Difficult Loves

Difficult Loves

Oh, that'll work for a title for this one, sure. Of all the books so far released by the prolific Closed Caption Comics collective — Ryan Cecil Smith, Lane Milburn, Noel Freibert, Conor Stechschulte — Molly Colleen O'Connell's debut major work is the hardest to penetrate. (Given the subject of this comic I'll beg your pardon for that term.)

Many CCC comics utilize drawing styles that repel the eye, that prevent it from getting a hold on a page: Freibert's emphasis-defying uniform line weight and experiments with text-as-graphics, Stechschulte's shadow plays, the stoned D&D/heavy-metal haze of early Milburn. O'Connell's weapons of choice are perspective and detail, throwing enough conflicting examples of both at you at once to make each turn of the page a "wait, what?" experience. Her characters limbs elongate at odd points so that you're never sure exactly how large their bodies are in relation to their environments -- is this some weird, deliberately inconsistent use of foreshortening, or are they just built like warped marionettes? Her backgrounds and environments slash across panels in dramatic diagonals, making it still harder to get a read on where you're at.

Her level of detail can be just as disorienting. She's not quite on the Brian Chippendale level of horror vacui, but let's put it this way: It's not enough for her to have a page covered by dozens of writhing, intertwining snakes -- the patterns on their skin have to be a constantly shifting patchwork of patterns, like they're all wearing long tubular grandma quilts. O'Connell further breaks up the field with little smudges and slashes of ink, like you're always just a few feet away from a nightmarish ticker-tape parade.

The opening page is a doozy on all counts. It's a deep-focus fan's dream: A streetside cafe patron holds an agony-aunt letter in the extreme foreground as a sidewalk meets at a corner and extends diagonally off the page in two directions. A doughy couple prances along, faceless and bespeckled with dots, while trucks and cars cram the street running parallel to the sidewalk. Virtually none of it "makes sense," strictly speaking, but boy oh boy do you feel like you've been dropped into a new world. The tangle of both snakes and gasoline pump lines on the following spread make it even clearer that navigation's gonna be a bitch.

So that's the "Difficult." Where's the "Loves"? In the story -- yes, there is one! -- that's where. A pair of estranged snakes reunite for a trip to Trollhättan, "the first truly erotic city," where the female hopes to put their lingering issues and complicated, sticky past to rest with the use of psychotropic erotic pottery on display there...but they have to act fast, because pretty soon they're gonna bulldoze the place and build a strip mall. Would you believe this is enormously affecting, despite the fact that it's about knitwear-sporting snakes?

In the book's center spread, the strange effects of drinking from the pots take hold. First they revisit their own painful memories in vivid detail, depicted in a tight, borderless six-panel grid. O'Connell captions each panel with an incisive, evocative phrase that will resonate so strongly with anyone who has some relationship regrets in their own past that for a moment you'll forget you're looking at snakes in a bar or on a road trip. "I remember a time I was sick & you left me alone." "I remember a freezing holiday & just a dial tone." Next, they magically journey into the life and death of one of the pot's previous users, a handmaiden buried with her plague-ridden mistress in the reaches of time. Against a rich gray inkwash O'Connell draws a straightforward portrait of the lady abed, her slain horse at her feet; to the left is a block of straight prose, in cursive, recounting the preparation and burial process from the handmaiden's perspective. Both these pages are literally covered up, occluded by photocopied photos of real pottery by artist Marion Lundgren, printed out on brightly colored construction paper and paperclipped to the pages beneath. You feel like you're lifting up a curtain, piercing a veil, making the sadness beneath all the more forbidden and vulnerable and poignant. It's a brilliantly lo-fi way to achieve a sophisticated effect.

Then the whole thing jumps "one year later," and the place where this mystical journey into profound personal heartbreak and loss happened has been converted to a gaudy consumer mecca. The subtle, almost staid curves and bulges of the original erotic pottery have been commercialized and sensationalized into a series of boutiques with cock and cunt shapes looming and gaping from every pitcher and pot. The originals (snakes still inside them, it seems) are stolen and used as inspiration for the final challenge on the America's Next Top Nail Artist reality show. The snakes' lovers' coil is converted into that kinda gross squiggle of super-long fingernails, their scale patterns are echoed by the scarf of the contestant and the tie of the host, and the final words of the comic are "TRUST NO ONE." If you really wanna reference Brian Chippendale, this is very very Ninja, with its themes of gentrification, commercialization, and loss of true emotional and artistic freedom. But it's even more bitterly satirical, with little of Chippendale's playfulness and ultimately optimism to leaven it. Unapologetically sad and angry and strong. Difficult, yes. Love, yes.