Ritual, for whatever reason, is an important aspect of human existence --- something that religion figured out a long time ago, certainly, but it’s not like that institution is alone: schools, factories, offices, even voluntary social groupings all rely on the subtly ritualistic aspects inherent in (or, if you prefer, resulting from) repetition and routine in order to enforce hierarchical structures and ensure allegiance. At this juncture in human history, ritual is so deeply ingrained into just about everything, so positively ubiquitous, that it almost goes unnoticed or else is, at the very least, simply taken as a given. That’s probably a real drag, when you think about it --- so maybe the answer is simply not to think about it too hard?
I’m not sure that’s the central thesis of London-based cartoonist Becca Tobin’s new Retrofit/Big Planet comic strip collection, Understanding, but the anthropomorphic blob-like creatures that populate its pages certainly adhere to this blissfully unaware worldview with something very much akin to a vengeance, shopping, partying, eating, or even watching TV as if their lives depend on it --- which, at this point, who knows? Maybe they do.
The relentless pursuit of diversion and distraction undertaken by Tobin’s protagonists can be an exhausting thing to witness, but it’s certainly never dull, narratively or visually : largely-borderless panels coalesce into intriguing page layouts that are never less than equal parts absolutely inventive yet intuitively easy to follow, while the characters themselves morph into unusual shapes and formations that are somehow consistently recognizable as being the same individuals that they were before. By and large they’re not doing anything you wouldn’t see in, say, your average Cathy strip, but Tobin (thankfully) disposes of that comic’s garden-variety neurosis and replaces it with explosions of vibrant color (okay, fair enough, except in the two-tone strips, but those are still quite effective in their own right) that reflect the deliberately, one could even argue aggressively, unconcerned outlook of the denizens of planet blob. Think of it, then, as Cathy with the consumerism dialed up to 11, then fed a couple hits of purple microdot.
Which isn’t to say that momentary doubts don’t enter the blob mind, but when they do, they tend to pass through like a summer cloud. These infrequent occurrences stand out as the least effective parts of the book, as it’s perfectly clear that Tobin is taking aim at the ultimate emptiness of what anarchist theorist Guy Debord termed “The Society of the Spectacle” without spelling it out explicitly in captions and thought bubbles, but give the cartoonist credit for at least not dwelling on it any longer than do the globular greenies themselves. “Wasn’t that cool? On to the next thing!” may not be words to live by (even if way too many people do), but in the context of a work specifically designed to throw such an ethos into sharp, if light-hearted, relief, it not only works, but any other approach would likely ring an inherently false note.
Moving outward from the main targets of Tobin’s satire toward the margins, we find specific manifestations of the greed and avarice that underpin these proceedings --- religion, capitalism, media, even just shallow people (sorry, blobs) --- coming in for some richly-earned ribbing, but nothing on offer here feels like a lecture, much less a harangue, simply because it’s all funny and eye-catching. Hell, most of these stories are downright celebratory, and the few that are less so still look like they are. If Tobin’s observational skills weren’t as shrewd, one might even be able to advance an argument that the underlying message embedded throughout this work is “hey, look, if the whole world’s headed down the tubes anyway, we might as well enjoy the ride.”
Artifice, acquisition, and gluttony are easy enough concepts to shower with disdain, of course, especially when they become ritualized norms, but Understanding does something entirely different by acknowledging the inherent appeal of this ritualization while refusing to either take it too seriously or let it off the hook. It’s another strong addition to Retrofit/Big Planet’s already-stellar 2018 slate of releases and establishes Becca Tobin as a unique cartooning talent well worth keeping an eye on from this point forward.