What happens when you remove the immediate need for survival? Existential crisis. So suggests Penny, the titular feline protagonist of Karl Stevens’ latest graphic memoir. When your “existence is a constant loop of eating [and] sleeping” the most immediate threat to your wellbeing becomes “thinking. So much thinking. So, so much thinking.” And yet, as Penny suggests, the ability to fool ourselves, to give ourselves over to the extraordinary power of our imaginations, may be the very escape needed to safeguard ourselves against the trappings of our mundane society and performative existence. Penny examines our relentless desire for more while questioning the very nature of that desire when occupying a position of relative privilege – an examination made more poignant through the collective cloistered experience of the current global pandemic.
Stevens’ work is a self-reflexive conundrum that constantly bends back upon itself. As a reader, you partake in the process of watching Penny going about mundane and instinctual practices – napping on a windowsill, rubbing against a wall, climbing into and onto things she shouldn’t, catching mice, and grooming herself. However, as the reader watches Penny’s daily routine – all the while privy to her inner thoughts, dilemmas, childhood longings, and ennui – they can’t escape the triangular observation game they have been coerced into. The reader watches Penny, who watches the author, who watches Penny to inscribe her with the paradoxes of his own existence for the reader’s pleasure and consideration. The text’s layers of reflexivity evoke a highly cerebral cat-and-mouse game all their own.
Human figures are rarely seen throughout the text. When they do present, they are a jumble of torsos, hands, or legs. This visual treatment foils and mocks the anthropocentric perspective and the very practice of graphic memoir. The visual dissection of the human form through panel boarders and gutters also speaks to the disjointedness of human existence, suggesting the incoherency of human thoughts, emotions, desires, needs, and actions. Any human attempt to impose order on the surrounding world is satirized through the humans’ attempts to have Penny “Marie Kondo” her cat toys or through their ineffectual disembodied commands that Penny “get down,” “stop,” and “get out” of there. Penny is the “queen” of her domain to the continual frustration of her powerless humans. When humans are wholly depicted, they are often framed as monstrous – snatching Penny from her mother to imprison her in a human home, going on vacation and not leaving her enough food, caging her once again when she escapes the apartment, and even turning into imaginary, many-armed trolls.
Time also remains an elusive construct across the text, both through Penny’s ruminations and the text’s narrative structure. The text’s episodic nature imparts a satiric quest narrative trope, one that is further parodied by the mundane nature of both Penny’s and the human’s quests to catch/make dinner, leave the apartment, or go on vacation. The repetition of similar sequences and events adds to the banality of elapsed time, but also expresses the anxiety of somehow losing time, energy, youth, or otherwise not making the most of those fleeting intangible constructs. As feelings of banality and disconnection increase, so too do the number of non sequitur panels comprising each page.
However, the text’s treatment of the banality of routine life is not so straightforward. Penny suggests that creative liberation is in fact born out of the banality of routine – that we may only venture into fantastic realms once Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are met. Self-actualization requires food, water, warmth, rest, safety, belonging, and esteem. It is at this intersection between the mundane and the marvelous where Steven’s work truly shines. Although the text is filled with beautiful renditions of Penny’s flights of fantasy in Stevens’ signature intricately cross-hatched and boldly water colored style, it is his transformation of ordinary objects through Penny’s perspective that really capture the imagination. Patterns of light and shadow transfix both Penny and the reader through Stevens’ hand, inert objects are animated and packed with personality, and cardboard boxes become portals to other dimensions. Ultimately, Penny suggests that the crushing banality of routine and the eternal but often stunted quest for self-actualization can be fulfilled through transformational perspective. Taking a moment to see the world through Penny’s perspective provides just such an experience. What is reality anyways? Just a figment of our imaginations.