Just who the hell are you, anyway?
It’s an ever-present, and ever-fluid, question for each and every one of us : think back to the “you” of ten years ago, for instance, and odds are pretty good that not only have your looks changed (unless you’ve got a great plastic surgeon), but your outlook on life has changed in many (perhaps most) key respects, your circumstances have changed (economically, romantically, maybe even geographically), your daily routines have changed dramatically. In point of fact, as alien as other people might seem at times, almost no one is more difficult to understand that than the person you used to be — except, perhaps, the person you are now. Good luck figuring that bastard out.
Add uncertainty about one’s surroundings and even the nature of the world itself into the mix and you’ve got the plight of the protagonist in Swedish cartoonist Clara Bessijelle’s 2012-published Domino Books comic Face Man in a nutshell. There’s something vaguely Lynch-ian about these proceedings, it must be said : “our man” is a theater critic who attends a performance of a play he can’t make head or tail of, only to have to sit through it again when the box office receptionist misunderstands his request for her to explain the plot to him and ends up handing him a ticket for the next show instead. It makes no more sense the second time around, of course — it’s at least intimated that it may be an entirely different production every time it’s staged — but that’s nothing compared to what happens when he finally leaves the the theater, only to find himself obviously “tailed” by a cloaked figure who’s never more than a step or so away and who achieves his goal of conscripting the critic into a secretive conglomerate of individuals known as The Identity Group not so much by force, or even coercion, but by simply leaving him no other options that seem to make any sense.
Not that entering their den is necessarily the most logical move, either, but seriously — it’s a “what the fuck else is he supposed to do?” situation all the way here.
Alluring and absorbing as this infinitely mysterious narrative is, though, it’s Bessijelle’s stunning, amazingly-detailed illustration that’s the real star of this particular show — rendered entirely in pencil, the detail she packs into each page is borderline-painfully intricate, but there’s much more to admire here than her frankly incomparable technique, as every panel is also packed to the gills with unannounced clues that come into play as the story reaches what passes for its “resolution.” In fact, I don’t care how smart or observant you fancy yourself, the simple fact of the matter is that it’s going to take at least three passes through this work in order to chisel away at its seemingly-impenetrable edifice. It all makes a kind of “sense,” though, if you’re willing to put forth the effort — and that effort is richly rewarded as the nagging little kernel of realization in your mind grows and swells and morphs into something very nearly akin to understanding. Hell, if you’re really lucky, you may even achieve a borderline-transcendent state of revelation that hits you like a ton of bricks.
By now you should be fairly well clued into the fact that this is a comic that will challenge you to no end, but it’s by no means a rough slog — in addition to being a truly gorgeous thing to behold, it’s also quite funny, even if you’re not exactly sure why at first. As context becomes more decipherable, though, Bessijelle’s darkly absurdist humor likewise becomes more apparent, and if you’re one of those twisted folks (like myself) who laughs hardest when you’re laughing in spite of yourself, then you’re going to be doing a lot of that as you unravel this book’s deep, and ultimately humanistic, mysteries.
Hell, in the final analysis (and I admit my current analysis may not, in fact, be my “final” one, but I think I’ve got things fairly well sussed out at this point) this may not even be a scary story (though it’s undoubtedly frightening and unsettling in the extreme) as it is a — redemptive one? It’s certainly shot through with more warmth and compassion that it appears at first, but who knows? Nothing is as it seems here, and it could very well be that the “answers” I’ve arrived at are just another richly complex layer in an endlessly-unraveling metaphorical onion —one that I may only think I’ve arrived at the core of.
Face Man is the working definition of the old “mystery wrapped in a puzzle inside an enigma” cliche, but rest easy — there’s absolutely nothing cliched or hackneyed about it, and it will gloriously confound you at every turn. If that sounds like something you need in your life more than five bucks — and, unless you’re absolutely dead broke, it is — then order it up from the publisher with the all the urgency a work this accomplished deserves at http://www.dominobooks.org/faceman.html