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“Anything That Ever Meant a Damn Took a While”: A Tribute to Octopus Pie

First off: Octopus Pie by Meredith Gran is unequivocally a modern masterpiece of the medium.

Secondly: The first time I read Octopus Pie I didn’t like it.

Okay, let me unpack. I had many false starts with Octopus Pie as a teen making my first exploration into the world of webcomics but the most pointed experience I had with it came the year before I turned 20 in 2010. I was a poor-ish dropout island teen living in a small near-rural middle-of-nowhere town in a state and full-four-season climate I had never been before. The twenty-something characters in OP live in New York and had a whip-smart jaded quality to them, matching the snappy authorial voice that moved the story, a cynical quality I envied and already displayed but hadn’t really earned (that’s a teen for you). My feeling after reading a small sequence was that this comic just wasn’t for me. It was well-made but I felt uncomfortable; the hold on the characters’ voices was too smugly articulated, like the author was trying to cheekily tell me something I should already know and I’d be embarrassed if someone realized I didn’t. I was annoyed at this feeling but didn’t dig deep into the details of it so OP went on the back burner again.

Going back to the comic again after I turned 21 and started reading the newest updates, just to see how it looked because I was still ‘turned off’ by it, I realized: Octopus Pie is sincere as hell. That formalist stranglehold on the tone of the comic, the clarity of the characters’ voices and states of mind, the complex but still centered exploration of each of these characters’ trials and obstacles and love lives, they were all lucid, focused. Meredith was sharing a meditation, a reflection in real time, and delivered it unclouded by any extraneous detail that would water down the experience or make it narratively cleaner or more comfortable. It was pared down to the essentials, took brief meandering breaks and comedic breathers when needed, exactly how good writing should be.

After I got the distance required to read this comic, the distance from teen to adult, I finally knew what previously made me uncomfortable. It was the genuine love for these painful and awkward experiences, for young people grappling with what adulthood means, vying for adventure or romance or a career and failing miserably or sabotaging themselves out of fear. Not a masochistic love but an appreciation that these are the things that shape us, these modern rites of passage that cobble us together into being a full self. It was cheeky but earnest and candid, not sarcastic and jaded even if her characters felt that way. I had been too close to this when I tried to read it at first. I knew the ways I was making myself fail and wouldn’t stop and it was embarrassing and I hated it. Meredith cut those feelings out with a laser and put them under a microscope and told me, “Yeah, same.” The things I was experiencing were clichéd growing pains that all young adults go through and I was bitter in my immaturity. I think I thought she said those things without cost, because they felt so harsh to my younger self, which in retrospect is definitely an adolescent ‘woke baby’ mid-2000s-Tumblr way of engaging with a story, as if I could measure her rights to these thoughts and feelings through the bridge of her work. (To digress, this is still a pretty prevalent way of engaging with a creative work, to my chagrin.) But of course truth is never without cost. I just wasn’t old enough to realize it at the time.

Finally I took the plunge and started reading through Meredith’s extensive archives, getting to know Eve and Hanna, Marek and Marigold, Park and Olly. I got to read through Meredith’s format changes, medium changes, breaking into more metaphorical imagery, laugh as her gags became dynamically abstract and digressive at the perfect moments. My heart got to clench up during bitter break-ups, awkward attempts at friendship, heart-to-heart talks with parent characters, and longtime friends overcoming relationship hurdles or crashing headlong into them. There are a lot of characters that flow in and out of the story, carefully made to stay thematically on point while still playing to their personalities, never forced into corners where only hammy writing will get them out.

On top of all this, Meredith’s cartooning is world class. She made strong style choices from the start, building up her visual vocabulary into a fantastic set of storytelling tools that have only expanded as the story has progressed. As previously mentioned, she’s fearlessly experimented with page size, rigorously pushing each format until it felt like she’d expended its potential and then tried something new. The last few arcs of OP are sprawling and all-encompassing on the screen, letting the scroll pull you through decompressed character moments or jump through a non-linear sequence of memories. One of my favorite scrolling page moments is on pages 704-714 where the best (only?) depiction of a song-and-dance sequence literally gave my cartoonist-heart such a thrill, like I could hear the music as the character was singing.

I got to help Meredith take a stab at coloring OP regularly back in 2014, but quickly was overtaken by someone who was bolder with their rendering choices while I was unsure about coloring more traditionally cartoony characters and kept my work flat. Valerie Halla, a cartoonist who comes from a stylistically similar angle, started coloring in 2015 and added an incredible vibrancy to Meredith’s pages, coloring work that I would call some of the best in the medium to date. Valerie wasn’t afraid to cast Meredith’s figure with abstract harsh illumination or soft shadows and the backgrounds, even when minimal, just glow and refract with constant light. They also started coloring in word balloons which is not something I’d ever seen practiced regularly in a comic and it absolutely added an extra layer of atmosphere to the page. I wonder why more artists don’t take advantage of that.

I could talk all day about OP and honestly this write-up barely scratches the surface of what I love about it. I feel like once you accept the terms of engagement, its unchecked sincerity and playfulness (something I feel like is missing with readers today and understandably so), it truly is a deeply moving reading experience. Meredith has been ahead of the game since she started back in 2007 and she didn’t just maintain her pace but built on it with every page, every story arc and joke. How many artists can say that? Meredith is now going on tour with the final volume of Octopus Pie, printed by Image, and I honestly can’t wait to see what an artist of her magnitude does next. Thank you for the years of beautiful, heart-wrenching work Meredith, you’ve left an indelible mark on the medium that will not be soon forgetten.

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