Books

'Everything is Teeth' Explores an Ambiguous Relationship With Art and Memory

Memoirist Evie Wyld and artist Joe Sumner explore beneath the surface of the graphic memoir form.


Contributor: Joe Sumner (illustrator)
Publisher: Pantheon
Length: 128 pages
Writer: Evie Wyld
Graphic Memoir: Everything is Teeth
Publication date: 2016-05

“It’s not the images that come first,” writes Evie Wyld in the opening sentence of her graphic memoir Everything Is Teeth. Wyld goes on to describe the sounds and smells of her childhood memories, but her first statement is also a metafictional nod to her collaborative process. Her cover credits artist Joe Sumner not as co-author but as illustrator in a font roughly half the size of Wyld’s, proportions that indicate that the story -- the memoir content -- is Wyld’s. And it is. At least on the surface. But Sumner’s images -- even though they come second collaboratively -- produce a far more complex and compelling work than if the memoir were Wyld’s alone.

Sumner interprets Wyld’s words, and so her childhood world, in three scales. He renders the six-year-old Evie and her family members in traditional cartoon style: their heads and facial features are enlarged to impossible proportions, and their density of detail is minimal. Their environments, however, appear roughly naturalistic: trees, buildings, streets, even actors on TV screens have more realistic shapes and less simplified detailing. But the highest level of naturalism, at times achieving photorealism, Sumner reserves for images of sharks: the core subject of the memoir, the “something that lurks beneath the surface”.

Although contrasting, the two styles Sumner selects for characters and setting are a comics norm, common since Hergé's The Adventures of Tintin and Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy: cartoonishly simplified human figures who people comparatively detailed worlds. But not only does the realism of Sumner’s sharks exceed those norms, he often renders them within shared images to emphasize the impossible contrast.

Wyld’s opening sentence is offset by a country landscape and idyllic harbor -- with the meticulous gray tones of a protruding fin shattering the flat black lines of the water’s surface. As the narrating Wylde alludes to undrawn stories about frightened relatives being alone on the water, Sumner instead depicts Evie discovering the simplistically drawn triangle of a shark tooth and carrying it home to show her family. The flat object only takes on shades of depth when it is part of the living, underwater animal.

Sharks are literally otherworldly. Their presence is not only an intrusion into Evie’s childhood reality, it undermines that baseline, revealing it be artificial, a willful illusion of simplicity that can’t be maintained in the presence of real-world threats. When Evie discovers the book Shark Attack!, its vivid renderings introduce the memoir’s first use of color beyond Sumner’s previously subdued yellows and blues. The pages come alive with a literal splash of red. Although Wyld describes a shark survivor’s torso-length scars as “a cartoon apple bite”, Sumner achieves the opposite effect: a photorealistic rendering of the horror that obsesses the child.

Wyld’s verbal images are simple and striking, too. Not only do sharks overturn rafts with “their shovel snouts” and a gored victim feel himself “loose in your skin suit”, but the mundane world is equally eloquent, her father’s skin “milk-bottle white” and her hair turning to “hot bread” in the sun. But nothing is more vivid than Sumner’s underworld of sea life, and the horror of that world proves to be much deeper than any sea.

Even little Evie seems to experience her shark obsession in relation to the mysterious, unexplained violence that lurks just beneath the adult world. She suffers visceral nausea at the family’s killing of a pregnant shark, even as Sumner draws her carrying two of the “puppies back home for frying”. Her father’s inexplicable work life and her mother’s casual insomnia are depths Evie can’t begin to fathom. Two pages after declaring a shark survivor to be “the greatest living man”, Evie’s brother comes home bloodied by bullies, a pattern that continues for much of his adolescence.

Relief seems to come with age, when Evie notices her brother “has become a foot taller than” their mother, but then aging becomes the ultimate threat. Sumner renders the death of Evie’s father in four, full-page images, textually juxtaposed with the now-adult Evie recalling the shark survivor and retroactively understanding the shark not as a monster but a “benign” if “indifferent” force. Her elderly father sits in a lawn chair, then in a hospital bed, until finally only his hat and sunglasses rest on a table framed in white on a black two-page spread.

Aside from two glimpses back into her childhood shark book, the world remains simple. Unlike the swimmer, her father’s struggle with death is a wordless cartoon. If death is the something lurking beneath the surface, it never breaks the water to reveal itself. It never provides the sufferer with a heroic struggle rendered in a more-real-than-real style. Even on his deathbed, her father cannot escape his caricature proportions: an absurdly large head with an absurdly large nose, only now framed in white rather than black lines of hair.

Wyld recounts only one incident in which she wasn’t present herself. “My parents,” she writes late in the memoir, “went deep-sea fishing a long time before I was born.” After catching fish after fish, everyone stopped and “watched mutely as a tiger shark, pale blue and clean, bigger than the boat, passed under, its fin skimming the hull.” Sumner draws the passengers in a thin strip at the top of the two-page spread, while giving nearly 4/5ths of the page space to the black water and the two largest and most fully detailed drawings of sharks in the memoir.

This oddly pivotal moment not only breaks chronology for the first and only time in the narrative, it also places Wyld’s text into the same ambiguous relationship to events as Sumner’s drawings. Like Sumner who receives Wyld’s memories only through her telling, Wyld received her parents’ memories of the fishing trip through their telling. But, like Sumner, Wyld goes beyond her source, rendering the story in her own vivid style. Her eloquence makes it her own -- just as Sumner’s artistry makes Wyld’s story his own, too.

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