The Refutation of the Primitive, and the Exaltation of the Fantastic in Simon Roy and Jason Wordie’s Tiger Lung
Disclosure: On the plus side, I’ve become friends with most of the artists I like, on the downside, being friends with your favorite artists starts to limit just what you can really write about in comics. I’ve refrained from writing about some of my favorite comics this year because it feels weird. But I feel like for the most part, I’m not really the type of critic rolling out telling you to buy this or buy that–so maybe I am worrying too much about it. So what I’m going to start doing is writing about whatever I want to write about, and if I happen to be pals with the people I’m writing about, I’ll just mention it and you can factor that into any kind of hyperbole I might accidentally slip into. In this case, Simon is one of my now yearly roommates for Emerald City Comic Con; and Jason Wordie colored my friend Alison Sampson’s book Genesis.
Simon is interesting because his work is super detailed and researched, and the depth of thought he puts into the worlds he creates is pretty astounding. And then you meet him, and he looks like Ricky from Trailer Park Boys, is super funny and nice. It’s a really wonderful dissonance I think. At any rate. That’s my ethical disclosure. So I think we’re good. We good?
Tiger Lung is an adventure comic created by Simon Roy and Jason Wordie, published by Dark Horse, which explores the fantastical world of modern humans in the Upper Paleolithich through the heroic cycles of its shaman protagonist Tiger Lung. It is segmented into three short stories, the longest of which is “Beneath the Ice”(Story by Simon Roy and Jason Wordie; Art by Roy; Colors by Wordie). This story was originally a three part series appearing in Dark Horse Presents. The notable aspects of the book, however, are contained in its two new entrants to the Tiger Lung saga: “The Hyena’s Daughter” (story and art by Simon Roy); and “Song for the Dead” (story and art by Simon Roy; colors by Jason Wordie).
I double-featured my reading of Tiger Lung with the Jean-Jacques Annaud’s exceptional film Quest for Fire (1981) (shot by Claude Agostini); both the film and the Tiger Lung book take place in roughly the same paleolithic time period, and both excel in the areas of their narrative where they are able to transport us past our own biases into the fantastical world of our “primitive” ancestors. For example, when you see fire for the first time in Quest for Fire, it is contained in this shrouded bone lantern, that is carried by the clan like an ark of the covenant like holy object. The artifact and the way it is treated, bestow a kind of magical fantasy on the world; so that later in the film when you see fire finally be made, it feels very much like Prometheus himself handing it down. Where our modern biases may view these peoples as primitive–considering the scope of their invention and cleverness–it might be best to instead view these people as some of the most imaginative in our history. I think we typically try to view ourselves as a species on a trajectory–but what if there is no trajectory of consciousness–and we are the same flame responding to different winds, and taking new ever shifting forms–but always remaining fundamentally flame? What if the consideration of our being isn’t one of technological hierarchies of development–but rather one of aesthetic shape and fantasy? In this way, how is an iPhone a better sight than a shape-shifting hyena-woman? They are different spectacles. Like different genres on the same bookshelf.
Roy pivots directly into these matters with his story “The Hyena’s Daughter”. Where Annaud’s film caked on makeup and prosthetics to create a kind of alienation between the audience and the people within the world of the film; Roy works the opposite angle. He downplays the aesthetic differences of our bodies and language to try and show how this story is our human story–he’s trying to bring you closer POV wise to the miracle of the moment.
The story itself is told in a flickering shadow of greytones which gives the form of Roy’s figures a kind of cave painting impermanence that ends up being very effective for evoking the kind of fire light these stories might have been told beside. This aesthetic also allows for a muddiness which amplifies the transmorgraphic climax of the story, allowing for woman to shift horrifically into giant hyena monster. Her transformation speaks to the the mystical heights that Tiger Lung at its peak seems built around ascending.
This gets back to what I was saying before about the complexity of imagination that these people had. That they could perceive a three tiered world of spirits and demons, and magic–this wasn’t a detriment–it was a biological advantage. It was these worlds which allowed their imagination to leap by bounds, and this directly feeds into the kind of abstract creativity needed to create tools, fire, and art.
The strengths of “The Hyena’s Daughter”, and “Song for the Dead”, are that these stories place Tiger Lung between different paleolithic cultures, allowing for him to be a kind of heroic interloper–both within the world of the book, and without the worlds that are being elucidated–he is both subject and object. Tiger Lung makes the strange both fantastic and mundane. His presence is the guidepoint for dramatic tension and understanding. Beneath the Ice suffers because it is an origin story, and Tiger Lung is largely contained within a singular world unable to branch out. It is only when he leaves this singular world that things get interesting and strange. You see this in Quest for Fire as well, with Naoh really only coming into his own, and the movie itself, really only hitting it’s stride, once Naoh and his group leave their clan and have to venture out between cultures. This is also how Conan the Barbarian functions at its best as well. It’s something of a heroic archetype or something.
The last story of the book, “Song for the Dead” brings Jason Wordie back for his best work in the series. Wordie expands on the shifty textural moves made by Roy in Hyena’s Daughter, and (actually these stories could have totally been made in reverse order–so it could very well have just been that Roy adapted what Wordie did in this story–at any rate: they are related) adds in a more expansive color palette. The palette elaborates further the notion of the book sitting just outside a fire within a cave with colors bleeding and emanating off of their different sources and figures. This works especially well for “Song for the Dead” because much of it takes place in a magical spiritual plane just outside of physical reality. The way Roy and Wordie are able to depict Tiger Lung as a translucent sack of organs being carried by the shadowy crow through the spiritual forest, is one of the more affecting images of the story.
Both “The Hyena’s Daughter” and “Song for the Dead” traffic in the weaknesses inherent in Tiger Lung’s interloper role. he knows alot in both stories, but he doesn’t know everything–he is fundamentally on unsteady ground, and has to constantly trust his instincts that what he is doing is the right thing–his chief strength as a hero isn’t his innate abilities as a shaman, but his ability to listen to the moment and make clear decisions, even as he is shitting his pants at the possibilities. Which compares very well to Naoh in Quest for Fire. Both have to balance between bravery and the kind of cowardice that defines survival in a harsh world. And what’s more both need an insatiable desire to learn and experience. When Naoh goes back for Rae Dawn Chong’s character, part of it is his romantic inclinations, but a larger part is his constant curiosity and questioning of the world around him. He is willing to take the leap and see what happens because of it. He’s ready to run away too. But fundamentally both he and Naoh are characters who have to explore. Who have to push on deeper down the cave. It is the journey of the shaman, the explorer, the artist, the inventor. These are stories of creativity explored, and the thesis that these impulses must necessarily define our survival as a species. Because even though we may not be on a trajectory–it is important that we try to be. That is how we create a richness to our lived experience. That is how we create stories. It is significant that the end of Quest for Fire is both fire AND story. Naoh is telling his adventures to his clan. The fire is both there for warmth, and for company. And will be until it isn’t, and we aren’t.
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