…And oh, I’m a one-stop shop for all things Utah, that’s what I am.
Tell me, oh you Bloggers, what is it with Utah and dreams? The other day I received a PDF from one Jess Smart Smiley, an extremely likeable maker of awesome colouring posters (one may be able to get that for $12 by itself I think? But I may not be right about that) who’s written and drawn a fifteen-page comic story that I personally find extremely interesting, called A Map In The Dirt…a jarring little business that seems to begin by referencing a certain type of early twentieth-century children’s story (that — amazingly! — Jess tells me he has never heard of) much beloved of me as a boy, only picking the story up at the very cusp of doom, and salting it with…can I call them “discordant implications”?
You don’t know if you’re reading a book by a particularly-feeling hippie beating a Native drum very earnestly but rather too hard…you don’t know if you’re reading a mercilessly-tough feminist fable in which Heaven is, frankly, just more of the same only worse…you don’t know how much is intentional, and how much is unconscious. A Field Guide To Western Birds, Chatterer The Red Squirrel, Bambi, Bless The Beasts And Children, Orpheus (the opera, natch), Two Little Indians, The White Hotel, Return Of The King (“oh, Sam…Sam…” “Let me carry it for you, Mr. Frodo!”), and Six Characters In Search Of An Author gradually mix themselves up in this, as the form locks down from open pages with illustrations in them, book-like even to the archaically mechanical-looking “type” of the lettering, into something somehow more confined by the visual grammar of comics…into ink-saturated panels of slightly Satanic (or is that Mordoric) Americana, black as blood under moonlight, until from those dense boxes and increasingly-gruesome crowded close-ups exits…
As in Dave Chisholm’s work, ink is everything here, and the landscape it creates is straight out of Fantagraphics in the early Nineties…though that’s where (outside of the Utah connection) the similarites end. Raw and unapologetic, personal as a dream-diary, the craft kept in the background so the cri de coeur can make its way to us more primitively, less fastidiously — more pathetically! — A Map In The Dirt is every bit as much pure “comics” (and not just cinema by another name) as Let’s Go To Utah was, but it’s much less of a story: though it’s far simpler, it’s actually far less straightforward, because the device of occlusion’s not a means in it, but an end. What’s unconscious and what isn’t? If you can read this without a slight groan escaping your lips, I think perhaps you’ll be missing half its appeal…as the sharp tang of teenage earnestness you’re forced to gulp so deeply on superficial reading is (surely?) meant to acquire a more complex, more mellow, less certain and more meaningful flavour as the notes of the art find more subtle receptors in the walls of your mouth…and even start, subtly, to look like leatherwork in places. Very conscious stuff, and yet you still don’t know, can’t know, how fully-reasoned-out it all is…how clever it is, or is it merely that the relevant symbolic vocabulary has been so thoroughly imbibed by the artist that he can make it by nothing more than doing? Jess tells me he’s never read the Field Guides (what?!), never read Chatterer or Reddy or Mother Westwind’s “How” Stories, never read weird old Ernest Thompson Seton...he said (I think) that he’d never thought of the “leatherwork” aspect of the ink-heavy art…and yet the vision of the neo-mythological West he draws is so dependent on all of these things that I think this may be the story’s greatest accomplishment, to deploy that stuff with such total determination, but with so little positive intention. You should think “oh God how old is this kid”, before you hit something that makes you realize “whoa…this isn’t a kid doing this at all, is it?”
Not to say it’s all consciously thought-out. But it’s a deceptively strong offering. The form of the drawing closes around the reader as the story itself does, mirroring the effect of only having grabbed onto the guide-rope midstream, at a moment (and a picture!) of profound grief that has to earn its emotion fast…not knowing, but only guessing, at what’s going on, and how seriously are we to take these forms, these fetishes, these tricks and trompes l’oeil…and then as already mentioned, by the time the story overcomes its own lacunae, by the time the train of story has resolved itself into little boxes all strung together like a chute, that finally empties out someplace like a train going off a trestle…
…And then suddenly we just aren’t anyplace, and it isn’t that we don’t know what the moral is — because we so DO! — but it’s that we find our expectations have been, not frustrated exactly…
…But sidetracked. Or…what would be a word, not for going off onto a side track, but having started on a side track and then made our way onto the main one?
Is that what the word should be?
