Submerged “Underwater” : Deciphering Chester Brown’s Abandoned Opus

Unfinished works have dotted the comic-book landscape probably for as long as the medium has existed — how many Golden Age characters were one-off experiments, never to return? — but more often than not in recent years, good, old-fashioned cancellation was the most common reason stories were either never concluded, or wrapped up in considerably truncated fashion. For years, of course, the “Holy Grail” of incomplete stories was Kirby’s Fourth World saga, but eventually Jack was able to give readers a finale of sorts with The Hunger Dogs — even if it was considerably different to whatever he would have produced had his books been allowed to lead their natural “life spans” — but the advent of creator-owned titles has given rise to a different type of “undone” comic : those that are abandoned not by corporate-dictated necessity, but by choice.

Probably the most (in)famous of these is Alan Moore’s Big Numbers, which sent two artists running away from it screaming before The Bearded One finally realized that maybe completing the series wasn’t worth the price being exacted on his collaborators’ mental health, but even there a relatively concrete idea of where the story was headed and what it was going to be about isn’t hard to come by given Moore’s meticulously-detailed script notes and the information he’d freely divulged about the project in various contemporaneous interviews. In short, we have a pretty solid idea of where it was headed, even if we’re less certain about the particulars of how it was going to get there.  A plan existed, if only somebody could have withstood the experience of having to draw the damn thing.

A considerably more interesting — and frankly more mysterious — example of a major work walked away from, at least to my mind, is to be found in Chester Brown’s Underwater, the follow-up series to the cartoonist’s acclaimed Yummy Fur  that was published by Drawn + Quarterly and ran from 1994 to 1997 before being first “put on hold” (Brown intimating at the time that he’d get back to it after finishing Louis Riel) and then given up on altogether. It lasted a total of eleven issues prior to Brown’s attentions being shifted elsewhere, and while I can certainly understand why figuring out a way forward with it was probably a daunting task almost from its inception, an artist doesn’t usually end up in a quandary of the “should I stay or should I go?” variety if they’re doing something dull and inconsequential — which, I suppose, is my way of saying that Underwater, while a bit of an intentional mess, is most assuredly an interesting and ambitious one.

Hell, maybe it’s too ambitious — even though, at least on paper, the story appears as if it should be simple : after all, it’s just about an infant girl growing up, and most of the events detailed in its pages are of the highly mundane variety (eating, playing in the crib, riding in a car, first exposure to television, playing with toys, learning to put on a coat, first exposure to comic strips, visits to the homes of relatives, first day at pre-school, etc.), so what could be so tricky about that?

Well, for one thing, the world that our central character (I hesitate to use the term protagonist), Kupifam (who’s actually one of a pair of twins, but the other, Juz, is at the very least considerably less precocious than her sister, if not developmentally stunted altogether), inhabits is considerably different to our own — the beings who inhabit it don’t appear to be human so much as proto-Shrek ogres or something — with societal norms, institutions, and rules that are only vaguely recognizable, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Considerably more groundbreaking, and potentially problematic for those who hold fast to the structures of conventional narrative, is the fact that the entire story is presented from Kupifam’s point of view, and while that brings with it a wealth of storytelling possibilities, it also engenders a number of “deal-breakers” that more than likely sent a good few readers heading for the exits in the fairly early going. See, for example, what you can make of this :

Oh, sure, over time the apparent gibberish begins to make more sense — Brown admits in an early letter column (a later one would feature correspondence from none other than the “real” Patch Adams, prior to his unconventional approach to medicine being mythologized on the silver screen by the late, great Robin Williams, albeit in not exactly one of his best films) that what he refers to as “Underwaterese” is more or less entirely decipherable, and if you read all the issues in one go that definitely proves to be the case even before Kupifam’s increasing awareness/consciousness begins to “settle down” to the point where she’s hearing/processing things in recognizable English —but her nascent ability to interpret the events going on around her makes for a difficult, if ultimately rewarding, reading experience even after you’ve done the Finnegans Wake thing and more or less wrapped your head around the linguistic “games” being played here. Dreaming and conscious reality are presented with equal weight in this comic — as is almost certainly the case in the infant mind — and often blend together with no clear delineation between the two so that multiple figures merge into one, bodies (most particularly Kupifam’s own) float, limbs penetrate through solid objects, etc. One particularly memorable sequence, at the beginning of issue three, even features Kupifam being eaten by her father before walking up a staircase inside his mouth, emerging giant-sized into a room, and then waking up in her crib. Remember what they say — “to a kid, everything is real.”

