beautiful book. As strange or haphazard or surreal or bonkers as the situations become, there is a softness to it that replicates the ticking of tenderness that is all we have, really, as we pull our shift waiting for the inevitability of “clocking out”.