'I'm Not Here' Is One of the Richest and Gently Disturbing Graphic Novels I've Read in Years

by Chris Gavaler

12 September 2017

We travel with the protagonist, suffering the same confusions that define her life.
 
cover art

I’m Not Here

GG

(Koyama)
US: Sep 2017

An estranged daughter wanders her parents’ world of quiet surrealism.

GG—the pseudonym of a presumably female, Asian-Canadian comics creator living in an undisclosed prairie city—is little known except to her community of followers on Patreon and visitors to her website, Ohgigue.com, which includes about a half dozen of her comics short stories, several also published in other venues. They range from the early sequences of rough, hand-drawn eight-pagers in her 2014 Five Stories to the sharply digital 48-page I’m Crazy. Her equally excellent 14-page Don’t Leave Me Alone appeared in the 2016 Best American Comics, but I prefer Semi-Vivi, another 14-pager that defines GG’s signature cropping effects and gutterless 4x2 grid.

Judging from the content of her website alone, I would predict that GG will be a major comics voice of the next decade. She’s already realizing that potential with her first full-length graphic novel, I’m Not Here, released this month from Koyama Press.

The novel is one of the richest and gently disturbing I’ve read in recent years. Its young female protagonist goes unnamed as she navigates the streets and hallways of her and her aging parents’ suburban homes and the memories of her second-generation immigrant childhood. No narrating voice grounds the story, so events move from the present to various moments of the past and possibly future without guiding explanations. By speaking only in dialogue, the main character seems to have no more insight about herself and her troubled situation than does the reader. We travel with her, suffering the same confusions that define her life. All we know for sure is the isolating distance she feels from her increasingly estranged mother. 

I’m Not Here builds on GG’s earlier short works by approaching the long form in discrete, almost stand-alone units. The novel consists of eight closely linked vignettes, most between six and 11 pages, though the longest extends for 24 and the shortest five. Initially black and then gray two-page spreads divide all but the concluding vignette, which is separated instead by two non-facing blank white pages. The movement toward white, though literally brightening, is paradoxical, since GG’s use of white space within the narrative suggests loss as margins widen around the daughter’s isolated figure as she knocks at her mother’s door and the repeating image of the mother’s younger, cropped face fades until indistinguishable from the page.

The novel also opens with two blank pages before a similar progression of panels darkens into grays and then eventually blacks. But if white is oblivion, black is no better. The dementia-suffering father concludes the second vignette by driving into the black of the margin, leaving the figure of his silhouetted daughter merging with the shadows of the street at night. The father never reappears.

The confining quality of the gray palette is reinforced by GG’s layout. Instead of her previous gutterless 4x2 panels, the novel’s physically smaller proportions suit her rigid four-row grid of full-width panels. When the grid is not overt, it is implied, with the top two, middle two, or bottom two panels merged to create a double-sized panel. More often both the top and bottom panels merge to create two-panel pages. GG is especially adept at using her gutters in relation to the black and white shapes within panel images—the white frame of a photograph, the white rectangle of a bandage, the horizontal line of a grocery shelf, the vertical lines of a window pane—sometimes merging gutter and panel content to further augment her cropping effects. 

Like the unframed panels, her internal images consist almost exclusively of opaque shapes with no contour lines separating them. Each shape is defined only by its internal and uniform gray gradation. The style produces a stark and simplified world devoid of not only color but texture too, with each figure and object precisely isolated—effects that express the novel’s overall narrative tone. Though often reduced to absolute simplicity in terms of image density, the contours of GG’s shapes also evoke real-world subject matter as if derived from photographic sources. The result is not the simplification of cartoons but a brutally stripped-down realism.

GG’s use of words is stripped-down, too. She wisely ignores the conventions of thought balloons, talk balloons, and even conventional caption boxes. Words appear only at the bottom of panels in panel-wide strips. Sometimes the strips merge with the black of the panel or the white of the gutter, with words rendered in either black or white. GG never varies font or font style and, since the novel includes no narration, she foregoes quotation marks for dialogue, too. She draws no sound effects within images, but includes the “knock knock” at a door in her caption strips, marking it typographically with brackets. Voices on answering machines are bracketed, too.

Indeed, when GG uses dialogue it’s effective, but the majority of the novel is visual only. Fifty-six pages—over half of the novel—are wordless, and another dozen feature only one line of text. Like GG’s visual simplicity, the linguistic silence adds to the novel’s stark reality—especially during moments of literal silence, as the daughter and mother pass a wordless meal together.

GG’s austere realism plays well against the novel’s narrative content. While the situation of a daughter feeling estranged from her aging parents is realistic, GG disturbs that baseline reality with moments of inexplicable surrealism. After a comparatively mundane opening sequence of the daughter tying back her hair and preparing to go for a walk to take photographs, she finds her mother sitting in her bedroom with one of her arms detached. “Can you help me tape this back on?” she asks. The daughter applies bandages to her mother’s back too, but GG draws no wounds or stumps, so it’s intentionally unclear how the severed but apparently bloodless parts attach. GG’s stark style obscures the would-be details of her characters’ reality, flattening the world into dream-like imprecision.

No like incidents follow this brief, unreal moment, but by placing it in the first vignette, GG colors the rest of the narrative with its potential. Is the father literally driving around the block in search of his house forever? Is this dementia or an afterlife variation on Sisyphus? Does the daughter literally become another woman or does the woman’s landlady simply mistake her when she lets her into the apartment and later hands her the lease? Is the daughter literally knocking at her mother’s locked door or is this a metaphor of her dreaming mind? GG leaves such reality-defining questions unanswered, leaving her main character drifting between realities, too.

Like most graphic novels and stories in general, I’m Not Here could be reduced to a summary of its story content—though GG’s fractured plotting resists even that narrative norm. But aside from its surreal plotting and striking stylistic qualities, the novel is significant for GG’s way of expressing its content visually and so overcoming the limitations of script-based comics storytelling.

I doubt GG began by describing her plot and panel content in words and then executing those descriptions in images. Instead, her story emerges from the images themselves, and so they and their intricate relationships cannot be easily summarized. The page, for example, of silhouetted tree tops and a street lamp below a full moon and vast evening sky does not mean anything linguistically or even narratively, but its placement after the mother criticizes the daughter is emotionally evocative.

Such images do not tell a story but are the story—a fact true of all comics but rarely so well achieved as here. We should look forward to more such stories from one of the most exciting new voices of 21st century comics.

I’m Not Here

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