Reviews

Cyclopedia Exotica

Cyclopedia Exotica

Aminder Dhaliwal

Drawn And Quarterly

$24.95

268 pages

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Ok, you know how the X-Men fails as a metaphor for the civil rights movement because the mutants have incredible powers which make them actively dangerous to the majority of society? Or how the children’s movie Zootopia was criticized in some quarters for how, in porting human concerns over to the animal world, concepts of “predator”, which in human society are social constructs, become enshrined in biological predetermination? WHAT IF we had a metaphor for far more quotidian struggles -- not for basic civil rights, but for representation in media and not being fetishized within one’s dating pool -- and this used, as its metaphor, actual mythical creatures?

“Well that doesn’t really make any sense,” you would hopefully say, deciding not to be the author of this book. Too bad for you, as I think Aminder Dhaliwal has done pretty well for herself. In animation she’s worked as director and storyboard director for Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney Television -- the sort of resume you can easily explain to a relative -- and she's now made her second book. Her first, Woman World, was nominated for various awards and optioned for TV. Like this new book, it was originally serialized on her Instagram account, which has a blue checkmark and enough followers to make Simon Hanselmann envious. I haven’t read Woman World but I know of it. It’s a humor strip about a world without men; there’s talk of Beyoncé being great, cat ownership fulfilling emotional needs, and all women being ok with the absence of men because they all lean bi. Plenty of people out there go “I love this song! Put another one of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s greatest hits on the jukebox, baby!” I don’t feel any qualms about avoiding it, but comedy is subjective, and it’s how groups bond; if I’m not in on a joke, that’s more my loss than the fault of the teller.

I know the defense of this comic is that it is not for me. It’s not intended for an audience of cishet white men; theoretically, it’s meant to be for everyone else. Note the book’s dedication, “to those who don’t feel seen.” But I don’t think anyone would find the book’s extended metaphor useful.

Beyond humor, just from a general writing perspective, I don’t understand why this book begins the way it does, with a few pages of fake encyclopedia entries, that are then interrupted by a character saying it’s boring. “What a dull way to learn about a minority!” she exclaims. While I agree with the author’s acknowledgment of the flaws of the fake encyclopedia format, I have no idea why she would start the book off with a sequences of pages seemingly meant to be skimmed over and ignored before getting to the anecdotal strips that make up the bulk of the narrative. The end of the book reprises the encyclopedia format, with entries on the characters in the book, and notes explaining the author’s intentions with regards to their creation. I truly don’t understand the decision to spell out a bunch of straightforward ideas one has failed to communicate, by listing a bunch of topics the author thought characters could explore but admits she didn’t really get around to. This is labeled as an appendix, but it’s also what reaffirms the encyclopedia format that’s been ignored for hundreds of pages, and which is the source of the title, Cyclopedia Exotica.

The interrupting character gives a Cliff’s Notes at the outset, explaining that female cyclopes have one eye, one breast, and three vaginas. Thanks to the rule of threes, this has a structure recognizable as a joke one might chuckle at if delivered with panache on a podcast. A joke a few pages later, explaining that male cyclopes have two-pronged penises, is basically the same thing, but by repeating it with a slight variation it becomes apparent that this doesn’t really track to what we know about the animal kingdom, where male marsupials have two-pronged penises, and females have two vaginas. This establishes a pattern where the jokes in the book, relayed over the course of two-page strips, don’t really build on each other or hew to an established logic within the world so much as they provide observational comedy riffs on situations recognizable to a middle-class audience. It’s introduced one hundred pages in that there are also cyclops dogs in this world, which seems to run counter to the whole mythos as previously established, but serves as a springboard to a small handful of bits about dog ownership that don’t particularly work.

How a gag that treats unexpected genitalia as a punchline twice within a book’s opening pages reads to audiences who are trans or intersex is probably not great, which is itself an issue when you’re trying to create an all-purpose metaphor for minorities who don’t feel represented within the larger culture. If a trans person were to interpret the bit where a gay cyclops’ self-loathing leads him to get surgery to give him two eyes and a decorative, non-functional nose, but then the donated eye goes dead and he walks around with an eyepatch, making him a cyclops again, as an attempt to describe their experience, I think they would have words for the author I won’t attempt to ventriloquize beyond “what the fuck.” (Other people I imagine would have that reaction: women who’ve had a mastectomy, trying to parse the rather prominent “one-breasted cyclops” bit.)

Maybe the only sexual identity that maps onto this is being bi. Bisexual women, sought out by straight couples for threesomes, describe what people are looking for in them as a “unicorn” — their acknowledging of their own sexuality (as romanticized by outsiders) as being analogous to a mythical creature is meant as a criticism of those couples, but Dhaliwal basically uses this comparison as the starting point of her cosmology, positing a minority and a myth as one thing. This is one of the first indications that something is fundamentally wrong with the premise.

What’s worse is the payoff to the “three vaginas” thing. One of the plotlines follows a couple where the woman is pregnant, and there’s some mythbuilding around obstetrics and anatomy, where one strip mentions, essentially as an aside, that there’s an increased rate of cyclopes dying during childbirth because their anatomy isn’t well-understood. This would seem to analogize to the increased maternal mortality rate for black mothers, which isn’t caused by any sort of difference in anatomy, but the dismissal of a mother’s subjective experienced impressions of her own body by a majority white medical system. The creation of an anatomical justification for this discrepancy strikes me as incredibly tasteless, basically reifying the social construct of racism by suggesting it is rooted in biological difference. That the allusion to a real-world horror is made in service of a sub-mediocre punchline is par for the course, but only furthers how regrettable it is.

