March 2013

Martyn Pedler

comicbookslut

I Am a Hole: Geneviève Castrée's Susceptible

When I was young, I wrote only in comic book capitals. The lettering in comics always felt alive to me in ways typesetting couldn't fathom. Isn't that why the world hates poor, desperate Comic Sans? It's a zombie font, pretending to have a life it never earned.

The first thing I noticed about Geneviève Castrée's Susceptible was the lettering: cursive and cramped. Even the publishing details inside the cover is written the same way. That's all it took to convince me I was reading her diary. "I often think about what is innate and what is acquired," she begins. "I wonder if it is possible for a sadness to be passed from one generation to the other."

Underneath the words, a small child becomes tangled in vines, brought to tears, fighting and screaming as she grows older. It's a nightmare -- more so as it happens on an otherwise empty page. But when this girl finally tumbles into a more traditional scene, in which she asks her grandmother for details of their family history, it's still adrift on a sea of white.

It's one of the most striking things about how Castrée illustrates Susceptible. She does use panels, word balloons, and elements you'd expect. Often, though, they fall away, leaving characters suspended in nothing. When backgrounds appear, they're like sets rolled out by invisible stagehands. Instead of making the story seem artificial, it works as subjective realism. Fragments of memory, recreated in ink.

Susceptible is the story of Goglu, a girl growing up in Quebec with her mother, Amere, after her father leaves them for British Columbia: "It's like a mythical kingdom where dads go to disappear." Goglu recalls the night her father sitting on his motorcycle outside, the headlights turning the rain into glowing aura. The way Castrée draws it, it could be beginning of a fairytale.

Goglu's poor enough to have to have water on cereal instead of milk; she's alone enough to get herself ready and off to school before she can read or write. Her mother's boyfriend, Amer, doesn't like her much, and complains that she says hello to him, every day, when he returns from work. As Goglu gets older, despite her best efforts to find a space for herself within the family, it's like she lives alone "with two accountants I can no longer count on."

Rather than a broad biographic sweep of this-and-this-and-then-that-happened, Castrée carefully picks her moments and lets us glue them together. Goglu catches her mother snorting coke. Goglu stays at a friend's house and sleeps in a boy's empty bed. Out at a club, Goglu lies under a table and thinks, "I am a hole." Years pass throughout the book, sometimes announced, sometimes barely noticed. Things get worse before they get better.

But even when Goglu is broken, miserable, trying so hard or giving up altogether, I never thought Castrée was trying hard to break my heart. The narration might be why. It's commenting on the past -- allowing it hilariously prescient chapter titles like "House Fire 1" -- from the safety of the future. It's detail-focused, often dryly funny, and its cursive style means you have to look closely to read it. It slows you down. It demands attention. Castrée tells all, but doesn't show all.

Some grim memories you'd expect to get the most dramatic weight are only spelled out in words. Is Castrée worried they'd read as melodrama? Are some too painful to recreate in pictures? Do words seem more concrete than images, and is that true no matter what their language? Castrée wrote Susceptible first in French, then translated it into English herself, and I wonder how those changes seeped into Goglu's story.

In the hypervisual, hyperconfessional world of comic book memoirs, it's a sweet shock to be told there's something you're not allowed to see. In a chapter titled "In Love," all we see is the outside of a pillow fort: "We draw inside of it and do other things which aren't too serious but I still want to keep them private."

In a recent interview with Chris Randle, Castrée described Susceptible as autobiography, and added that "true autobiography seems impossible once it has been put on the paper." If you think everything here is true, then yeah, it hurts all the more. But you know there's some kind of happiness waiting from the moment Goglu first begins to draw. Or if not happiness, at least the promise she will write and draw the book you're reading. She will be talented and honest and, most of all, older.

Another, earlier moment of happiness: Goglu rides to day camp, grinning, and calls out "See you guys tomorrow! Goodbye!" behind her. The page is otherwise empty. The book's worst family dramas close the page around Goglu, trapping her, infecting her; all this white space isn't loneliness or limbo. It's bliss. Just Goglu in the past and Castrée in the present. Her words thread themselves above and around the art like a lifeline.

"I discover true solitude," she writes, "and I savor it."

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia.