I read Ursula, the new one shot from Lane Yates (Single Camera Sitcom) and Erika Price (Disorder), as a digital PDF. I kinda wish that I could read it on physical paper - not because the comic is bad in this format (far from it), but because the sense of impact is no-doubt lessened by the limitations of the screen. This is a story I want to have, to hold, to feel, to absorb. Even as a bunch of files, it has physicality to it: a sensation that passes through the screen and straight into your heart, burning and digging its way to your soul. It’s brief—26 pages including the cover—but feels epic in scope and performance.
Take the central page, a massive foldout-like piece that chronicles several characters' descent down a ship’s guts. The first thing you notice is that it’s a great use of scale: the characters are tiny compared to the vastness of the hall, overwhelming both the figures and the reader. Then you see the cavernous open spaces are not left empty - rows of bleach-white faces fill up every open window, a crowd of the damned and would-be dead. The few passenger-free walls are decorated with tiny lines, giving the whole proceeding the atmosphere of a black metal album: everything is twisting upon itself; the wood appears cursed; doors like closed mouths waiting to open wide. Everything in the art tells you all that you need to know about this story. Which is to say – doom. Doomed ship, doomed love, doomed humanity, as if Edgar Allen Poe was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
What’s particularly impressive about this piece, and about Ursula as a whole, is the way the characters are drawn on almost even keel with the background while onboard the ship. Several times they appear to almost get swallowed by it, becoming part of the architecture (becoming lost in the world), but never to a degree beyond the artist’s control. We always know what the comic wants us to know - nothing more, nothing less.
The plot of Ursula focuses on two lovers, Leonora and Ursula, who board a ship heading for the new world - hoping to find a place to restart their forbidden love. Leonora is the straightforward type; she is the one leading the proceeding, but she’s also the one with the deeper attraction, the one craving something from her partner. Ursula, meanwhile, is seen mostly from the outside - her approach to the journey, to the possibility of a new life, is much more reticent. But in her carefulness we recognize her power over Leonora. With few gestures and even fewer words we understand that this game they play has been played several times before. That Ursula could promise, and break her promise; that Leonora would always come back.
Before boarding the ship the two look up to see a messenger bird of sort - or, to be more precise, the bird is the message, its very skin the parchment. The color of the bird becomes the color of the sea becomes the color of Ursula’s hair; and we understand these characters are bound – not just with one another, but also with something greater. They end their promise to one another by pulling apart the bird and eating it. It’s a recurring theme in the works of Erika Price - things are consuming while being consumed, seeking closeness in sharing blood and flesh, transforming themselves by destroying themselves. It’s about life as an evolutionary process of the self, both independently and in relation to others (and to the environment) - a process that isn’t always pleasant, that doesn’t always end well. But it's a process that nevertheless must go on; the process is. Life is change, life is refinement, without end until death. We always hurt one another, because humans are defined by pain, and by pain we learn to be different. Ursula is about acknowledging this pain; accepting it without forgetting who has caused it.
During this brief scene Leonora is looking straight at Ursula - her passion is real (and thus dangerous), while Ursula’s eyes seem to be slightly cast aside. Maybe she already begins to question her choice. Maybe she’s thinking on some inevitable betrayal. The two are defined by the same bluish hue, the color of the water surrounding them. Later, after they begin their journey, Ursula retains the same hue while Leonora, alongside all the other passengers, becomes of the same pale white as the ship. We know the two are now apart. We know Ursula is apart from everyone.
As the protagonists are a reflection of the world, both in terms of writing and art, the dissolution of their relationship is mirrored in the dissolution of the ship. This is a journey to nowhere. The crew and passengers are bound to death, and in death they are bound to hell. The only choice left is how to die. They plead before a god who hears their prayers, but will give them no mercy, nor forgiveness.
Ursula exists within that space between the divine and human. Its every line, every speech bubble, every design, every movement, speaks to the sublime. Not of the sublime, but to the sublime. God exists forever beyond our grasp; any attempt to please it involves the forgetting of those around us. We are bound to this world, to other people, and if this world is broken—and if the people within it are broken—we are no less bound to it. There is no separation. We go down, we drown, together.