Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comics Bulletin’s small press review column
CRUSHED INSECTS AND SMALL FISTS: An Examination of LAST MOUNTAIN 2 by Dakota McFadzean
Daniel Elkin: The last time I wrote about a Dakota McFadzean book http://danielrelkin.blogspot.com/2015/01/shelly-moon-artemis-and-you-review-of.html , it got me quoting Shelley and talking about Greek goddesses. This time, reading his latest comic, Last Mountain 2, has got me contemplating more worldly concerns, things like our need to be part of the larger social order and the consequences of “not fitting in”. It also has me thinking about the narratives we tell ourselves concerning the reality of the world around us, regardless of what’s really going on.
Last Mountain 2 is being published by Birdcage Bottom Books, and their solicit for the book says that it “is the third issue of Dakota McFadzean’s short story series. This issue is set in the spaces between home and school, with crushed insects, small fists, and a mysterious truck that may or may not be following you.” For me, though, Last Mountain 2 speaks more about the spaces between ourselves and our expectations, that in-between space where we exist in order to stay the course and keep our shreds of sanity wrapped tight around our shoulders in the wasteland of existing among others.
The first story in Last Mountain 2, “Buzzy,” strikes a taut emotional chord as it examines the dichotomy between the expectations of socialization inherent in institutions like an elementary school and, unfortunately, the reality of group dynamics. When one stands apart from the crowd, either because of his or her appearance or actions or even (more tragically) due to vicious rumors that buzz around that individual like so many meat bees around a picnic, they remain suspect in the greater community – they are the “other,” the outcast. Like Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird, or Frankenstein’s monster in Mary Shelley’s novel, regardless of his or her intent or goodness or confusion, the outcast suffers at the hands of the herd. Relegated to solitude, the individual’s own tics that formed their isolation perpetuate, leading him or her to act out or turn upon themselves.
Who among you hasn’t heard the lines, “I don’t care what other people think. I hate everybody.” Who among you haven’t said these lines to yourself. Ah, me. We say them because we do care, so painfully care, and we use this casual nonchalance to arm ourselves against rejection over and over again.
Who among us hasn’t at one point in our lives pointed a finger at “the other” and, instead of reaching out to help, we thank god we’re not that guy? How much easier is it to turn away than to walk a mile in another man’s shoes?
“Buzzy” hums in my ears because it occurs in front of me every day, be it in my classroom, at the supermarket, or on the news. Empathy is seemingly relegated to the rarefied land of those who have nothing to lose, and I question what sort of vision we have when our tendency is to keep looking away.
With a Crockett Johnson-inspired cartooning style, McFadzean captures the tension between those that are apart and those who want to bring them in. It’s a difficult dance, especially when expectations are already pulsating into all interactions.
Likewise, the second story in Last Mountain 2, “The Truck,” is, in a different way, about how our expectations of the world around us are formed — how we assume that the over-riding narrative is truth regardless of whatever facts stand in our way. Is that truck actually following us? If it is, what should our response be? How does this escalate matters? Who ends up being responsible?
In light of so much that’s been flashing across our social/political landscape this last year or so, these questions grow louder and louder as the answers are spoken in quieter and quieter tones by those afraid to speak out. The shadows continue to dance on the cave walls, and there we stand, rubbing our expanding bellies and watching the show.
Jason Sacks: The shadows in the cave walls have been around for as long as human beings could put words together, Elkin. Whether those shadows represent the specter of who we aspire to be or the vision of the person we have lost, the shadows are deep and haunting and meaningful.
As you say, those are the shadows that haunt the days of empathetic adults and the shadows that McFadzean creates in this book. Perhaps the most haunting aspect of “Buzzy” for me was that Danny seems fully real. He has the chance to recreate his life in a new school but finds the tragedy of his life casting him apart from everybody else.
It’s interesting that we first meet Danny from a distance. A man, we presume a father though there’s no way of knowing, seems to be walking with a boy on his first day at a new school. The father figure bends down to (I presume) kiss the boy goodbye but instead the boy runs away. The man looks confused, or worried. Something is amiss already.
Two panels later we’re introduced to Danny as his schoolteacher introduces him to his grade five classmates, and other kids’ speech balloons almost seem to entrap him as the lines surround his head like a rapacious serpent. In that moment, with his forlorn look, Danny is showing us in a subtle way that he’s a very different child, that he’s a natural outsider. There’s something about him that’s just not like the other kids.
