Suzette Smith’s Ce/Ze, an entry in the Sparkplug Books Minis Series, follows two adolescent girls with a possible psychic link, both convinced they knew one another in a past life and both troubled by flashes of a fateful car crash. The comic’s cover features the girls, Amelia and Honey, on its back and the girls’ earlier incarnations as “Ce” and “Ze” on its front, with the spheres that contain each pair overlapping along the comic’s spine. This quality, or experience, of doubling extends to the reading of Ce/Ze. The book’s most satisfying and most vexing aspects can be explained in similar terms, though the measure of the best parts is likely to stay with readers longer.
Ce/Ze is the type of work that prompts questions about how elliptical a story should get, and what amount of meaning a storyteller can expect her readers to create. Smith’s comic takes a number of leaps and includes a few gaps as it depicts Amelia and Honey’s pursuit of understanding. Near the beginning of the story, Amelia speculates that they might be aliens, but when a later page hints that fairies might have a part in the girls’ backstory, the reader may wonder if he or she has missed a step. The upside of this is the comic’s ability to surprise readers from beginning to end; it’s unpredictable and associative at all times.
One page early in Ce/Ze, part of a conversation about the girls’ possible shared history, uses both the comic’s storytelling jumps and its ability to surprise to full effect: the top two tiers address outright the car accident that haunts the girls, while at bottom, Honey asks her friend, “Do you want to see a dance I made up?” and, just as quickly, “Do you ever smell blood in the halls?” The sequence is windy and evocative, abrasive and inviting all at once. Near the comic’s end, a similarly jolting pair of pages appears: as the girls hike through a forest, Ce/Ze switches to an all-black background and flashes to either an ancient civilization or an alien society with Classical trappings—an enjoyable boost to the story’s momentum.
Smith’s line work and compositions are appropriately floaty throughout Ce/Ze, given the haze through which her subjects view the past, and sometimes powerfully so. On the comic’s first page, Smith creates a prelude to the car accident, with the glow from a car’s headlights traveling gas-like from one panel to the next. Though readers don’t see the other vehicle involved, save for its own headlights, the scene conveys both the moods of the characters involved and the danger they don’t know to expect.
On a later page, Smith’s fluid style renders not only the characters’ subjectivity and the hazards facing them but the story’s converging of worlds as well. While Amelia describes a dream to Honey, readers see what looks like the strap of a car safety belt (the substance of one timeline) double as the sword of a figure menacing Amelia (the substance of another). This too provides a welcome jolt, though not all of the comic’s movement-heavy sequences work so well. Smith’s cartooning is sometimes loose to the point of inconsistent anatomy or a murky staging of movement. In the case of an earlier spread, one involving an ominous figure entering a girl’s head a during sleepover game, both the magnitude of the threat and the beat-by-beat contents of the panels would be clearer if drawn in a tighter line.
One place where the story’s perils are unmistakable is its cover. Here, Smith colors the spaces encircling her characters as twin pink moons, surrounded by a violent red. The characters’ psychic duress is immediately clear, and though this urgency bleeds into the comic’s interiors, the black gouache of most pages doesn’t always sustain it quite as well. Critiquing the comic on these grounds may not be entirely fair; black-and-white interiors aren’t always a limitation that an artist chooses, especially not in the narrow-margin world of alternative cartooning. And yet the book’s exterior is striking enough to invite speculation about how much more affecting Ce/Ze would be in the four-color mode. As-is, the comic at least sports a cover that establishes its tone with real vividness.
Comparing a story to a dream is a critical cliché, no two ways about it, but sometimes the description fits. In this case, it’s inclusive of both the plot of Ce/Ze and the experience of engaging with it. The contents of each new spread are impossible to guess in advance of turning the page. Even when a sequence doesn’t land, it reads as distinct and personal, and the most compelling parts are compelling indeed.