Some might say a single line has no meaning, but in Jeff Lemire’s Mazebook, a single line can be so fraught with meaning, it can tell a tale of epic proportions. Few creators can convey a fully conceptualized story on the very first page, but Lemire is one of those few.
The first page of Lemire’s Mazebook is structured using the classic nine-panel comics grid. Five of those nine panels depict a single, horizontal red line midway through the panel. This simple line immediately evokes the finality of the flatlined heart. The other four panels depict what can only be understood as aspects of a young girl’s figure. Each panel shows only a portion of the figure: a torso in a too-big red sweater; a small hand in an oversized cuff; tattered unravelling holes revealing the girl’s shoulder. The reader does not see her face and neither must the protagonist, whose point of view the reader is clearly in. The relationship between the flatlined panels and the fragmented images of the little girl tell us everything we need to know about the characters and their relationship to one another. They are tethered. Parent and child. They are lost to one another, the connection between them cut, divided between the living world and the dead. The final image of the girl on this page depicts a blurry figure at the end of what looks like a hazy tunnel, with a red line squiggling from her feet towards the reader - an image that evokes the mythic tale of Theseus and the Minotaur.
This myth pervades the text through the string imagery of the red line, but also through the visual repetition of the maze itself, and eventually the appearance of the monstrous figure of the Minotaur. In the ancient story, Theseus, son of Aegeus, leaves his home to battle the Minotaur in the center of Minos’ Labyrinth and prevent the senseless sacrifice of Athenian youth. Theseus is only saved by the love of Ariadne, who gives him a ball of yarn to find his way back out of the maze. But the parallels of Theseus’ tale to Mazebook don’t end there - the story is not only about finding your way out of an impossible situation through an act of love, it is also the story of a desperate father who has lost a child. Believing his son to be dead, Aegeus, unable to go on, throws himself into the sea. The visual cues Lemire establishes on the very first page point to the story’s larger themes: grief; the space between life and death; guilt; memory; relationships; and most of all, loss - of a loved one, of oneself. Like Theseus’ tale, the death of one so young is an inescapable grief, a maze that may have no end. To confront the Minotaur at the center of the maze is to confront the natural world made unnatural - a journey that Will must ultimately undertake.
Mazebook’s line imagery also goes on to encompass other myths through the compounded imagery of tying a red string to one’s finger. While this image suggests the custom of remembering something one must do, or a promise one has made, it also evokes the idea of the red string of fate, which is found in Chinese and Japanese mythology. Used together with the maze imagery, the single line sometimes evokes the idea of a barrier, and other times a route to freedom. This linework also underscores the fatalistic imagery of the maze by suggesting there is only one throughline, or an inevitable outcome which remains hidden until the bitter end.
The red lines tying Will’s fingers to memories of his daughter, Wendy, also evoke the idea of intravenous tubes, foreshadowing the source of Will’s unraveling: the trauma of losing his daughter to illness. Like Theseus’ unravelling ball of yarn, or the loose threads of Wendy’s sweater, the line imagery becomes a visual shorthand for Will’s mental unravelling. However, the most important visual metaphor lies in the ability of the red line to transform itself many times over. Such visual transformations of the single red line within Lemire’s art point to the transformative power found within oneself: only we can transform barrier lines into throughlines to navigate life’s sorrows.
Lemire ingeniously crafts a text that is a maze of meaning in and of itself, contorting and transforming the visual imagery afresh with each new page. Like the mazes Wendy loves to solve, Mazebook surprises and delights the reader at every turn. If by the end of the book you find yourself curious as to how such a complex and emotional graphic narrative takes shape, Mazebook will not disappoint. In its final pages, you will find early sketch materials and explanations of the process by the creator, so you can go back right back to the beginning and discover the story’s intricacies all over again.