Earthling by Aisha Franz, translated by Helge Dascher
Aisha Franz's Earthling starts off with a sequence I found completely thrilling, and it's pitched at a very low key. A young girl sees a balloon floating through the sky, then puts on rollerblades to follow it through the streets of her suburb. The softness of Franz's pencil drawings telegraphs the quiet of these spaces, and her approach to moment-to-moment storytelling communicates some of the joy of movement, and the overall feeling of melancholy this combination evokes is felt perfectly. We follow each instant's shifting into another smoothly, so that when Franz draws an image that takes up a page all by itself, it feels like we are opening up onto vistas that are huge and mysterious. When one of her characters stands in a field and is suddenly dwarfed by its scale, we feel how their external actions have registered as changes internally.
Her characters, here, are a family of three: a mother and two daughters, one teenage, one prepubescent. We see these women, each in their own rooms, left unattended to dwell in their fantasies. The teenager sits and self-consciously fidgets, changing her clothes, until arriving at an idealized image for herself: lying in bed topless with a cigarette smoldering in one hand, sunglasses resting atop her head, and music playing on the stereo. Later it's shown that this image is compositionally similar to a poster hanging outside, on the bedroom door her mother hesitates to knock on. Her mother's fantasies are predicated on regret, of an early pregnancy bringing on an unhappy marriage with a man who's largely absent. Meanwhile, in the bedroom of the younger daughter, an E.T. movie poster hangs, inspiring a romanticization of all that could be out in space and come to visit.
We see these fantasies enacted, we see the alien visitor come to Earth and hide in the youngest sister's room, we see the mother argue with the self she could've been. We also see, in a standout sequence, the teenager fall into a dream, when, with a childhood friend, she stumbles through a pipe into drawings cuter and more like a children's book. Here their bodies are distorted, with larger eyes, and animals are anthropomorphized. Her friend frolics, but she becomes uneasy with the world she's fallen into. Nostalgia holds no appeal for her. What she wants is to be older, an adult, to be brought into the world of sex. She has seen teens on TV declare themselves "not ready," and responded with "fuck that!" What she wants is for time to speed up. But Franz's approach to timing, as well-done comics do, places us continually in the present, in time's smooth segue from one moment into the next.
Such shifts in style to describe a dream are reminiscent of Olivier Schrauwen's comics, collected in The Man Who Grew His Beard, which explore the contrast between the lived realities of middle-aged men and their private fantasies. Partly, this stems from the similar way Franz and Schrauwen draw faces, particularly in sequences shown as being on television, where the lines are cleaner and unsmudged. This slight shift in style captures the way the eye sees a screen, glowing with light, as opposed to how the physical world reflects the sun and catches shadows. Locating certain sets of images within the realm of television delineates the distinction between fantasies and reality by showing specifically how these women arrived at the fantasies in their head. While Schrauwen uses phantasmagorical color to sell the vividness of his hallucinatory sequences, Franz keeps things restrained within the greys of graphite. Her more subtle contrasts are less interested in the argument that escapes into fantasy are fun and necessary, and more about the feeling of "whoa, what happened" upon return to reality.
This attentiveness means that the moments of naturalism work better than the moments more attuned to imagined inner worlds. A scene of the mother, confronting an alternate self viewed on a television, seems one of the book's less unique moments, in that it seems specifically reminiscent of Requiem for a Dream. Meanwhile, the sequences of her taking care of things around the house, peeling potatoes, cutting onions, and succumbing to a fit of rage upon accidentally breaking glasses as she removes them from the dishwasher, feel more like a comics equivalent of Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, which, for all its rarity, strikes me as essentially original, and completely compelling. Focusing on smaller subjectivities leads to noting how perceptions transform surroundings. Early, we see the daughter in the streets during the day, later we see her mother, standing in her yard, looking into the same streets at night. At other points we see each daughter wash up in the bathroom, at separate moments charged with separate meanings.
This attention to small details that accumulate to create portraits of both childhood and the activity of the household itself, remind me of Ramon Zürcher's film The Strange Little Cat. The moment that stayed with me from that film was of a game of Connect Four where the grid of the game board was shot through with natural light from a window. To describe such things in words might seem the height of boredom, and I can imagine that if these works weren't so fast paced, to record such quiet moments could become tedious. But the high points of this book, for me, are the ones that similarly capture the quality of light, and it is in other moments, when Doris is diving into her television, or Mädchen is hiding an alien inside her room, that I found my attention drifting.
These moments that play out in privacy are meant as further elaborations of each character's internal logic, and do not necessarily interfere with the lives of others. Their ambiguity doesn't play as well, I think, specifically because it is unclear how we are supposed to take them, and the strength of the book's storytelling is in how fully it inhabits each moment. Having certain scenes that can either be interpreted as "really happening" or "only imaginary" reads as a reticence. That this deviation from the book's strength of storytelling seems to be a major part of its intention, a move towards novelistic structure away from the anecdotal, is disappointing. On her website, there are plenty of Franz's short stories that inhabit their own dream logic perfectly, but here, she excels at the observational, and seems particularly attuned to the way people, particularly self-conscious young people, seek to mirror the images they see. In this, her first graphic novel, it seems like the image she's inherited from the outside world is that of a form of literature which runs counter to her eye's own instincts. While scenes of Mädchen playing around with an alien may distract from scenes of her sliding down a staircase's banister, I am still taken in by the latter enough that I found the overall experience of Earthling very enjoyable, and would recommend it on the strength of the merits that come to it most naturally.
Earthling by Aisha Franz, translated by Helge Dascher
Drawn & Quarterly