Julia Gfrörer

Julia Gfrörer’s “Phosphorous” opens with a crying young man arriving at a pond.  His first words, which appear before him are “fuck you, fuck you dad”.  And thus begins a short but dense unpacking and subversion of the traditional representations of masculinity in patriarchal society.  It is in this deconstruction where beautiful horror streams in, and Gfrörer is able to construct a piece of sublime weight.

Male tears are something of a rare bird in the dominant fiction of our culture, and so upon their materialization you do kind of have to lap them up with a particular fervent earnestness.  In Julia Gfrörer’s “Phosphorous”: our starting point is a man in the woods.  This stone chucking man, with his pack of things, cuts something of an archetype of the self-sufficient capable man under whose foot nature bends in hierarchical accordance.  But that image is mixed in with tears and volatile emotions.  His principle struggle between himself and his father, which he expresses through sexualized obscenities, is presented here as a kind of hysteria.  This is the son who cock in hand,  wishes to assert his virility over his father, and in so doing ascend into adult alpha-malehood.  It is a primordial struggle between father and son—and by mixing that with tears,  we are presented the image of masculinity as rooted in an emotional struggle and perhaps not entirely within control of its own faculties.  It is not without importance that he has left his father, to come to this pond to and meet his obscene repressed dark mother; and it is not without mirrored appropriateness that the interactions between the two will also be sexual in its nature.

What is interesting with the man’s relationship to the woman in the pond is that rather than following the mold of the dominant patriarchal cultural representations, wherein it is the woman who is regressed by sex—here we see the man turned into the cooing monosyllabic child face of ecstasy.  While the former is not a truth, but a cliche, Gfrörer has inverted it al the same—and even though the woman in the pond is constantly shown beneath the man, she is in complete control of him from that position.  She has him by the balls.  This is still a depiction of masculinity—but there is a recontextualization from father-daughter imagery to mother-son imagery.  We see this repeatedly in the comic as the woman cradles and comforts the man throughout the entire sexual experience, even going as far as to recreate the Pieta on the shores of the pond.  Which now is a beautiful blasphemy of the dead white Christ and the black Virgin Mother now post incestual coitus. The transformation of the woman in the swamp from monstrous other to woman to virgin death mother encompasses a cycle that recalls very easily the xenomorphs of the Alien films.

It wouldn’t be inappropriate to introduce Alien(1979) here into the conversation because a lot of the dramatic forces which made that one of the great works of horror of the 20th century, are also at play here.  In Alien it is the notion that men can be overpowered, violated, and impregnated by the monstrous feminine that baselines a lot of the squeamishness of both Giger’s designs and Scott’s atmosphere of overriding dread.  As well, we also deal with the irrationality of men in Alien; Over and over again, the men of the movie make emotionally charged and altogether disastrous decisions(the most prominent of which is to bring Kane into the ship against strict quarantine guidelines, and Ripley’s stern direction not to).  In this way there are two mothers at play in Alien, Ripley, and the xenomorph—and both are disregarded by men to the peril of all of those around them.  So there’s a resonance in terms of the forces at play between  Alien and “Phosphorous”, and while these themes are in more places than Alien—I think that’s probably the clearest, best example of what we’re talking about here—and I bring it up, because the monster at the bottom of the pond in “Phosphorous” is operationally very similar to Giger and Scott’s xenomorph.

There is a mirror here between the young man approaching the strange glow in the pond, and Kane in Alien approaching the egg which contains the facehugger.  In both instances, male bravado and curiosity has led it into the clutches of a female trap.  The other main comparison here is obviously that the xenomorph represents both sex and death.  The woman in the pond operates along a similar axis, and though she doesn’t kill the young man, she is as interested in his life’s breath as she is his semen.

Shifting focus onto the woman in the pond: we see that even though, as mentioned previously, she is shown below the man at almost all times (there are in fact, only three panels where she is compositionally drawn above the man), the way that she touches and talks to the man is never subservient.  I think one of the most interesting sequences in “Phosphorous” is when she grabs the man’s penis and begins manipulating it curiously.  Even though fundamentally we can recognize this as a hand job—the way that it has been contextualized is with the penis as a foreign object—the penis is objectified here; both by being the disembodied focus of the hands in the panel, but also in the way that it supersedes the man in terms of the importance it takes in their interaction.  She orders him to show her how it works, and he immediately complies to her authority, and begins, tears in eyes, to masturbate.

As she pulls him under water the imagery turns from that of purely sex, to also that of death as we see both semen and life breath being extracted from the boy.  This idea of the female extracting sex and then bringing death is all through nature (and for what it’s worth it is also how the xenomorph functions).  It is an intensely erotic idea because it plays with our ideas of sex as something of a life force that is done to reproduce ourselves continuously through time in opposition to the finality of death; so to present sex also as the cessation of one’s life, and rather instead, present it as a reminder of death creates taboo.  And through the transgression of the taboo, we get the energy of the obscenity from which we feel the push and pull of our gaze throughout this work.

There is something else happening here and that is sex as connection.  The young man in his disconnect from his father, is here, whether explicit to his knowledge or not, to connect with both his mother and his repressed childhood.  He is having this experience to break down the walls between his present identity, and these separated refractions of self spread throughout his subconsciousness.  By introducing death play into the sex, those barriers are even further eroded, as identity weakens alongside life’s waning assertion.  This gap allows for the identity of the other, in this case the dark mother, to flood in and fill—In doing so, the man becomes the boy becomes the fetus becomes the mother. This regression becomes complete once he has died.  Two circles rotating in opposite directions, meeting at a singular incestual point joined through the mirror.

It is the culmination of these densely layered motions and counter motions which give “Phosphorous” the mesmerizing strength that it has.  It is only a six page comic nestled at the back of Gfrörer’s Black Light collection, but it follows you away from the page in a way that few comics being made currently by anyone else can claim to.  I actually showed this comic to someone at my day job, and they were completely transfixed.  It happens quickly, but it happens powerfully, and the work as a whole is quintessentially what I mean when I talk about my own interests in the horrible beautiful.  For me Gfrörer’s work is absolutely at the forefront of comics being made today, and however poorly they translate into my ability to write about them, these are the kinds of comics and creators which should be struggled with, not the regressive toy shit that dominates the weekly controversies.  You can put Julia’s work up against other top works in other mediums happening right now, and it can absolutely trump them.  It’s extremely exciting for comics.

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.