Palm Ash is a comic by Julia Gfrörer set during the Diocletianic Persecutions, which were the most severe persecutions of the Christians by the Romans. It is 20 pages long and can be had via her Etsy page for $5(though there are few copies left)
Julia Gfrörer is someone whose work I’ve wanted to write about for some time. Her book, Black is the Color, put out last year through Fantagraphics was one of my favorite books from last year, and I think one of the strongest books by a contemporary artist that Fantagraphics has put out in a while. Gfrörer’s work is kind of intimidating critically though, because the space it creates for itself is so intelligent and considered, that there’s a real question of whether you really have anything to say to the book that doesn’t immediately demean your own words by comparison.
Palm Ash is more of the same in this respect. There are beats in a Gfrörer comic that are so assured and naturalistic in their wit and brilliance that you have to double take that you are in fact reading a comic still. The 9 panel grid that Black is the Color was cordoned off into is repeated here with much the same effect in that the restriction and repetition of form allow for the details of figure and gesture to become louder on the page, and the smaller character moments of the book become more noticeable. Gfrörer’s comics often live in the space of subtle hand gestures and wry looks between characters. As I mentioned when I wrote about Katie Skelly’s book Operation Margarine, the control and modulation between the wide shot and the close-up in Palm Ash, perhaps even moreso than Black is the Color, really go a long ways toward dictating mood and emotional tenor for the characters involved. We zoom out at key moments to a character with their back turned to a conversation before coming into a tight sweaty closeup within the same scene and segment of panels.
The speed with which Gfrörer can set up the emotional playing field between her characters is nothing short of remarkable. Most of these scenes that make up this book’s taut 20-pages are only two or three pages long, but you get a lot of character development just because of the assured sense of character at play here.
Let’s examine one of my favorite pages from the book to sort of see what I’m talking about with these elements:
So to contextualize this scene, this is a scene between Dia who is the lover of a Roman soldier named Drusus, who her friend is occupying while she meets with Simeon, who is a christian Martyr whose secret Martyr trick is that lions fall asleep next to him instead of eating him. Dia has a son named Maioricus who she wants to bring to Simeon so he can baptize him.
One of the interesting things with early Christianity, and one of the reasons why the Romans were initially so aggressive against it was that it largely started with women and slaves in roman society, because the faith largely sold a liberation from the yoke of the traditional role of a woman in roman society. And so a lot of the roman power structure was being undermined by this new religion which struck at a lot of the exploited labor on which the society was nestled, and what’s more, it glorified martyrdom, so it wasn’t like you could really threaten these people with death and that would be that.
So what’s interesting here is that even though Dia knows the tremendous costs associated with getting her son baptized, she still wants to because she believes in the power of Simeon’s God.
So that first panel, is after Simeon has told Dia that they will meet again in the next life, and we get this wonderful reaction where Gfrörer has whited out her eyes and there’s these heavy lines around the nose—we can see the cloudiness of her soul in that moment, her uncertainty, and there’s a certain thought process conveyed there in that simple look that is underscored by the panel after it where she looks gloomily at a smiling optimistic Simeon, and this is where she makes the decision to risk her son’s life so that he may have a better afterlife. And again we get little gestures, notice how Simeon’s hand is on top of Dia’s, he’s the certain one, Dia’s hand is pulling back, her soul is clouded in that moment. She is considering the totality of the risk, and it’s all just in this silent medium shot panel nestled between two almost repetitive close-up panels of Dia’s face. Again you can see the mental state has changed for Dia between the first and third panel, and it’s all in the subtleties of how the eyes are shaded. Again, this is accomplished because of the rigidity and repetition of the page layout, and the repetition of forms so you can register their differences.
When you get to the second row look at how much Dia’s disposition has changed from the 2nd panel in the first row and the 1st panel on the second row. It is night and day, even though it is the same shot with the same characters.
Simeon’s performance on this page is similarly brilliant. His expression in the middle panel of the page, his sad astonishment at what Dia is willing to risk. The first panel on the bottom row is probably my favorite singular panel of the entire book, and in some ways it is the pivotal panel of the book because it is where Simeon takes on the weight not only of his own arc, but also that of Dia and her son—he is willing to shoulder the responsibility for the horror that is going to happen(and most certainly, in graphic detail, does happen). His resoluteness in the final panel of the page is fully earned from the first panel to the last.
And it’s not all hyper emotional moments, there are a lot of really funny moments in Palm Ash of just black sarcastic gallows humor. Gfrörer’s comic timing is largely built on a lot of the same precepts which allow her dramatic angles to work, in terms of repetition and gesture. That she is able to easily shift between both is remarkable, and there are few writers who are as gifted in western comics at shouldering both elements so ably.
It’s interesting to think about Palm Ash in comparison with Black is the Color, because even though Black is the Color is the longer work, Palm Ash is the denser work. There are more interweaving narratives at play here. There’s several small bits like Geta’s ring—that weave through the background of the book, and create this interconnected narrative space that is extremely rich. Even though the joy of Gfrörer’s work is still largely in the details, the totality of Palm Ash is quite substantive. There is a fairly clever and brave story at work here about motherhood and the role of women within these sort of Roman Coliseum stories that have largely been taken over as male narratives. While also powerfully illustrating the both the role women played in early Christendom, and the threat they posed to the empire through that behavior.
It is horrific when Drusus charges in and yells at Dia “everything about you belongs to me”, but she has already subverted this statement, and even as everything in her life is taken from her, that defiance and her agency in the choices that precipitate the final actions of her life have already given her back a measure of humanity that previously had been closed off from her.
I have certainly said it in places before, but Palm Ash is nothing if not more evidence to it’s testament, Julia Gfrörer is absolutely one of the most gifted storytellers in comics, and anytime you get to read one of these books, it’s really quite wonderful.