Trash-Gazing: Rachel Hope Allison's I'm Not a Plastic Bag
The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is an accumulation of garbage gathered by oceanic currents between Hawaii and California. Estimates of its size vary, as it's not exactly a solid -- more a "trash stew" of different densities -- but it is indisputably enormous. In fact, this Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of the largest collections of human waste on earth: our food wrappers and disposable forks and cigarette butts and coffee cups and plastic bags.
The first thing artist Rachel Hope Allison thought when she heard about the phenomenon was: ugh! The second was: it must be so lonely...
"The more I learned about it," Allison says, "the more I realized that it was out in this really remote piece of the ocean that's really deep, and kind of still, and doesn't have as much life. It's all this stuff that we've just forgotten and discarded, and it's still out there. It's become its own thing, even if we're not paying attention to it or taking care of it. It did have an emotional quality for me."
Allison's beautiful, all-ages graphic novel I'm Not A Plastic Bag tells the story of this garbage patch. I was expecting an environmental polemic about terrible things we've done to the earth; instead, Allison offers up a sad, sentient garbage patch, staring up into the sky with eyes formed from tires and umbrellas, hoping a bird will land or a plane pass overhead for company. It feels like something Jim Henson might've done in the '70s.
"That was definitely my hope for it. I feel like the preachy stuff gets wearing really fast. I wanted to be able to sit with it, and think about how this phenomenon made me feel, and find a story that was a little less finger-waggy. If I demonized the garbage patch, I'd really be demonizing myself, and humanity, and the reader, in ways that just don't seem true to me. I'm not of the camp that thinks we're a blight on the earth. I was thinking less about trash-is-bad and more: what is this thing we've created out in the world?"
In the recent New Yorker profile of Andrew Stanton -- the director of Pixar's hits Finding Nemo and Wall-E -- he admitted he always felt deeply for inhuman things. "I can't remember not thinking that my bike was cold in the rain," he said, "that fish are lonely in their bowl, that leaves are frightened of heights as they fall." I asked if Allison suffered from this same condition.
"Absolutely. It's funny that you mention Pixar. One of the things I was watching around the time of this book was Wall-E, which took disgusting stuff like trash and made it beautiful in a weird way. But yes, as a person who was nerdy and shy and had trouble making friends as a little kid, I think that naturally gives you that affinity. That feeling of oh, what are you sad about?"
Allison's garbage patch -- a friend suggested he might be called "Patchy" -- is instantly sympathetic. Debris collecting underneath it forms its crab-like arms, always grasping for more. Its crooked smile is visible from above and below. Allison originally thought it might communicate by changing shape, something like you'd see while cloud-gazing. She settled on it using the slogans written on the plastic bags embedded in its body. The book almost wordless. Is it meant for children, adults, or both?
"It feels more like a children's book to me. I'm not sure why -- maybe because it's quiet, and not plot-heavy. Some of the criticisms I've gotten about it is that it's too fast. You can flip through it and get the point, so why would you come back to it? But I think back to the way I read books as a kid. I read them over and over. I read them slowly until I discovered little new things in them. I think that's fascinating for anybody."
It's an interesting problem faced by wordless comics. Without prose to slow the reader down, making them take it each word, how do you try to control the book's pace? The lush, large panels and detailed textures of I'm Not A Plastic Bag work to slow you, drawing you deep like quicksand. You can also spot particular artifacts as they move through the garbage patch: a bright rubber ducky, a goldfish in a tied-off bag...
"Detail is one of the things that probably works best for pacing," Allison says, "but there's also mood. Stuff with action and cliffhangers, that's all about plot, all driving you forward -- that increases speed. I think the fact that mine is about this quiet, still little place and awakening of this new being slows it down. But not for everybody. I think about that a lot as I hear about the book, out in the world."
Allison's art also uses collage, with overlapping textures of photographed waves, skies, and garbage. It sometimes makes the patch seem somehow more cartoonish, more loveable, like a felt puppet popping up in a neorealist drama. Collage works as an easy metaphor for how Allison feels about nature, too. Here's another one: Allison admits that when it comes to ideas, she's "terrible at throwing things away."
"I was very stubborn and slow to change. That can be a blessing and a curse. There was a lot I wasn't sure how I was going to make work in this book -- but there's a tenacity to that. You have to build this monster and make it something people care about. Make people buy that it's communicating through slogans on plastic bags and not have that weird them out or shut them down."
I'm Not A Plastic Bag is an absorbing mix of sweet and tragic. There are moments of revulsion on the page right next to the patch's hopeful, unaware smile. But while this isn't a lecture about responsible environmental stewardship, it's not toothless. We're not absolved for our part in the patch's creation just because it happens to be adorable. Like all the best monsters, it has no idea it is one. It's just lonely. It just wants more. In the end, it's another Frankenstein monster -- one with millions of misguided creators instead of just one. It has a little piece of all of us inside it.
"Yeah, I saw the parallels with Frankenstein pretty quickly," says Allison. "I've always been really drawn to that story. I feel sympathy with" -- and here she armors herself with a lilting tone of self-mockery -- "lost, discarded things."
Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia.