On the title-page spread of Julia Gfrörer’s new book Black Is the Color, long, curving strands of line emerge thickly from the bottom of the left page and ramble up and across the facing page. Some strands disappear off the edge of the book; others wander toward the top, like vines reaching for sunlight, finding their terminus midway up the page. The fine, sinuous lines easily resemble waves of hair—many of Gfrörer’s female characters possess fluid tresses—but they also take on the appearance of waterways, as seen from above: the oxbows and meanders formed by a river’s patient flow, or the fingered currents of river sediment as it spills into the sea.
Water and time are the basic elements of the story in Black Is the Color, which involves a young sailor, named Warren, set adrift in the ocean in a small boat. Starving and alone (his likewise marooned compatriot dies quickly and is dispatched overboard), he is visited periodically by a mermaid, who provides him with companionable conversation and sex. Warren’s moments in the boat take up roughly a third of the book and are concentrated in two long sections, set, as the rest of the book is, in a six-panel grid. Many of these pages contain little or no dialogue and show Warren alone in the boat or being comforted by the mermaid, Eulalia; these particular pages draw out the passing of time, slowing it and pitting the finiteness of human life against the perpetuity of the ocean. (Gfrörer’s sense of pacing is superb—her panels advance patiently, so that the dread of her endings has the controlled pluck of a Twlight Zone episode.) Eulalia is Warren’s only reprieve from these interminable stretches: she helps carve out brief moments of humanity for him. In one such instance, she encourages him to relate the tale of his first tryst with another sailor. “What was it like?” she asks, and he tips his head back and closes his eyes thoughtfully, as though imagining himself in that moment. Over the next three panels, Gfrörer subtly alters Warren’s expressions as he moves through the memory, before concluding, with a painful, faraway look, “It was sweet.”
Eulalia’s sincerity in attending to Warren, however, proves unreliable. His limbo on the water’s surface is countered by underwater scenes of Eulalia and her friends chatting blithely about everyday things. The contrast between the pages describing Warren’s monotony and those illustrating the mermaids’ socializing is striking. In one of two such passages, Warren vomits blood over the side of the boat and succumbs to starvation; on the ocean floor below, Eulalia is discussing the finer points of noise music while feasting on lobster. In the other sequence, three mermaids and two mermen gather to watch a ship (presumably the one from which Warren was cast off) wracked by a storm. “Did it start already?” asks one, before being shushed, as if the group has sat down to a film in a darkened theater. But in fact, Gfrörer depicts the scene just so: the five heads—seen from behind, in the foreground—bob in the vast, dark water as though appearing just above the backs of movie-theater seats; their gazes are focused on the ship tossing on the horizon ahead of them, which jostles from panel to panel like an image on a screen. “I saw one that took almost a week once,” recalls a mermaid, as the ship burns and begins to sink. It’s human tragedy as light entertainment.
Black is the color of Gfrörer’s humor. In the above sequence, the trio of mermaids, Eulalia among them, teasingly picks out boyfriends for one another on the burning ship. “That’s Julilla’s boyfriend,” declares one. “Over there. He’s on fire.” Jullila protests, so they select a fitter specimen, one with “at least some hair on his chest … like that one hanging from a rope.” Their insouciant flirting from afar is at once familiar and unsettling: they behave like a group of young women spotting cute boys at the mall, yet the fact that they’re playing lover to dying men is macabre. Gfrörer’s balances these two aspects with aplomb, here and in her other work. The moments are legitimately comic, but grotesquely so. When Warren first introduces himself to Eulalia, she responds, “Dead men don’t have names.” The next panel shows the two looking at one another, and in the third panel, Warren replies, “I hate your sense of humor.” The dialogue-less panel in between acts as a beat just before the punch line, providing space for the joke to accumulate. But then, in a fourth panel, Gfrörer upends the harmless exchange, as Eulalia tells the forsaken man, “At least I have one.”
Black is also the color of the unknown, a key element in Gfrörer’s comics. When Warren, in the throes of despair, takes comfort at Eulalia’s breast (it’s ambiguous whether it’s for sex or hope of nourishment, or perhaps a little of both), he draws back in horror when her milk comes out black. What partly makes Gfrörer’s stories so successful is that she doesn’t employ the supernatural for its own ends, but rather as a means of teasing out the human side of the narrative, bringing it into high relief. Warren’s reaction to the above encounter with Eulalia is to recall something that helps him regain his bearings, if only momentarily: “My wife won’t like this.” Calling upon the disapproval of his wife in what is truly an unusual situation seems to give Warren a sense of resolve he had been losing. His relationship with that tether is interesting to trace through the story. Midway, he seems to have abandoned it, when tells Eulalia that “there’s no home for me there. Everything solid and predictable.” Sex with Eulalia becomes a kind of metaphor for his straying not from his marital promises, but from the reality and hope that he once knew, a way of pushing past those boundaries and past despair as well, into a new and unknowable state of mind.
The strength of Gfrörer’s stories also lies in the distance she maintains from her characters, letting them behave as they will. For this reason, too, the supernatural elements blend seamlessly into her narratives. The first time the reader sees Eulalia’s razor-sharp teeth, for instance, is when she tells Warren that she loves him. Such a threatening attribute is unexpected, and revealing it during a tender moment creates a startling effect; Eulalia is transmuted from woman to something else while maintaining a connection to her role, for Warren, as female comfort. Gfrörer’s art is full of such electrifying details, and in this book, her line has a particular clarity and delicacy and an expanded range of expression (it reminds me a bit of Egon Schiele’s contours, especially the bony, fragile fingers and lean faces). Through it, she evinces a kind of sympathetic cruelty toward her characters, leaving open the possibility of hope for them beyond the book’s pages.