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A common piece of advice to writers is to show, rather than tell. Within the comic medium, there’s the option to do both, to bend the rules of narrative visually and semantically. To explain larger, complex themes of identity, however, artists Kris Mukai and Aidan Koch have turned to the unsaid. Both withhold information and use an economy of form to point to the subjective and the deeply felt.
Mukai’s 2015 self-published comic, Weeping Flower, Grows in Darkness, begins with a familiar landscape altered and made strange. Two characters, the preteenage Eleanor Ueno and Antony Hall, take a steep, inconvenient path to a creek because new neighbors have razed and fenced off their old one. Eleanor wonders, “Why would you move to the woods and then cut down all the trees?”
They are looking for their older brothers, who have disappeared together, though the reader isn’t given many specifics. Instead, scribbly lines signify unheard conversations and knowing glances point to information thought of, but not explicitly stated. As Eleanor grasps to understand the looming familial issues around her, she often turns to fantastical explanations to buffer the unknown.
Later, at Antony’s house, Eleanor notices strange, white, ghostly flowers growing in the darkness under a deck. Her subsequent Google search yields that the plant is named an Indian Pipe Flower, which has no chlorophyll and is a parasitic organism. It is colloquially called a corpse flower, as it’s often found near graves. In Eleanor’s dreams, stress manifests as the plant growing on her body. She interprets this as the key to understanding what happened between the older brothers, eventually having a vision in which she finds the corpse of Antony’s brother, also covered in the flower. While she turns to the magical, however, Antony grows aloof, pessimistic, and disconnected from his friend.
Like the former path to the creek, the familiar in Eleanor’s life has been forever altered. She exists immediately before the precipice where childhood is reexamined through an older lens — a traumatic experience which reveals hidden truths often disguised by those closest to us. She is smart and receptive, but still at a stage where her identity is newly forming, forced to do so as one understanding of her life and her place in it is ending. Surreal moments are not distinguished or explained away as imaginary by Mukai; Eleanor’s interior world is as valid as any other experience she has. Mukai’s fluid images allow for these seamless transitions between fantasy and reality. Her lines are beautifully printed on a risograph, retaining an effortless touch. She keeps her palette minimal, only utilizing purple, red, green, and black, forcing her to get as much out of as little as possible.
The way Mukai conceals information to express the limits of understanding and something as mutable as identity, while much more narrative driven, shares an intent with Aidan Koch’s work. Published last year by Peradam Press, Impressions by Koch is an exercise in brevity. The book follows a model hired by a painter. She is drawn and painted loosely, often visually lost, shown only as a block of color or an outline of a body part. Sometimes, usually through the artist’s eye, she comes into focus, but it’s only a flat representation. Her own identity is not possible to describe in the painter’s work, nor by Koch’s hand. She allows her character to flow nascent along the pages, never retaining a consistency.
From the beginning, the painter speaks sparingly to, and asks little of his distant and meditative muse. He doesn’t seem to see her beyond the canvas he’s working on. The story ends with him presenting his paintings of her at an exhibition, as she shyly tries to rectify the rift between who she is and the woman represented. But before that the reader is allowed a brief look into the model’s personal life, when she visits her mother, a character who comes into soft focus and is dealing with the ailments of age. The model’s silence and surface-level conversation here carries a heavier weight; the mother and her daughter seem at a loss for how to communicate. During the time spent together, they plant a flower in the mother’s garden, but it’s unclear how much either character connects to or grows from the interaction.
At this point in the story, Koch stops representing the characters entirely, only using speech bubbles within a thin grid as she documents their conversation and, as much, their silences. She has a command of prompting the viewer to hone in on small, important moments, not afraid to edit out nonessential information. There is no horror vacui here.
These moments beg the reader to consider what comprises identity. Is it how we are considered, or how we are observed? Is it in the representations and records left behind? Or in our gestures and attempts to connect with others? The model brought her mother flowers, which may represent guilt at her infrequent visits. Later, she is the one given a flower at the opening of the painter’s show. Here the offering signifies she did something important: she was an integral part of the painting, not just a form. It’s a self-affirming moment and the model glows, Koch employing a gorgeous, muted red color wash.
Earlier in Impressions, the model had noted, “It’s almost like he doesn’t see me … I’m just a shape.” Her gift received at the end shows that a person is never that simple, or easy to represent. Something both Koch and Mukai know well.