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Symbol Reader Symbol Reader

The Art of Divination

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Many fortune-telling disciplines rely on the reader’s ability to distill disparate symbols into a coherent narrative whole. The tarot reader, the palmist, or the astrologer does not read only the individual signs but their relationship to one another, allowing the elements of the story to speak first one at a time and then in chorus, discerning which aspects dominate and which support or detract, until the quintessence of the thing to be read reveals itself fully, and this is the skill from which this column wryly takes its name. As comics readers we practice a similar art. Presented with a series of self-contained images and the knowledge that they relate to one another in some way, we insert ourselves into the spaces between the panels, and our minds form the bridge that reveals why they’re there together. A comic only “happens” through our participation.

Some languages depend more heavily than others on sequence to convey meaning. Word order in Latin is fungible because each word in a sentence is inflected to denote its role: “Agricolam amat puella” and “puella amat agricolam” are the same, since the accusative “-am” ending indicates the recipient of the verb’s action. In English, word order is more important: “the girl loves the farmer” and “the farmer loves the girl” describe different matters entirely. The syntax of comics is expressed through order, proximity, and repetition: we learn what an image is doing on the page almost entirely by examining its position among its neighbors. Not all cartoonists draw attention to this–in fact many labor to make the psychological interval between each panel as unobtrusive as possible. In Aidan Koch’s “Configurations” the interval is central, impossible for the reader to ignore, and in a sense that’s what this comic is actually about: the struggle to glean narrative significance amid disparate objects and incidents, the search for a meaningful story arc within seemingly random events.

Like a series of poker hands, the first half of “Configurations” comprises fifteen images, dealt and re-dealt into twelve different three-panel strips. We learn their language as we read it, each sequence both illuminated by, and retroactively shedding light on, its predecessors. The only other context we have for the strips is that each has a cryptic phrase printed vertically after it, the one element the series that doesn’t seem to be hand-drawn in pencil, so that it appears less as a title than a label, like the name of an I Ching hexagram. In the second half, the three-panel strips are presented differently: gutters and panel borders thicken, the text has been absorbed within the panels, and each panel is unique. Another stylistic difference supplies the strongest clue to the significance of the shift: here the text is written in the first person. The latter half of “Configurations” is a transmission from an interior meta-monologue, commenting on the events of the first half.

configurations2“Two Doves” introduces the initial series. The first and third panels of this strip suggest landscapes, mountains over lakes, and in the center two women embrace. One’s expression is serene, eyes closed, and the other gazes thoughtfully at her companion or beyond her, lips pressed to her shoulder. The title implies that they’re lovers. Their position, flanked by scenes of wilderness, points to their isolation, and the nature of that wilderness is one of disparate elements, which here may converge, but can never unite. Doves, through flight, escape these constraints, but only temporarily. The thoughtful woman, reflecting on this arrangement from within it, is our protagonist.

Next a woman reclines, surrounded by dark hair, staring forward, toward the right of the page. The following two panels are identical dappled abstractions, maybe shadows thrown across a wall or the static of the woman’s troubled mind–the title, “Visions in a Mirror,” implies that she sees herself in their consistent irregularity. Next “A Spy” descends a staircase, then freezes. (We recognize the spy as the protagonist because her sandals, like her face in the first strip, point left.) There is “Solstice,” a turning-point interval between two epochs, where the spy looks out at us, bookended by what appear to be cloud forms (one of those includes an inset botanical image). In “Shot With Arrows” we see the spy and the object of her piercing stare: the reclining woman, first in her familiar form, and then larger than life, a Diana crowned with an inconstant crescent moon. “The Party” and “Nostalgic Landscape” draw that incident out again: the spy now surrounded by her beloved’s room and her own frozen feet, then lingering sentimentally, or obsessively, on the post-solstice clouds and hills.

