Saturday, August 8, 2009
Delphine, issues 1-4, by Richard Sala, published by Coconino Press, Fantagraphics.
The fourth and final volume of this series was published recently, so I thought it would be an appropriate time to pull out the other issues and review the whole thing. There are some “spoilers” at the end, so beware.
A young man (who’s name is never revealed) meets a young woman named Delphine. We’re introduced to these two in a flashback while the young man is looking for her in a strange town. The couple had met at school, spent time together, and then at the beginning of the summer break, the girl had to go visit her sick father. Delphine asks the young man not to forget her. She doesn’t come back, so the nameless young man goes looking for her.
Flash-forward back to the present. The young man inquires about Delphine at 13-31 Hood street, the address he has for her. He’s told by the old woman there that he has the wrong address. An old man offers the young man a ride to the correct address across town. The young man accepts and this is where the adventure truly begins.
They take a detour to pick up the old man’s mother. They then go to a “meeting” in a graveyard that turns out to be a funeral attended by a dozen wrinkly old women. The young man is left behind by his ride. He gets another ride from a different old man and shares the back seat with three scary looking old ladies. They stop to stretch their legs after taking a short-cut through a dark, wooded area. The young man is then promptly beaten to a pulp by the old ladies who wield big tree branches. He saved by yet another old man with a beard who wields a knife and chases off the young man’s attackers.
Got it? Good. That’s the first issue in a nut shell. And the set-up for what’s to come. It reads like a some kind of familiar ghost story. It’s all paced out, lay’d out perfectly. Sala deftly strings these sequences together and each scene works on me like a symbol. The dark woods, the old women, the lost love: They all act like symbols and build on each other to further the narrative. More importantly, these symbols rhyme with my own feelings about the symbols themselves. So, in this way Sala plays with genre conventions in a fashion that I find very enjoyable as a reader. There are certain plot points that feel like references to classical mythology such as the three headed dog or “sleeping beauty.” Yet, they don’t come off as ham-fisted injections or seem like they are attempts at making the story “weird” for the sake of atmosphere.
The story surrounded me and carried me away to a very real world. It’s a cartooned, exaggerated world, but a real world nonetheless. In addition, Sala marries a sort of slapstick physical humor with real horror. What I mean is, sometimes a truly frightening moment is amplified because the scene leading up to it is funny. It’s something that threw me off balance as a reader (in a good way). One minute I’m laughing at the absurdity of the situation and the way that a scary looking witch of an old lady is drawn—and then I’m actually really scared on the next page because this seemingly harmless (drawing of an) old lady is beating the shit out the main character.
Sala’s drawing style in this work is also well suited to the narrative. Black containment lines and umber-y washes create a stark mood. There isn’t much “feathering” of the lines, it’s less of a baroque ornamental style than I’ve seen from him in the past. The layouts are impeccable: very clear and superbly paced. Sometimes it’s like watching dominoes drop. Scene to scene, symbol to symbol, Sala adjusts his style to best suit the story. There were times when I wished that some of the “monsters” were drawn scarier than they appeared but then it would all sort of balance out because the truly frightening passage would come on the following page. I’d go back and look at the funny looking scary monster and think to myself that it was actually drawn perfectly for that scene.
Another aspect of the presentation of the story that I find intriguing is how the covers and endpaper flaps (in color) add to my understanding of the story even though the scenes depicted do not necessarily reflect something we see happen in the story. The front covers all illustrate particular story points (each show the young man) but the endpapers and back covers are more symbolic. The back covers are all images of Delphine that are loaded with symbolism: Delphine combing her hair before a mirror, Delphine standing beneath a haunted tree, walking on a lonely path; being offered an apple by an old woman. It’s a clever choice and a powerful addition to the overall narrative.
The young man continues his search for Delphine through issues two and three, spending all of issue three fumbling through the dark woods until he comes upon a castle. There he finds Delphine’s stepmother, a gaunt old queen of a woman, gazing into a mirror. Again, the symbols here take over. I know I’m reading THIS particular narrative but I can’t help but think of other, similar stories that utilize the same symbols. So something happens in my brain, and the story WIDENS somehow in a way that is difficult to describe. I noticed that the story GREW in my mind when I took breaks from reading, allowing me to immerse myself in the story like a dream.
When the young man awakes in a house, not in a castle, the address is, of course, 13-31. He’s finally found the correct address. He thinks he’s finally figured it out. He finds his beloved Delphine at last but she’s asleep, a prisoner of the step-mother. But who’s really trapped Delphine, or the young man? Trapped by his own desire, he falls into a sleep of his own. Who has forgotten who? Has the young man forgotten himself? The end is in the beginning.