How would you like me to say something relevant? It was on my mind; I might try. Dale remarked on a range of topics, including the coming election, which affects us all. But I have nothing on my mind except the comic, and finally getting it published, and empathetically enjoying the relief of the innumerable readers whose faith has been tested for lo these many days. No more will visitors frown and tuck their beaks into their chest feathers upon arrival at our site. On the contrary! Everyone will be glad.
And so shall I be: with certainty glad!
Since I can think of nothing else until the comic is posted, I might as well remark about the comic itself. At first this struck me as narcissistic, though I guess it’s why we’re all here.
For all the previous comics, I’ve had a pretty clear idea of what I’ve wanted to get across. Sometimes I think I’m overly literal in plotting the thematic/symbolic structure, although hopefully the subtler qualities of the work -- all the unpredictable, expressive irregularities of the pen -- add another level of ambiguity. This comic is different. There are so many thematic and structural switcheroos that it perplexes even me. And yet, the more time I spend with it, the more the ideas resonate. And even though I’m finally getting a grip on it, it remains ambiguous in this marvelous hovering way. The song won’t resolve to its tonic, and the longer it holds that seven chord, the more I love it.
From whence emanates the mystery? From a fisherman’s pipe? From a tear in a old sail? Nay: neither/nor! From within, aye. From the shattered and rotting hull of my own sick mind, ‘tis a pirate’s life for me. This boy of mop and bucket, bent at work on pitching deck, by my stern council shaped -- in time I learned that he myself once was! He indeed, with selfsame blood as I convey in fine canals through every limb and ligament of this selfsame bodily predicament.
Sometimes we recognize certain aspects of ourselves only in others. As I worked on the comic, gradually I recognized myself.
I’ve written down some specific things. I know a lot of people don’t like interpretations, particularly the artist’s own. If that describes you, you are about to suffer.
Actually, if you’ve only read the comic once and have any inclination to read it again, I suggest you stop reading. This will be here later. Forever, in fact.
The comic is all about the relationship of an individual to groups of people. It’s about the discomfort of belonging, the importance of autonomy, and the loneliness of self-awareness. It’s about the sometimes irrational and destructive need to explore the darkness of one’s mind. Bang! Put that on a cereal box!
One of the nice things about parties -- like in the summer at night -- is wandering away and looking at the lights and people from outside the warm swirl. I like standing in a place where the wind and the party music are both a whisper. I get this really good melancholic feeling. Music can be very persuasive, but the wind makes no argument and will never have to.
This comic is about that kind of thing. It’s about being alive in the pulsing warmth of humanity versus weird, melancholic, existential uncertainty.
I realize that for many, this is a non-issue.
In the comic, Dale choses the wind, but in horror discovers his inevitable implication in the grotesque theater of social ritual, and the subjugation of his perception to the perception of the crowd.
This idea of reversal -- inside or outside, being watched or watching, high or low, alive or dead -- appears a lot in the comic.
An obvious example: when dale goes underground, the story flows left, not right. This is the sort of thing you have to do to get to the underworld.
Another reversal occurs in the wall at the end of the field. Through its arch, Dale enters the underground. But it looks like Dale is entering from the far side of the wall. The arch is both a contiguous part of the wall face we see extending from the distance, and also its reverse, the interior. We make sense of this in parts: 1. There is a wall, 2. Dale approaches an arch, 3. Dale follows the water into the underground. But the way these parts come together is not logical. They cohere; they are intelligible. But at the same time, their association is impressionistic. (This is how we think, most recognizably in dreams, but really all the time, it seems to me.)
Dale first spies the phantom theater through a rippling pool. But space fluidly changes, and a moment later, Dale is behind some pillars in the same room as the audience.
Happening upon the phantom theater, Dale peers in from the outside -- literally from outside the panel structure, like he’s reading the comic. This is the most forceful assertion of his role as observer.
When Dale turns to address Ghost Dog, saying “that’s so sad,” Ghost Dog is out of the picture, and Dale almost seems to address the reader. The absence of Ghost Dog creates unease -- has our guide abandoned us in this strange, dark place? And because Ghost Dog is not around to receive Dale’s gaze, the reader gets it.
I like that Dale says it’s “sad,” because there are a lot of other conceivable reactions, like fear or curiosity. His interpretation reflects on himself. In a lapse of omniscient self-awareness, he pities the crowd of ghosts when he’s really pitying himself for that same error: trading people for phantoms.
This is the moment which makes him part of the crowd. Dale sympathizes with the ghosts, but fails to see what his sympathy says about himself. Failing to see the whole, he becomes a subject of the whole. But if he had seen the big picture, recognizing that his reaction reflects on his own behavior and also makes him a part of the crowd, that realization itself would have brought him into the fold. He’s human, no matter what.
In the next moment, we see Dale from the other side, and the panels which he was, with us, peering into, are now architectural elements of the phantom theater. This is another reversal. Yet another occurs in the palette: black and blue trade roles. Those squarish windows really look like a comic strip. The final image offers a closer view. Black and blue are reversed again, back to how they were when the columns were more panel separators than elements of a scene. This image reinforces Dale’s changed role, somehow sucked into the comic, no longer in a position to observe, but being observed and judged. The audience applauds him, but for a misunderstanding -- unless Dale really is part of the show.
The largest hands in the applause panel are emphasized and separated from the crowd. This is partially for clarity, a bold representative of the crowd’s collective action to help the reader understand the scene. But it’s also a link between the comic and the reader. Just as in the previous panel, where the absence of Ghost Dog directed Dale’s remark directly to the reader, the absence of a head or any kind of body to go with those big hands leaves an open window between the scene and the reader. Like Dale, who is suddenly involved in something he would rather just watch, the reader is literally part of an audience (albeit a scattered internet audience). The hands deepen the ambiguity about watching versus being part of the action.
There’s something else going on here about the reader’s eventual role relative to Dale, how they are both drawn in, but in different ways. But this analysis is starting to feel like a pyramid of spandex-wearing people. And by that I mean, it’s built up on itself and it’s silly.
Another thing is how Ghost Dog says that he couldn’t express himself when he was alive, but he can now that he’s dead. If we equate living with the party and death with the solitary thing, then we can observe that being part of the group robs Ghost Dog of his voice. But again, even autonomous, there’s that sympathy, as Ghost Dog says “I think and feel just as much as you.”
Oh, I forgot to mention that Paul’s apartment, with the curtains, is like the stage, with the curtains. And also that we view the apartment from within, the curved edge emphasizing that it surrounds us, while we view the stage from afar. But that’s pretty obvious.
I’ve been obsessing over this in isolation all day, and I’m starting to feel like Dale in the comic. I went for a run tonight, and it started to hail. Someone was playing a flute under the bridge as the traffic passed.
It feels weird to post an elaborate explanation along with a fresh work, but I’ve written it so I might as well post it. My intent is to invite those curious into my thinking, but definitely not to bar readers from their own interpretations.
Dale will probably hate this.
Please join the discussion in the forum if you have any desire.
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