Books

A Startlingly Intimate Graphic Novella About the Black Plague

Julia Gfrörer expresses the fantastical and the medieval in the mundane.

“Laid Waste” (images courtesy of Fantagraphics)

Julia Gfrörer expresses the fantastical and the medieval in the mundane. Her latest graphic novella, Laid Waste, is bookended with pages populated by fleas, with dotted-in flecks about them suggesting filth. No character within the book ever explains the Black Death to us, though Laid Waste centers around it. There are more pages dedicated to the necessary business of burying the dead than there are to anyone actually dying. A two-page scene depicts dogs fighting over an abandoned corpse arm. The next page features the protagonist, Agnes, who has just that day buried her older sister, kneading bread dough. Gfrörer’s precise body language builds up Agnes’ struggle to tamp down her emotion and maintain normalcy until she cracks in a simple but heartbreaking way. It’s Edward Gorey meets Chantal Akerman.

The Black Death conjures imagery of a dramatic danse macabre in the popular imagination, but Gfrörer sees no reason not to apply an indie comic book sensibility to the subject. Though she renders the village in which Agnes lives as a sparse, post-apocalyptic zone of alienation with more livestock than people, those people interact with subdued everyday courtesy. Are they all traumatized, or is this the only sensible way to go about one’s life when you’ve no control whatsoever over your fate? It’s probably a mixture. In that way, is the world of a medieval peasant all that different from today?

Many of Gfrörer’s stories take the supernatural, or things that are otherwise alien to a modern reader (like the Plague), and rivet them to Earth with harrowingly intimate frustrations. In “Phosphorous,” a frustrated teenage boy has a sexual encounter with a water-dwelling fae or hag or likewise, which leaves him weeping. In “Too Dark to See,” common relationship frustrations play out alongside (and spring from) a man being raped by a succubus, rendered as a smoky outline being. In Black Is the Color, a sailor left adrift in a lifeboat due to Kafkaesque circumstances is comforted by a mermaid, who treats him like he’s an average Tinder date who texts more than she’d like. In between trysts, she hangs out with friends to watch a shipwreck as if it’s a pop-up art show. “This sucks, can we go now?” sighs one. “You guys are creeps,” admonishes another a few panels later.

The modern-sounding patter of the dialogue is not merely a source of ironic humor, however. In both Black Is the Color and Laid Waste, it’s a bridge from the people of then to us now. In one interview, Gfrörer noted that, “It’s a fallacy to assume that our ancestors were enormously different from us, but inaccurate to imagine them being very like us, too.” She inhabits that limbo between familiarity and unfamiliarity better than many other period works, regardless of medium. Through her work, a reader can be drawn into worlds of alien beliefs and made to feel at home to a profoundly uncomfortable degree. That’s because Gfrörer punctuates her gothic mumblecore with moments of intense intimacy, and she treats both sex and death with explicit matter-of-factness. These are not sanitized Victorian woodcuts. In Laid Waste, those twin themes of sex and death are joined right from the title page, which features a splash panel of two rats copulating.

Gfrörer’s longer graphic novellas are put together with formal rigor. Both Black Is the Color and Laid Waste stick almost exclusively to uniform panel layouts (six-panel pages in the former; four-panel pages in the latter). This gives no particular action or milieu any immediate emphasis. Action is instead spread out over multiple frames, sometimes with only minute differences from one panel to the next. In this way, Gfrörer builds extraordinarily subtle gestures and moments that gain significance as the reader absorbs each one in succession.

Gfrörer sketches out her worlds in stark blacks and whites or monocolors, her human figures lanky and dripping with tears and snot and blood, her environments stark scrimshaw. As befits the generally dark tone, there’s something ineffably unsettling about her art style. Her characters have faces that look like they’ve been grimaced into existence, with bodies evolved primarily to cringe. It’s appropriate that she previously illustrated a semi-educational, semi-satirical coloring book on Catholic martyrs. Her work recalls the iconography of illuminated manuscripts and witchcraft and alchemy, and she loves artists like Kathe Kollwitz, Chloe Piene, Alice Neel, and Harry Clarke. Her otherworldly psychopomps, witches, and mermaids are serene in the manner of a deep-sea predator poised to snatch its prey. Gfrörer’s works are frightening because the world itself is frightening, and she roots out those anxieties for the reader, helping them become more knowable… or perhaps even more disturbing.

Laid Waste is now available from Fantagraphics Books.

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