The subject matter of people not wanting to be primarily viewed by outsiders purely through the lens of cyclopsdom fails because all we know about these characters, all that unites them, is their cyclops status, and the uniformly middle-class concerns they seek to attain. One strip follows a cyclops who’s been set up on a blind date with another cyclops, with the premise being that being cyclopes is all they have in common. In his internal monologue prior to the meeting, he hopes she shares his belief in animal rights — this is why the punchline is that she’s wearing a fur coat. But this interest of his, that he would hope to be defined by, has not been established at any point prior. The actual work to make these characters have distinct personalities seems like it hasn’t been done, in ways I assume would be more apparent to the author if she wasn’t working with this metaphor. All the cyclopes know each other, they all get invited to the other cyclopes’ art opening, even if they’ve talked about how they don’t get art.

To a certain extent, some fault must lay with the two-page strip format that dominates the book, which simply isn’t that good of a comedic rhythm. It lacks the punchiness of four-panel gags, nor does any kind of rolling comic momentum ever really build. There’s just this flabbiness that leaves room for reaction shots that accomplish nothing. The comedic timing feels indebted to television, but doesn’t provide the character work you see in a sitcom. The form is closer to TV commercials, with recurring characters comparable to the Geico cavemen, or Flo from Progressive. It feels like it’s trying to sell you insurance more than any particular joke. The observations seem trite, but somehow the overall world feels incoherent.

The page meant to represent the cover of “Playclops” magazine barely registers as a magazine cover, in the absence of any corroborating details beyond a logo’s lettering, which is not even particularly similar to the Playboy logo. No price, no cover date, no articles listed. Nor does the cover image compositionally resemble a photo in any way, as there’s no background, and the shadows underneath the figure have no relationship to anything. Similarly, the “eye chart” on the book’s first page, saying it’s presented by Drawn and Quarterly, fails to register as an eye chart because it doesn’t vary the size of the letters with each new consecutive line, instead using the same size type for four rows.

This is one place where a reader can see how a background in a more collaborative medium, of TV animation, fails Dhaliwal. The book demonstrates how professionalism in animation can translate to a painful amateurism in comics. Even the way that people are constantly gesturing with their hands, but never really interacting with their surroundings, seems like it comes from what plays as dynamic within a different medium. Her lines do not themselves seem lively or full of motion, but there’s a clean consistency to the figures. It’s not fun to look at, but it would function as an efficient storyboard for others to render in Flash.

The lettering, a font presumably made off Dhaliwal’s own handwriting, only uses one letter for each letter, rather than actually approximating the variations of handwriting by having more than one. The inconsistencies are always the same: the S is smaller than the O, etc. When there’s more words of dialogue than a panel size is designed to bear, the text shrinks. These variations are arbitrary, subject to panel size, and so nothing really gives indications of how a line of dialogue is being delivered, in terms of if one line is being said at a lower volume than another. For a reader, it’s occasionally maddening, but one can see it as her leaving space in her script for a performer to insert their own line readings. It results in a lifeless reading experience on the page.

Intermittent color is provided by Nikolas Ilic. It adds very little to the book, though it does establish that cyclopes’ skin color is either bright magenta or green, cementing the comparisons one would want to make between the character designs and Monsters, Inc. It certainly doesn’t make the book look better. I couldn’t really fathom why the color was there at all, even if at this point overseas printing is so cheap the difference between doing a book in black and white and in color is negligible from a cost perspective. The best I can tell is that the print experience of these things as books is largely inconsequential; they’re meant to be read on a tablet, and they shouldn’t be viewed within any sort of lineage of art or literature, but rather as just another slight variation in the unending deluge of content accessible on devices.

Another audience category that does not include me, that Cyclopedia Exotica might be ostensibly viewed as being for, is teenagers. I tend to presume an adult audience for pretty much anything that doesn’t make itself explicitly clear as being for kids, perhaps by way of using young people as its protagonists, but one of the many honors Woman World received was being named as a “great book for teens” by the Young Adult Library Services Association. If I were to guess at what made this, or anything else, a YA book -- while other books can feature young characters and still be adult novels -- it seems like it’s a baseline tone of reassurance. The soft guiding hand of an adult, who will offer the warm blanket of a “Yeah, so THAT just happened” after every mild dramatic irony. For those who struggle to feel “seen,” a visual language of reaction shots is provided. Perhaps because YA is a market category arrived at by book publishers -- who, in seeking an analog in comics to the simple prose of something written at a particular grade level, feel they’ve found it in a certain type of clean, animation-derived illustration style -- such comics make sense to an audience not particularly visually literate: namely, themselves.

Cyclopedia Exotica climaxes with a fake children’s book. What is accomplished, on a structural level, after being unbearably cloying for hundreds of pages of anecdotes, to conclude by affirming the value of simplistic children’s books, besides admitting that’s what the author’s been writing the whole time? The same character who sports an eyepatch after a failed surgery had previously objected to the children’s book about cyclops acceptance, then found he couldn’t write something better. The ending has him rereading the thing he rejected, as the end of the book we are now reading. This seems condescending to anyone who might be interested in what Cyclopedia Exotica itself is ostensibly doing. It’s beyond “take that, haters! If you think you can make a better book, prove it!” because this has been one of the main characters, in a book where they’re all meant to be audience surrogates, that is having his objections marginalized by the author and the structure of the book.

Mind-numbingly bad. Maybe the librarians offering their approval think only prose counts as reading; if this was the first comic I’d read, I would probably not read any more.

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