All Shook Up
Shifting Styles Match Shifting Realities in Graphic Novel Amnesia
John Malloy didn't read a lot of comic books as a kid, and that's probably a good thing. The Baltimore artist's ambitious new graphic novel, Amnesia, is refreshingly free of the graphic and thematic clichés of American comic books, while making the most of the unique narrative qualities of the comics form. It helps, of course, that Malloy can really write and really draw; comicdom is fraught with both clunky collaborations and auteurs who can hold up one end of the act but not the other.
Amnesia begins with a young writer named Chloe who sets out to interview Ike Reuben, an artist/writer/filmmaker/musician whose work she not only admires, but finds strangely familiar. Reuben has just resurfaced--in Baltimore, of all places--after a long, unexplained disappearance. When Chloe finally finds him, he's in and out of a mysterious narcoleptic state. While others puzzle over his unconscious form, Reuben suffers through a series of harrowing, dreamlike sequences. Ultimately, Chloe gets sucked into Reuben's alternate world. It's not giving away too much to say that the story resolves on an unconventionally hopeful note. And, oh yes, there's a lone terrorist who slips in and out of the plot at crucial moments.
Amnesia is preoccupied with issues of memory, déjà vu, dreams, and parallel realities, themes that Malloy underscores by alternating graphic styles over the course of the story. Each of the book's three running subplots is portrayed in its own medium. The present-tense, "real world" story of Chloe's quest appears in angular pen-and-ink drawings that evoke harsh sunlight and the character's jangled nerves. Extended flashbacks to Chloe's childhood and youth are conveyed in atmospheric paintings. Reuben's hallucinatory experiences are told with digitally manipulated photography. Many comics artists employ this kind of graphically cued intercutting, as do filmmakers (think of the color shifts that sorted out the three story lines in last year's Traffic), but Malloy pulls it off with particular assurance. Amnesia's abrupt changes work because they conform to the story's weird logic, and because the characters are consistent regardless of the media depicting them. All the character art is based on photographic references--an easy shortcut to both naturalism and consistency--and the dialog reads, for the most part, like real people talking.
It would be surprising, however, if all this switch-hitting didn't result in a bit of unevenness. Amnesia's strongest passages, in terms of both text and artwork, are Chloe's flashbacks. Some of the small, gray paintings in these sequences look like snapshots from a dysfunctional family album; others, with objects in and out of focus, suggest the murkiness of childhood memories. The dialog between teenage Chloe and her abrasive party-brat friend Janice is heartbreakingly true to life, a stinging reminder of why we're glad we're not in high school anymore.
Amnesia's weakest link is a wordy section in which a mysterious character--a masked woman who has already made several disturbing appearances--lays out a theory of parallel realities that is supposed to explain why, among other things, poor Reuben keeps zoning off to his digital dreamworld. These cosmic notions may be close to the author's heart, but the four-page lecture temporarily hijacks the narrative and punctures the sense of mystery that has sustained the story up to that point. It also makes for a lot of pictures of a woman dressed in what looks like a Halloween costume. She, like her message, was more intriguing earlier in the story, when her appearances were more fleeting and suggestive.
Ultimately, Amnesia's hall-of-mirrors plot and metaphysical speculations make a less lasting impression than the story's overall mood of desperate, lonely disorientation. Both Chloe and Reuben are, in different ways, uprooted characters; they grope through the fog and find each other. Readers, along the way, have to grapple with some confusing images and scene shifts, but this is a deliberate part of Malloy's scheme.
Considering the sophistication and subtlety of Malloy's comics work, it comes as a surprise that he did relatively little work in the form--chiefly producing art to accompany other writers' stories, including illustrations for City Paper--before launching his own graphic novel. He says he began to pay serious attention to comics about seven years ago, when classmates at Luzerne County (Pa.) Community College turned him on to a number of fantasy titles, including Neil Gaiman's Sandman series and The Crow by James O'Barr. Of those early influences, he says, "It was something that really got me into the art form. I'd never really seen anything like it before."
He began to teach himself the art of comics while studying painting and graphic design at college. Temporarily seduced by the sensational and narrative possibilities of fantasy art, he imitated the steroid-enhanced figures of Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta before finding his own multimedia approach.
There's scant trace of such juvenile exploration in Amnesia. Thanks to his relatively late-in-life introduction to the comics form, Malloy has generally avoided the worn-out conventions that make some would-be graphic novels look like what they are: just fat comic books. Technically, as many independent artists have shown, there's no longer a compelling reason why comics have to be rendered in traditional black line with flat color. Amnesia revels in texture and tonality. As for the conventional genres of superheroes, fantasy, and so on, Malloy says he wanted Amnesia to be "unclassifiable." The characters' unremarkable physical appearance is based on the artist's friends, including several trained actors, who posed for reference photos.
Another surprise: Malloy, despite having spent 18 months on Amnesia, is not particularly committed to comics as an art form. Among his influences, Malloy cites not only comics artists (Dave McKean, Dave Mazzuchelli, and several others) but novelist Tom Robbins ("I really like the way he writes women") and filmmaker David Lynch. His Mount Vernon studio contains several unfinished easel paintings. And for his next trick, Malloy says he'd like to work on a small movie or video. A versatile guy, just like his fictional Ike Reuben. Says Malloy, "I sort of admire that . . . artists who keep doing something different."