Ever since the breakaway success of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman in the 1980s, there’s been a niche in America for graphic fiction about brooding guys, languid girls, melodrama, the morbidly cute, and the cutely morbid. Titles like Gloom Cookie, Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things, and anything by Jhonen Vasquez exist in a neogothic parallel world where the superheroes have withered away from anemia and the American comics industry never outsourced its female genre fiction to Japan.
Chicagoan Lilli Carré’s debut graphic novel The Lagoon isn’t genre fiction—it’s an art comic. But Carré is interested in gothic fantasy, to a degree unusual among alternative comics creators not named Dame Darcy. The Lagoon is an elliptical love letter to the genre and to its place in the lives of many adolescent girls.
The frontispiece captures both Carré’s affection for goth and her distance from it. In a circular frame, Zoey, the tween protagonist, sits beside a lake passing flowers to a black, leaf-plastered, faceless humanoid thing. Flowers and tendrils frame the image, suggesting the overripe opulence of art nouveau. But Carré’s linework is spare and even crude—it looks like something Aubrey Beardsley might have drawn when he was six. The creature is cute, creepy, and mysterious, but the scene also has a modernist edge that takes it out of the realm of Victorian melodrama. Beauty is sketched out rather than embroidered; the space between Zoey’s hands and those of the creature is the distance between desire and reticence, the coming contact or its absence.
In fact, to the extent that The Lagoon has a plot at all, it centers around the deferral of the moment when Zoey actually meets the creature, who lives in a black lagoon and sings. Zoey’s family and neighbors are enraptured by the song; they go out to the lagoon to hear the music, dream, and sometimes drown. But Zoey never quite glimpses the source of that music. When she goes to the lagoon, the black singing shape she finds there turns out to be her sleepwalking grandfather, waist deep in water. She sees a fire the creature has set in a woodpile, but not the creature itself, and when she looks under the bed for monsters, there’s nothing there.
That’s because the creature doesn’t hide under Zoey’s bed—it hides under her parents’. After the girl goes to sleep, her mom and dad have sex and then fall asleep themselves. In the middle of the night, mom wakes up, opens the window, and lets the creature in. When the husband stirs, the creature slides beneath the bed, one rubbery, phallic limb poking out suggestively from under the frame.
The gothic style is always suffused with sexuality, of course. But what’s most unsettling about this scene isn’t the gothic trappings—the woman in the dark, the alluring beast at the window—but its mundanity. Zoey’s mother treats the creature with a banal casualness, lighting a cigarette (her husband doesn’t know she smokes) and offering to share it, then off-handedly mentioning Zoey as if the creature knows her daughter well. The juxtaposition of small talk and amphibious interloper is funny, but it’s also disturbing. Horror-movie creepy is one thing, watching-mom-conduct-an-affair-while-dad-sleeps-in-the-same-room creepy is something else.
Or maybe the two things aren’t so different. The solid blacks and blocky grotesquerie of The Lagoon strongly recall Charles Burns’s Black Hole, a graphic novel in which adulthood is equated with monstrosity. Sexual maturity and horror are linked in The Lagoon, too, but that link is mediated by a third element—a metaphor, a song. To be an adult here is not to be a monster but to be charmed by one. Zoey, the child, is the one character in the comic who doesn’t like (or at least says she doesn’t like) the creature’s tune. Aesthetic response equals sexual response, and fantasy is a form of eroticism, the province of grown-ups. Perhaps that’s why, when Zoey asks him to tell her a fairy tale, Zoey’s dad is thoroughly embarrassed—and when he does launch into it, Zoey simply falls asleep.
But if adults fantasize, the content of their fantasy is childhood. Sitting in the bog listening to the creature sing, one of the townspeople says, “A little sweetness can make you forget everything you want to forget for a little while.” And yet then he goes on not to forget but to remember an incident from his boyhood. When first Zoey’s mom and then her dad sink into the lagoon in pursuit of the creature, Carré draws a breathtaking sequence: bubbles floating through blackness, underwater fronds waving, the mother’s hair floating underwater. The beauty of the images and the dreamlike, wordless drift downward—to the bottom of the water and finally to a completely black page—suggest sex, death, and a return to the weightless twilight of the womb. If the song is an initiation, it seems to lead as much backward as forward.
Where exactly the narrative does lead is very hard to say. After they sink, Zoey’s mother and father disappear from the story; we never find out what, if anything, happens to them. Zoey may have dreamed the whole thing. Or not. Her grandfather, though, is still around. He lies down with her and they go to sleep and a year passes. Then he cuts her hair, which, she notes with some exasperation, makes her look younger—as young as she looked a year ago, a couple pages back.
Carré binds these slippages in sequence and reality together with visual representations of sound. The click of a metronome, the squalling of cats, the grandfather’s finger tapping, and, most of all, the creature’s song float through windows and across panel borders in fluid, looping ribbons, knotting together page, space, and time. Childhood and adulthood are bound or drowned together, each watching the other through a surface of dark water. Though Zoey gets older, there isn’t so much a coming of age in The Lagoon as a coming and going: Zoey looks for the creature she’ll never see while her mother drifts downward toward a lost childhood. Where they touch is, perhaps, in gothic fantasy: a girl dreams she’s a woman dreaming she’s a girl and wakes not knowing which is which, or where the monster is.v
Care to comment? Find this review at chicagoreader.com.