Have you ever found yourself attracted to something you would normally find repulsive and seen it develop into an obsession? Do you harbor some sexual fantasy that you can’t describe because you find it too embarrassing? Would you, faced with the opportunity to live this experience, have the guts to go through with it? Would you then have the nerve to talk about it? Ripple is such an experience told by a man who has the nerve to talk about it.
Ripple is one of the newer gems in Fantagraphics’ increasingly mouth-watering catalogue. If I ever was stranded on a desert island I would settle for a small Fantagraphics warehouse rather than the archetypical list. If you are tired of reading the same superhero story re-hashed for the zillionth time, dig into this treasure trove for some top notch graphic storytelling.
Ripple is the final entry in a trilogy of very-loosely connected books that deal with confusion, sexuality and the perverse desires that reside within each of us, but which we would rather not discuss aloud (the other two books are Suckle and Crumple and are worth reading just for the brilliant titles!) The connections, though, are purely thematic, as Ripple is much more realistic, both in terms of story and art. Originally serialized in Dave Cooper’s highly acclaimed Weasel, it displays the writer/artist’s fetish with portly naked ladies; each of Weasel’s first five issues was graced with a cover painting of the well-rounded Tina and the sixth is a hardcover collection of paintings of corpulent nudes (subtitled “Paintings and Drawings of Mostly Pillowy Girls”; you might have noticed Cooper is as good with subtitles as he is with titles).
The (presumably) semi-autobiographic tale describes the relationship that develops between an artist and his plump and fairly unattractive model. Martin, an aspiring artist surviving on doing commercial illustrations for children’s books, wins a grant which he decides to use for a series of erotic paintings of voluptuous women. The timid Martin tries to find willing models and is finally answered by the equally timid, young and charmingly naive Tina. As their relationship evolves from shy advances to frenzied experimentation and recurring disappointments, a power game also develops, in which Martin quickly loses his advantage as the benefactor of the project to his increasing dependency on Tina’s presence. In a way, Ripple is Lolita retold in softcore: the helpless and young Tina quickly realizes the control she wields over a middle-aged artist and unconsciously manipulates him. As she gains the upper hand, Martin has trouble keeping up with her zest and youthfulness, while he discovers Tina is more than an inexperienced adolescent. Add to this the two protagonists’ decidedly unglamorous personalities and you have a thoroughly engrossing tale of sexual angst that also feels uncomfortably real.
Cooper’s biggest triumph, as pointed out in an introduction by none other than David Cronenberg (how is that for hip cred?), is how he makes this seemingly improbable encounter highly plausible, and, more importantly, how we end up feeling that Tina and Martin are flesh and blood. Cooper pulls this off through a neat combination of faultless dialogue and dark, scratchy yet strangely lifelike illustration. The deceptively simple drawings hide layers of detail, and the textured paper adds to their perverse beauty. On the other hand, little details like Martin’s embarrassment when Tina discovers his porn collection, and Tina’s insightfulness into the artist’s tendency to aesthetize erotica simply to avoid admitting it gives him a boner, are what truly give the characters life.
Ripple is told through Martin’s post-affair memoirs, and its greatest strength is making you feel that somebody is actually telling you the sordid details of a true unfortunate experience with rare honesty. There should be more comics like this.