A Tana Oshima Double-Bill : “Masquerade”

There’s a particular line in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell that has always stuck with me : Netley, who’s assisting the Moore/Campbell iteration of Jack The Ripper, Sir William Withey Gull, with his monstrous work is having an entirely understandable existential freak-out and says “I don’t know where I am anymore,” to which Gull replies that they are in a “radiant abyss where men meet themselves.”

I suppose that must be true. When you do something that’s so far beyond the pale, so undeniably evil, then you’re forced to confront yourself , to acknowledge what you’re capable of, to either live with it or go completely insane — maybe both.

In more recent years, another diamond-sharp Moore line that resonated deeply came in his superb Lovecraftian masterpiece done with artist Jacen Burrows, Providence, which at one of its most harrowing points shows its protagonist, Robert Black, sexually assaulting a young girl — only it’s Black’s mind in the girl’s body, and the mind of an ancient, parasitic, brain-swapping occultist inside Black. His body is literally raping “him,” and the attacker inhabiting it tells Black that under such consciousness-shredding circumstances, “one begins to question the very phenomenon of identity itself.”

A lot of my friends in the “indie” comics scene give me shit for reading Alan Moore stuff — a lot of my friends are depriving themselves of some of the best, most powerful work out there.

I have no idea whether or not Tana Oshima reads Moore — her four-panel grids and first-person “internal monologue” narration are reminiscent of Moore and Maark Beyer’s The Bowing Machine story from Raw volume two, number three, but those are tropes utilized by any number of cartoonists in any number of comics — yet in her forthcoming self-published mini, Masquerade (handsomely presented on heavy “construction”-type paper between card-stock covers in blueish grays and grayish blues, yellow-greens and green-yellows) she addresses, in the space of just 16 pages, both themes presented so starkly in those Moore quotes, yet does so in a manner entirely, and wonderfully, all her own.

Taking the form of a either a dream or, maybe even more intriguingly, a waking dream, Oshima here — by means of her stand-in protagonist — encounters faceless figures, a physically-empty-but-conceptually-packed farmhouse, and other random strangenesses that all seem to reflect buried, or at the very least obfuscated, aspects of herself. I think.

Alienation is a constant in Oshima’s work, but herein the alienation is fully internalized, the various scenarios depicted suffused with surrealism and in no way tied to anything like consensus “reality.” Always apart, always alone, always a step or more removed from “the flow,” here she takes advantage of the physical and metaphorical distance between herself and others to forge new connections-at-a-remove with shadowy, masked, or shadowy and masked phantoms, all of which tell her more about herself than they do about themselves — leading one to actively wonder whether or not they even “exist” outside her own mind.

There’s even more than a not-so-simple examination of identity going on here, though — Oshima is also, by means of the farmhouse, examining whether or not the act of making art can possibly bridge and/or resolve the gulf between herself and her understanding of herself. Does creativity bring her closer to the answers she seeks? Does it at least offer a way to express her questions? Don’t expect a resolution, of course, but —

Maybe?

There’s an intriguing epilogue that sees both the tone and style of the writing change, and the art shift to a “reverse-negative” black and white that takes things in new and unexpected directions, perhaps, but also introduces familiar Oshima elements, such as the tubular pipes/potential portals, that have made their presence more felt than known in her other comics. Could she, then, have come all this way — only to end up looking at herself from the other side of a mirror?

The implication is there. The hard-and-fast “answer” is not. But I’m not so sure it really matters. One way or another, in Masquerade, Tana Oshima goes everywhere by going nowhere, meets herself by never leaving herself, and finds herself — exactly where she started? Or, perhaps more accurately, where she has been all along.

But that still doesn’t mean that she knows where — or who — she is. Apart from being one of the most compelling contemporary cartoonists around, of course.

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Austin English should have this comic up for sale soon at the Domino Books online store. Check for updates at http://www.dominobooks.org/store.html

For more about Tana Oshima’s other comics and ‘zines, visit https://dostoievskiswife.bigcartel.com/

Please consider supporting my work by joining my Patreon. I recently lowered the price to a dollar, and you get exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings from yours truly on the worlds of comic, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, in fact, it’s been a lot of politics.

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