To the extent that you can find other analyses of this series online — and trust me when I say this is probably already the most lengthy — comparisons to the films of David Lynch are more or less inevitable, but I think the same common error is made in the interpretations of both : sure, saying something along the lines of “this is like Eraserhead if it was told from the baby’s viewpoint” is natural enough, but at some point anybody saying that is most likely going to refer to both Brown and Lynch’s work as being “surrealistic,” and I’m sorry, but that’s simply not the case. What Underwater has in common with Lynch in general, and with Eraserhead in particular, is that both are impressionistic works, and that any sense of the “surreal” that they impart is an end result of that impressionist ethos. Things only “don’t make sense” because the filter through which they are presented is so inherently alien to us — which is a little bit ironic, I suppose, in that this comic is probably the most authentic presentation of how we all saw the world when we were little kids that anyone’s ever attempted — but to call it “surreal” is to mistake an outcome for the process by which it’s achieved.

Artistically, Brown is in fine form throughout this series, and makes so many well-timed transitions — some subtle, some jarring — as it progresses that the mind very nearly reels : the first four issues are presented in the visual style that he had adopted post – Ed The Happy Clown in Yummy Fur that saw intuitively-placed and -sized panels juxtaposed against stark, black pages, then from issues five through nine the backgrounds become a neutral gray and most pages settle into a grid-free six-panel presentation, and finally, numbers ten and eleven revert and/or evolve into “old-school” six-panel grids that take up more or less the whole of the newly- white pages they are presented on, with each “new look” both signalling and augmenting developments in Kupifam’s increasingly-solidifying awareness of consensus “reality.” By both definition and default this means that the earlier issues are more visually interesting and unpredictable than the later ones (particularly the last two), but that’s also just a depressing fact of life : the more our consciousness develops, the less absolutely singular is our worldview. We become cognizant of what’s “real” and what “isn’t,” and there’s probably a fair amount of, for lack of a better term, magic that’s lost along the way as we realize we are part of a larger world that exists entirely apart from our perception of it. Damn, but I’d give anything to see the world through the eyes of an infant — or even an animal — for just one day before I depart this Earth. It’s gotta be an experience that even the best psychedelics can’t hope to duplicate.

Another superb thing that Brown’s able to communicate entirely by visual means is the physical growth and development of both Kupifam and Juz. Obviously, time works entirely differently by this book’s internal logic, and while these eleven issues probably encompass the first three or four years of these girls’ lives, each successive comic picks up more or less precisely where the last one left off (lending weight to my own pet theory that these may be the stitched-together remembrances of her childhood of a much older Kupifam, perhaps even as she’s approaching the end of her life), and while the twins are growing and changing, you really don’t even notice it until you flip back through several installments, so smooth and natural is the delineation of their developing bodies. Again, it’s tempting to say that not much is happening in this comic — and it’s not always easy to intuit what is going on (for my money, no matter how many times I read it, I still can’t decide if Kupifam’s dad is forcibly removing her from school over the course of issues ten and eleven or if he’s simply picking her up at the end of the day and the extra “drama” presented is all a function of her perception, for example) — but at the same time, in a very real sense, everything is going on, we’re just not given an easy way to interpret or process any of it. Brown has done most of the work, sure,  but damn if somehow a fair amount of the heavy lifting isn’t left up to us.

The series stops — it can’t fairly be said to “end” — on a note that I don’t really find much more curious than any number of others, with Kupifam being slightly freaked out by a mask she sees in the apartment of presumed stranger who happens to live next door to somebody her father has gotten into an altercation of some sort or other with, so why Brown threw in the towel at this point is every bit as unknowable-to-anyone-other-than-him than where he would have taken things if Louis Riel, and later non-serialized works such as Paying For It and its literally spiritual successor, Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus, hadn’t proven to be of greater interest to him, but Underwater certainly gave — and continues to give — us plenty to mull over even absent a resolution (hell, we probably didn’t even reach the middle), and the fact that most of its chapters were presented with absolutely gorgeous and instantly memorable covers and were appended with continued installments of Brown’s superb (and equally aborted) adaptation of the Gospel of Matthew ensured that each issue certainly gave readers their money’s worth, despite D+Q’s constantly-fluctuating cover prices at the time. Sure, the entire project will probably always be remembered as something of an enticing enigma, but who knows? Given its subject matter, dreamlike structure, and necessarily-unquantifiable series of abstractions, chances are pretty good that’s how it would have ended up being viewed even if Brown had been able to decide how he wanted to continue — and ultimately finish — it.

 

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