“Long Red Hair,” as this writer knows too well, denotes a lascivious or hot-tempered woman, and if the noun is intended to be singular this phrase evokes the residue such a woman leaves in her wake. (Again: ask me how I know.) In this strip, preceding the staircase and the watching woman, we see a new image for the first time: subdivided into four quadrants, each filled with a different abstract pattern (the top right includes a silhouette which, appropriately, suggests a two-faces/vase illusion). This panel dominates the final strip of the first series, and we’ll interrogate it more closely there. For now, we can only observe that two of the quadrants mimic the texture of the pavement at the top of the staircase, and all four seem to be things seen from too close, blown up until they lose their identity. In “Lanterns,” the period of waiting and brooding is finally at an end: at last the lovers embrace.

configurations3“The Islands” returns to the desolate landscapes of “Solstice” and “Two Doves,” the title now reenforcing the isolation these images evoked when we saw them first. In “Intimate Longing” one woman waits, fingers pressed to her temple, as she did in “Lanterns,” but this time the awaited tryst never transpires, just the now-familiar scenes of water, mountain and sky, always touching, never merging.

The final strip of this first series, “Equator,” returns to the quartered first panel of “Long Red Hair,” but this time the image, at first oriented as we expect, rotates back and forth, its eponymous midpoint upended. This strip is a microcosm of our progress through first part of the comic as a whole: the individual images are indistinct, but repeated, rearranged, recontextualized among themselves, they begin to communicate something beyond the specific. The narrative up until this point has been a search for meaning among indirect and unclear portents, and so of course it describes a romance–the type of story we struggle to reconstruct from slim and fleeting glimpses, only understood after the fact.

Throughout our reading so far, the iconic images at the bottom of the page have beckoned from the periphery, and now that they can be read in earnest, they confirm the suspicion of romance: we land first on a small, densely-colored broken heart. The sudden directness of this symbol, when it appears, is startling. A white cat glances over its shoulder at the heart, and since its gaze is towards the left, it can be linked with the protagonist. Next there’s a single spade on a leash, or else fishhook’s barb (the ace of spades is the highest-ranking card in the deck, and spades are sometimes called “black hearts,” so the gesture towards ownership is probably in vain), and finally a right-gazing black cat reclines below the words: “I don’t trust her.”

configurations4The next few icons resist identification. They imply shadows, works of art, an artist’s tools, numerical and alphabetic forms, and they feel specific: this numeral 5 doesn’t mean the “idea” of five, the way the broken heart in the previous strip meant the idea of brokenheartedness. This five is unique, having been seen somewhere in the world, as an apartment number, the name of a train car, or (since it occurs in a panel also containing the second half of the phrase “some times”) a numeral from a clock face. The images are beginning to defy symbolism, they no longer refer to ideas accessible to us as strangers and observers, they refer only to themselves, with significance only to the narrator who experienced them. “It never mattered,” the text continues. The very process of interpretation is undermined when objects slip free of the universal, returning to the phenomenal, quotidian, and unique.

The reclining woman appears once more, the shadows that surround her peeling off and shifting into new, jagged forms, with the words, “I guess I didn’t know.”  More callbacks follow: first the mirror referenced in the second strip’s title, then a familiar french curve, and then the phases of the moon, now expanded beyond the crescent from the reclining woman’s hair. The caption, “It was like her face changed,” reminds us that the objects pictured, like the subject of the description, are not what they first appeared to be–or perhaps, like the moon’s mutable face, they are that but something else, too. Like the mirror, like a work of art, the moon is a reflector, unable to reveal itself but shining with light from without, and it seems the object of the spy’s affection is the same, made superhuman only by an observer’s gaze. At last context is provided for the repeated “Equator” panel: it shows ceramic vases with different decorative glazes, and perhaps the contrasting dull texture of the identical clay beneath. “Ultramarine,” they are labelled, and “cobalt blue”: visually-indistinguishable deep blues with entirely dissimilar chemical compositions.

Finally there is a harp, smiling lips, an Easter lily (the botanical inset from an earlier cloud panel), a backwards-looking eye, and once more the broken heart, this time above the words, “I will only tell you about all the beautiful things.” The pursuit of meaning has been abandoned altogether; here, at the end of the story, the narrator explains her intentions to us overtly for the first time. The account of the affair she has presented to us refuses to validate what we think we know about how comics, narratives, or romances work: she will not allow her love story to be ours. Telling us only about what is beautiful, she removes the narrative artifice, leaving only the awareness that all narrative is a construction, imposed by overreaching minds desperate for order and reason in a world that offers none. The beautiful things, the individual visions and moments, stripped of futile attempts at interpretation, are the only things that were ever real.

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