The White Elephant

by Ryan Paul

1 September 2004


The White Elephant

(Alternative Comics)
US: Jul 2004

The Medium is the Message

Damon Hurd had an auspicious entrance into comics. His first published work, My Uncle Jeff, was nominated for a prestigious Eisner Award, the highest award in the industry. His second work, the three issue series A Sort of Homecoming, also garnered critical acclaim. Early press for his newest work, the graphic novel The White Elephant suggests a hat trick for young writer.

A common thread amongst Hurd’s works suggests the reason for his success: he tells simple stories in a way that is perfectly suited to the medium of sequential, illustrated narrative, known more commonly as “the comic book”. Case in point: The White Elephant.

The story revolves around Gene, a young man struggling to come to grips with the memories of his past. Each night, he revisits old family get-togethers, talks with friends he hasn’t seen for years, and tries to avoid the skeletons in his family closet. However, the content isn’t really that original; it is a story similar to many that we have seen in movies, TV, and books over the years. What is unique is the way Hurd’s narrative fits perfectly the medium of the graphic novel.

Hurd’s story is a series of layered storytelling forms. Gene relays his dreams to an unnamed, archetypal therapist, which the two see played out before them. Gene moves between his therapists couch and interacting physically with his dreams, all of it played out on a stage in an empty theater, which in turn is, of course, printed on the page.

It is a structure that only works in a comic. The story itself is too slight for extended treatment in prose, as Hurd only sketches out the most shadowy details of Gene’s life. Neither would the theatrical conceit play well in a purely prose form, and it would be almost unforgivably pretentious on the big screen. And if it were played out on an actual stage, it would lose the impact of nesting the action in an empty theater.

No, it works uniquely as a comic because of the medium’s unique juxtaposition of the visual and the textual. The dialogue, presented as it would be in a script or screenplay, gives one the feeling of looking underneath the story, at the skeleton upon which it lives. The empty theater and Spartan stage reflect both the minimalist story and the barren, sere psyche of the protagonist. And the interaction of immaterial memory and physical characters, including the appearance of the titular animal, creates a surreal atmosphere that captures Gene’s confused mental state.

There are some who push the boundaries of the medium. Artist David Mack explores the nature of the panel-page distinction, breaking boundaries and incorporating every bit of printable space in his storytelling. Writer Alan Moore deconstructs both genre stereotypes and the nature of narrative form itself, breaking down barriers between the art and the audience. Hurd’s goal, however, seems not to be to explore such experimental and avant-garde structural concepts, but rather to maximize the storytelling potential of the medium. As his work on The White Elephant shows, there is far more to the simple combination of words and pictures than many realize.

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