Restraint can be a marvelous thing. Not that you’d necessarily know that’s where things were headed from Interiorae‘s opening image, a striking full-page splash of a lovely, pale, topless woman looking at herself in the bathroom mirror. All the bright white skin of her back and legs, the unyielding grid of the bathroom tile, the intimate gesture of her hand awkwardly touching her own face … the effect is dazzling. Such moments do indeed dot Gabriella Giandelli’s graphic novel, collected from its earlier incarnation as part of Igort’s troubled but unfailingly gorgeous Ignatz line of deluxe pamphlet-format comics, but none of the others (save one — more on that anon) have that opening-page shock value. Rather, whether it’s a David B. style Native American dreamscape, or a lavishly depicted double-page snowstorm spread with huge blobby snowflakes drifting downward, or a huge ever growing pulsating blob that rules from the basement of the apartment complex, they come across simply as more vivid manifestations of the dreamlike haze that permeates every quiet, pencil-shaded page. That initial jolt was just enough to snap you out of the real world and into the reverie.
Using a mystical cartoon white rabbit as a sort of spirit-slash-tour guide — half Virgil, half Harvey — Interiorae depicts the discrete, discreet lives of various residents in an apartment building, whose dreams fuel a big, whiny black blob called the Great Dark One that lives in the basement and serves as the building’s heart and soul. The patina of magic realism enlivens the slice-of-lifey material: an old woman dreams of making a grand exit with the help of her immigrant caretaker, a bored housewife makes a big show of cheating on her workaholic husband where everyone can see, a teenager dreams of running off to meet a rock star, a misanthropic horticulturalist alternately accepts and rejects the advances of a promiscuous and attractive neighbor, a boy whose parents are freshly and unpleasantly separated escapes into superheroes and visions of the rabbit himself. It’s familiar material. Similarly, the presentation rarely surprises on a panel-to-panel or page-to-page basis: the pencil lines and shading are always a warm gray mist amid which the faces of the characters — usually in three-quarter profile; always with big heavy-lidded eyes and long, rounded-off-rectangle noses; occasionally too similar to be discerned from one another at all — glow with the dim white aura of porch light in the fog.
But it’s not meant to be full of surprises, I don’t think. It’s meant to create and sustain an atmosphere, one of quiet and unwittingly parallel lives playing out within the closed confines of individual apartments, boxed off one from another like the grids of the windows on the cover or the tiles in the bathroom. As the rabbit floats from one to another, a sort of soporific rhythm sets in, a familiarity with the emotional and visual palette that allows individual moments to stand out. It’s not just the weird or grand stuff listed above, mind you, but thoughtful and attractive details as well: a woman sitting at a table wearing nothing but underwear and high-high heels below the waist; the barrettes in the long hair of a Richey James Edwards-style semi-drag junkie; the occasional glimpse of pop-culture signifiers, from Spider-Man to Star Wars to Radiohead.
The big tell is the “haunted” apartment, where the happy memories of a family that died together in a plane crash back in the early ’70s linger on as pseudo-ghosts. heir routine has literally remained the same for decades, and it’s marked by little moments of happiness and pleasure: the kids drawing, the mom making tea, the father listening to a Simon & Garfunkel record in his giant padded headphones. That hazy state of mind can be heaven, in other words, just as easily as it can be someone’s gray depressive purgatory.
There is one big shock, though, and unsurprisingly it’s the book’s weakest moment. Hinted at throughout by chapter headings that appear to be a countdown clock, the ending is big, and therefore comes across unearned. After methodically taking one step after the other for the rest of the story, it’s as though Giandelli stopped short of the finish line and had to leap to make it over. But even if that prevents Interiorae from feeling like a fully-formed work in the end, it doesn’t matter. Getting there was all the fun.