Elkin, I think I disagree with your assertions a bit. You’re concerned about empathy and compassion, and how hard it is for Danny to get that compassion, but the fact is that there seems to be an early compulsion by the characters to extend him friendship that is quickly refused. If Danny had reacted differently to the light teasing from his classmates in the early pages, or if he had been able to reciprocate the attempts towards friendship that Jenny gave him, Danny could have had a kinder life than the one he has. He brings it on himself to answer Jenny’s sweet statement of “My mom always says you don’t have to be friends with everyone, but you can still be friendly.” with the obnoxious comment “Your mom sounds simple.”
To me, the tragedy of the book isn’t in the other, it’s in the self. Danny is a broken child, clearly the product of a deeply dysfunctional life. He has problems with rage and anger, to the point of nearly stabbing another child and throwing his desk against a window. Danny is deeply alone, lies, mutilates bugs, swears like a Tarantino character. He’s broken. On the verge of what likely will be deeply terrible middle school years, this poor, pathetic, broken pre-pubescent boy has already been shattered. It seems no number of distant hugs from faceless father figures can save the boy. We want to feel empathy for Danny, but perhaps in the end the ultimate tragedy is that he doesn’t have empathy for himself.
I’d say the cartooning here is more Charles Schulz than Crockett Johnson, which adds an even deeper frisson of pain to the story for me. Jenny, who could have been his friend, resembles Lucy from Peanuts and there’s a kind of interesting meaning there for me as a reader, considering Danny as a bit of an even more broken Charlie Brown, perhaps with bugs instead of baseball, constantly striving to do his best but always failing in the most tragic possible way.
Elkin: Sacks, you mentioned that Danny has “a chance to recreate his life,” but then you go to great lengths to tell us how broken he already is. So where does the blame lie? Is Danny really the product of his own choices?
In “Buzzy,” McFadzean gives us a child here, an eleven-year-old boy who is wrought with rage and self-loathing, full of quirks that keep him at bay from the other children. Certainly, the boys and girls of his new school initially reach out in their ham-handed ways to welcome him, but Danny doesn’t trust their intent or doesn’t know how to respond to their overtures of kindness. He wears his reactions like a militarized small-town police officer’s riot-shield, expecting the worst because he’s been trained to be on guard.
Research has shown that those who are bullied become bullies themselves. Who then is at fault? What has led Danny to this point? Is it fair to claim that “he brings it on himself” when his entire life up to this point has molded him to be this person?
Are we so callous as to blame the victim? Is a fifth-grader responsible for his or her behavior?
But of course McFadzean gives us no indication that, in this case, the parents are to blame (though I have to ask where is Danny’s mother). We both know that things can go awry even in the best of households. Rage and disassociation are not always the by-product of environment, and any form of mental illness in children is especially frightening, unexpected, rebarbative. Other children don’t know what to make of it, so they become uncomfortable, cast aspersions, push away, push down, isolate, and perpetuate. Hell, most adults do this too.
While our culture has come a long way, it continues to wrestle with mental health issues. It still scares us, unnerves us on a very fundamental level, and what we fear we tend to want far from us. We need safety, desire predictability, need everyone playing by the same set of rules.
How many of us gladly sit next to the woman muttering to herself on the bus? How often do we run into traffic to help the naked man screaming in the middle of the street?
My experience has been that if there is a child in a classroom who is struggling with mental illness, especially if that child is prone to outbursts, the other parents go to the teacher or the principal and ask them what’s going to be done with that kid? And when the teacher or the principal tells the parent that there is nothing to be done, that there are laws against such a thing, the parent either continues to raise concerns higher up the administrative ladder or contemplates dis-enrolling their own child. It’s a fear response and it’s primal.
So yea, Sacks, in a way McFadzean does give us a “broken Charlie Brown” in the character of Danny. But pity is not what we should be feeling. Danny is repellent because of his actions, because of his words, because of his proclivities. But, perhaps, it is the fact that he is so repellent that he deserves the best we have to offer. Perhaps we are only as good as how we treat those among us who are hardest to understand, those most dissimilar to the behavior and values we enshrine.
Sacks: Oh Elkin, sometimes you are so much kinder than I am. It’s humbling to have a conversation like this with you because your perspective is so much more humanistic and positive than mine. You care about people, clearly and deeply and in ways that clearly go right to the center of your soul. You make me feel like a dull corporate drone, a heartless bourgeois apathetic man and I think I deserve it.
Would you sit next to the woman muttering to herself on the bus? Would anyone? What is our reaction to those who will not play by the rules? Perhaps as I get older, and perhaps as I become more corporate, and perhaps as I lose more and more empathy, I become the kind of man who condemns an eleven-year-old boy who is deeply and painfully broken.
This is why I love writing with you, my friend, and this is why it’s important to consume honest, heartfelt art that draws no judgment and tells no observer what to think. A work like Last Mountain shakes a reader up. It haunts us and forces us to examine our own lives.