Let me just talk about one of my own specialties, for a moment: by saying that the mythic logic of A Map In The Dirt is so impeccably predictable that one can hardly believe it could’ve come from anything but an actual dream, or anything but an actual super-calculated effort of craft. Of all the animals that ancient peoples made into their gods, Deer is the one most associated with inheritance, transformation, and dream…and Deer’s our main character here, duplex as both Orpheus and Apollo, both shown the future world of the starry stratum overlying our Earth, and simultaneously showing it. Deer, the “fugitive stag” of emotion and desire, the living Door To Heaven (so hard to catch!), isn’t a trickster, isn’t a psychopomp, isn’t a master of language and magic, isn’t a Jungian archetype, but is instead an emblem of human fate, human change, and human freedom. The hunter who slays the deer has turned into something else himself, than what the deer symbolizes in the human imagination; has experienced the termination of the fantasy of the chase in which hunter and hunted are one, and must cope with the necessity of having carried things through to a conclusion…but then eating the deer’s flesh restores his access to the spirit of possibility that the termination of the chase seemed to annihilate. Hey, don’t shoot the messenger, Bloggers…! “Deer” of whatever kind have been THE game animal of us humans since we were even such a thing as humans…between humans and deer lies a devotion that’s rivalled by no other relationship, not even the one between humans and dogs. Because deer are free, and dogs are not, and there is no such thing as a human being that has ever been domesticated…we’re all wild specimens, we’re all what zoologists are always looking for in other species: the pure unaltered “wild type”…
The creatures of the river of life that (some say) fled south down the canyon of ice, the Cordilleran Passage, tens of thousands of years ago…and dragging us along in its wake, at least us Westerners…
…So maybe we’re all, at heart, Westerners?
Well, not me, of course: I’m about as white as you can get without being an actual Swedish nanny for a wealthy colonial English banker. Just four generations removed. But look at those old National Geographic maps of human migrations, and you’ll see there are just three main “rivers” out of Africa…and the west part of North America is where they all, finally, meet. Three separate Big Stories…
…And then look what happens.
Bird gets killed, laid out lovingly on the page…and Bear dwindles away, unspun and unravelled like a child’s toy, like a child’s imagination itself, like a friendly monster come to nothing…and even Fox dies, for heaven’s sake! But in the one absolutely electrifying (and wordless) image in A Map In The Dirt, it’s Snake who lives long enough to draw, in one motion, two maps…one to death, and one to freedom. Well…
They’re the same map!
Fascinatingly, the “deer role” is taken over here, by the most alimentary and time-reversible animal of all…the oracular animal. Of course that’s the normal role of the deer — the normal role of the human heart, eh? — that’s found in silence, stealth, mute communion, tracks left, absences needing to be filled, pregnant shadows in the forest, hints and sublimations. After all it’s deer that human beings have prayed to the most, over our million-year history, just for some little sign…
…And we’ve usually gotten it, but here we are “Deer”, and so we can’t do any of that — because when we are Deer, our gods are absent, and can’t leave us any tracks to follow. And of course ordinary deer, of all creatures, don’t need maps…
…So it’s a very desperate plea indeed, from the animal that was once the silent and oracular one, to the only animal in this story that can’t speak, can barely express at all…the voice at the very bottom of the chain of being, but maybe that’s the point…
…For just one small miracle, before everything gets burned down, even to the ground, and there’s nothing left at all.
And so here’s how the map works:
When we can’t find the deer in the forest, at least we can always find them in the constellations in the sky.
Except that’s not what this comic tells us.
So, is it an environmentalist story? Actually, I think it is…but not for the reasons that practically leap out at you on first glance. Not for the earnest teenage reasons.
Well, it was not written by an earnest teenage man, was it?
No triumphant Eagles here, son; just a real-life ending.
That somewhat puzzles the will.
I liked it. It was weird, and somewhat nice: hopeful amongst all the doom, and yet the doom got its fair say too. So please do go look at my new friend Jess’ stuff in the links up above, won’t you Bloggers? I will tell you that A Map In The Dirt may not be to everyone’s taste…but I thank my lucky stars that once again I’ve been privileged to run into a talented and enthusiastic young cartoonist on the Internet. God bless all its many cables, seriously.
“But Apollo, why have you shown me these things?”
Because they will be yours one day, Orpheus.
Not every story ends the way we think it will — not every story ends the way the weight of logic says it must. Though the Gods know the future, we don’t…and in fact even the Gods may ass that up.
Because they’re idiots.
And thank goodness for that. Because it leaves our lives open-ended.
Peace out, folks. Go to your families. Start a fire.
I started one already, tonight.