Leslie Stein is part of a new strain of autobiographical cartoonists who inject a strain of magical realism into their work. That's been true for her book/mini series Eye of the Majestic Creature, where she refers to herself as Larrybear and lives with anthropomorphic musical instruments. Her technique is fanatically labor-intensive, as she uses a stippling method to go along with lissome lines in creating a highly detailed but fanciful version of her mostly nocturnal existence. Her new book, Bright-Eyed at Midnight, is a sort of strange, inverted version of her other comics. Her usual work is in black and white, but her new book is structured around her use of watercolors and colored pencils. Her old work was heavily line-dependent, but her new work is built around color formed around the wisps and hints of lines, using negative space to nudge the reader into creating fully-textured drawings. Finally, while she put up a fictive veil in EOTMC, she rips that barrier away in BEAM, using the structure of the daily journal comic's in media res qualities to more directly engage her own personal narrative.
The ongoing theme of Stein's comics is her simultaneous attraction and repulsion to others. In both cases, the reason seems to be an existential one, in that their existence clearly lies outside her own. The idea of the other can be a repulsive one at its core because it punctures well-worn solipsism, but it can be attractive in allowing one to explore the possibility of trying to understand and embrace those outside of her immediate senses and understanding. There's an extra layer of distance in Stein's narrative as well, since her job as a bartender (and part-time musician) means that at best she's going to lead a nocturnal existence. On top of that, this book depicts her struggles with insomnia as something that literally leaves awake in bed, staring at the ceiling.
That layer of distance is visually explored in a number of different ways. Foremost is her highly minimalist figure drawing. Her characters mostly have dots for eyes and mouths. Their heads are shaped by the color swaths Stein chooses for their hair color, with only a spare, feathery line otherwise defining it. Stein's comics have tended to portraying her as a cheerful misanthrope in part, I would guess, because of an essential lack of solidity she detects in reality and possibly even herself. The world, in Stein's eyes, seems like a ghostly, hazy strange set of phenomena, up to and including her own family. This book goes into some detail about her past and explores a number of issues relating to that feeling of being unsettled. There's one flashback sequence where she talks about memorable Christmases, including one where her mom had to go away to "a hospital" for an undetermined amount of time. When her mom came home from the hospital on Christmas day, all she wanted to do was go to sleep.
Living a nocturnal existence, serving the sorts of people who haunt bars and living with insomnia only contributes to this sort of spectral existence. Giving these figures (as well as memories of others) a frequently bright and cheerful appearance as a result of the way she uses colors reflects Stein's way of managing this disconnect between herself and others. It's a way of giving them emotional substance, appearing as colorful and cartoony figures rather than shadows. That's certainly true of her own self-caricature, which is especially remarkable. Her arms and legs are slightly loopy lines. Her hands and feet have only the slightest hints of definition; they're barely beyond starter-sketch form. Her use of detail is sparing, except when it comes to showing us what she is wearing. Every bit of detail winds up being crucial for the reader, with the slightly modulation of line frequently providing a tremendous amount of emotional input.
Despite this existential disconnect, Stein is clearly trying to work her way through it with a powerful commitment to aesthetics. In particular, Stein is devoted to recording these precious moments of connection, of experiencing something beautiful, of hearing someone say something that makes her inexplicably happy, and of days where everything seems to line up just so. Her experience of the sublime is frequently wrapped in the same shadowy nights as the nights that seem to float by aimlessly, manifest in the simple joy of using a watercolor set, playing a guitar or accessing that communal magic that can be found in a dark bar with the right combination of people and alcohol. That use of color that represents joy extends even to her lettering sometimes, as she battles back and forth with the pain of some of her memories and the frequent but fleeting joys of her daily life. In the book, the jumble of those memories is sometimes represented by splashy, splotchy paintings that attempt to represent the ways in which the moments of an experience run together, where time collapses into a series of images.
The sheen of Stein's color work also seemed to be an effective way for Stein to address her childhood. In particular, she seems concerned with identifying and redefining (through her imagery) those moments where she either felt the most alone and "othered" as well as those moments that linger so long in a child's memory, memories where she felt like she belonged or discovered something powerful. The scenes where she's learning how to use an instrument, where she's playing at a show, where she's stepping outside of her own ego and allowing herself to truly immerse herself in an event are particularly joyous. Stein is very much taking stock of her own life in this book, wondering whether or not she's actually managed to accomplish anything.
The end of the book, where she's the guest of a festival in France, pours all of her thoughts and fears expressed in the rest of the book into a single event, one that she manages to embrace despite her inner conflict. That conflict plays out in the form of whether or not it's even possible to communicate (let alone be happy), one that she fights on a constant basis by being creative. She asks not just "Is this worth my time?", but also "is anything worth any amount of time?" Why do anything at all? Stein's answer, again and again, is "because it is beautiful." Beauty creates meaning out of otherwise mundane moments, and that meaning creates bonds between those involved in the aesthetic experience. The book is not just an experiment, not just the result of a year's worth of creative output, but a record of one person's encounters with the desperation of loneliness as well as the warmth of meaningful connection. Both states are depicted in a gorgeous, heightened manner that speaks directly to Stein's approach to life.