Our youth culture here in the United States is increasingly enamored with stories that are dreamlike, non-linear, or surreal. A film or cartoon need only include a single scene stuffed with tense, awkward silences or nonsensical catch-phrases to gain credibility and loyalty from its audience. A friendly battle cry in the hallways of the high school where I teach is, “That’s so random!” The tone is never disapproving, but rather celebratory. Indeed, Random has become a form of currency among the young, a movement more abstract than trends in clothing and music, but no less pervasive or powerful.
I celebrate this trend, because I appreciate unconventional stories and the eccentric people who tell them. However, I also find The Random Era to be tiresome, even troubling. After all, it is all well and good to challenge readers and viewers with stories that are unusual or peculiar. But when “trippy” becomes the latest trend, you suddenly have to wade through a dozen Butterfly Effects for every new film by, say, David Cronenberg. I see what passes for surreal storytelling these days and I am reminded that most of Kevin Smith’s fans like his films not because they think they are good, but because they think that they, the fans, can make films just as good.
I always come back to the example of The Blair Witch Project. Its writer and director changed everything we thought we knew about filmmaking, and yet all these years later we are left to assume that they only went their unconventional, groundbreaking route because they couldn’t write or direct a traditional story, else they’d likely have done so by now (and else they’d likely be household names today.) Most people who write non-linear stories, in other words, do so because they lack the discipline or talent to write a linear story. A trend like “random” storytelling (or the popularity of directors like Kevin Smith) invites those with no talent to overcrowd our shelves with more uninspired works in a world that’s already teeming with them.
Stories should be dreamlike in order to provoke a thoughtful, contemplative response in the reader, not merely as an excuse to string along a series of unusual or beautiful images. The problem with most non-linear or surreal or otherwise unsettling stories, in Hollywood mostly but also in the comic book industry, is that in trying to incite such a response, they either tidy up their own provocative messes for us or fail to sufficiently intrigue the reader in the first place. We come away from too many novels, films and comics thinking simply, “They’re right, of course,” or, “That’s bullshit” or, most often, “Meh.” It is rare that someone can tell a story that truly creates in the reader a need to keep thinking once the story has ended, to talk with a friend or loved one about the story (or better yet, about issues and ideas which the story has raised.) Most precious of all are those rare times when a story leaves the reader so exhilarated, so unsettled, so brimming over with ideas and questions that his only recourse is to take up pen and paper and tell a story of his own.
For me, the first two issues of Sarah Becan’s Shuteye are exactly the sort of precious story you seldom find anymore in our culture. This bears noting because all we typically ask of a comic is that it distract us for five minutes or so or, at best, really entertain us. When someone manages instead to tell a quiet little story which leaves someone as tired and jaded as me smiling and contemplating and taking notes and asking my wife what she thinks about it… well, in such a case, I feel compelled to nominate the author for some sort of award in recognition of what’s really, when you look at the state of our culture, something of a public service.
Not that I expected much of Shuteye. There’s something inherently humble about small-scale independent comics, and Shuteye looks at first glance to be very humble indeed. It appears to have been collated and stapled by hand, and with all due respect to the good people at Shortpants Press, it looks like the sort of comic that was “published” by Kinko’s. Despite my reputation for elitist snobbery against corporate comics, I grew up in the 1980s, and thus I was trained to respect and admire corporate production values. Shuteye, therefore, filled me with little confidence when I first held it in my hand.
This surface humility, of course, only serves to make the triumph of “Veá” (Shuteye number one) and “The Liar” (Shuteye number two) all the more striking and satisfying. These stories, promoted on their back covers with succinct and misleadingly simple blurbs (“A Catalan named Veá deserts his company of explorers in the Banda Oriental” and “In a provincial neighborhood bar, a young traveler remakes the events of his life. But are they lies, or a twisted new truth?” respectively) have a lot to say on the topics of identity, community, and the passage of time. And yet neither story offers clear or obvious resolutions to its often bewildering conflicts. However, I came away from Shuteye with the sense that Sarah Becan has definite answers in mind, unlike other “challenging” serial narratives that lose momentum precisely because the creator can’t answer his or her own riddle (Twin Peaks and The X-Files are two popular examples.)
I believe Becan withholds Shuteye‘s secrets from you the reader for your own benefit, that you might let it nestle inside of you for a long while, that you might respond to it not with a “She’s right, of course” or a “That’s bullshit,” but rather by sharing or debating the stories with another, or by crafting stories of your own. Becan withholds Shuteye‘s secrets so as not to deny you the pleasure of spending long, rewarding hours solving them for yourself.