Monday, November 21, 2016





By Julia Gfrörer 
Published By Fantagraphics 

In stores last week was the second printing of Julia Gfrörer's debut longform comic, Black Is The Color (out of print since 2014) reissued to accompany her latest work, Laid Waste. The timing of these striking companion volumes seems fortuitous. Call it the zeitgeist, call it a hopefully passing collective mood, but things feel grim. Like Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel said, "It's like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none...none more black." 

Both of Gfrörer's books are sleek, beautiful little things, ethereal and gothic in content, bleak but heart-achingly tender. Their plots are as slender as their page counts and if you make it to this week's video, you'll see that Gfrörer is unsurprisingly not one for artists holding the hands of their readers -- as in all true art, the evocation of emotion through vision, character and setting trumps exposition at all times. 

Black Is The Color focuses on Warren and Xavier, the two newest faces aboard an ill-fated ship with dwindling supplies who are cruelly chosen by ship’s Captain to be cast adrift. Days bleed into nights and back into days as the pair face nothing but endless ocean and their fraying sanity. When two are reduced to one, the sole survivor begins receiving visits from a mermaid, fascinated by this frail handsome creature and is afforded some much needed tenderness as he spits up blood turning black and the end approaches. 

Laid Waste is set in a village decimated by plague. Agnes is losing everyone around her and clings on to a semblance of routine existence even as the bodies of her family and neighbours are fed to large fires or taken to mass graves. Agnes is somehow physically unaffected by plague symptoms and a brief prologue hints at a supernatural gift that she may in fact possess. Begging for death as loses everything around her, Agnes finds some measure of comfort and relief from grief in the arms of her neighbour, Giles. Right away, the common themes should already be apparent: suffering, pain, loss, and most importantly, the absolute necessity of human contact and compassion. 

One of the problems I have with the Gothic is that the humanity does have a tendency to get somewhat lost amidst all the phantasmagoria and spiralling insanity (Exhibit A: Poe's "The Fall of The House of Usher," which I do utterly love, by the way). Not so with Gfrörer's work, which always puts the humanity of its characters front and centre. The fragile emotional states and often matching delicate physicality of her creations is explored not just through dialogue, but through their gentle contact with one another that can play out for as roughly as long as a fight scene in a superhero comic. Her characters hold hands with spidery fingers desperately entangled, they embrace, they make love, always with the need for contact and consolation. 

There's sensitivity at work in Gfrörer's work, a high level empathy, operating at a level other creators do not or cannot touch. There is warmth amongst the quiet horrors and personal apocalypses of Gfrörer's worlds, a desperate need for kindness as things are ripped from those that populate them, or as they wait to slip away into whichever worlds come next. Ironic for a creator who boasts that her heart is "black as jet" and reminds readers that her name "rhymes with 'despair.'" There's a fragility to Gfrörer's art with her lines frequently as delicate as her characters. She's also fond of holding her shots over the course of a page or more - In Laid Waste, a close-up Agnes' a tear-streaked face runs eight panels over two pages, altered only by the character's movements as she writhes in despair within the limits of the fixed panels, begging to be taken by the plague next. Gfrörer wrings the emotion from her characters in these sequences or - alternatively - mines moments of stillness for as many beats as possible to highlight time's crawl. In Black Is The Color, the horror of Warren's predicament, cast out to the seemingly unending ocean, is highlighted by pages of him huddled in his lifeboat, alone and slowly dying as night becomes day, day becomes night and sharks ominously circle. These sequences evoke a sense of personal haunting for those inhabiting them - Warren by turns waiting for his mermaid lover and for death, Agnes losing all of those around her to cruel and merciless disease. The stillness is punishing. 

As fond as she is of these lingering single-shot sequences, Gfrörer is as adept with her dialogue, showcased particularly in Laid Waste, which contains some utter poetry. Giles tells Agnes, "There's nothing holy about suffering. The stories of the martyrs illustrate their faith because in spite of what they endured they did not suffer. A saint always dies smiling." 

"And will you die smiling, Giles?" Agnes asks. 

"I'm not a saint," comes the reply. 

It's strange to call such grim material beautiful, but here's the rub: it absolutely is. There is real loveliness amongst these quiet apocalypses and the moments of connection between characters made all the more real and potent by the inevitability of their upcoming end, the despair found in their surroundings. And this, finally, is what we are left with as readers, as humans -- connections found, connections lost, hands held, love made, things not to be taken for granted, the specialness of the moment, no matter how simple, how mundane and everyday each encounter, each action may be. Treasure everything. Ultimately there is nothing more real, or perhaps even uplifting, than that. 

By Julia Gfrörer 

Eagle-eyed readers may well recognise this as a repeat, from the September 8 2015 column to be precise, but who cares, we all need to do more re-reading and I'm declaring this Go Read Gfrörer Week. 

Adapted from a 12th century poem, Lancelot, The Knight of the Cartby Cretien De Troyes, Grocer, in just two gorgeous, scratchy pages, illustrates the lengths the Sir Lancelot went in order to rescue Queen Guinevere from abduction in "The Sheets Were All Be-Bled With The Blood." It’s Lancelot’s love for this Queen, and hers for him, that enables the Knight to burst through her barred window. “…if you refused,” he says from his knees, staring into her eyes, “the way would have been impossible for me.” 



Back to The Strand bookstore, which we last visited in this particular column for Dash Shaw's excellent discussion about his Cosplayers book. Today, we travel back a couple of years to see Julia Gfrörer and journalist/critic Tucker Stone sitting in those same leather armchairs, to chat about Gfrörer's career in comics, up to and including Black is the Color. I enjoy a good peek inside the mind of various creators, and quite a few dots gets joined here for me concerning Gfrörer work. From her love of writing prose to her fine art background and the distaste she feels for the production of much commercial illustration, this is a candid and revealing discussion, really worth your time. 

See you next week. Love your comics.

Cameron Ashley spends a lot of time writing comics and other things you'll likely never read. He's the chief editor and co-publisher of Crime Factory ( You can reach him @cjamesashley on Twitter.

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