Ethereal, mysterious, and unfolding at something more like a patient crawl than an actual storytelling “pace,” the “main” strip in the latest self-published mini from veteran (though far from prolific) cartoonist Kade McClements, Lost In A Tree Of Thought,, titled “St. Rita,” is something of a gorgeously impenetrable puzzle cleverly disguised as a garden-variety domestic drama. Appearances can be deceiving, of course, but in this case they both are and aren’t — and it may very well be beyond my meager intellectual abilities to flesh that statement out beyond “you’ve gotta read the comic to see what I mean,” but I’m damn sure gonna give it a try.
Ostensibly focused on an aging couple named Rita and Frank who happen across a small icon in the course of their yardwork that (remainder of sentence redacted, because that would be telling), despite its short length and loose, freehand style of illustration (reminiscent, at least in my view, of early-era newspaper strips), this book actually fleshes out its characters quite a bit both narratively and visually, the social mores they were raised with — including, yes, some relatively low-grade prejudices — informing their daily existence as much as their rather hermetically-sealed relationship with each other, and their body language and facial features display what they’re thinking every bit as much as what comes out of their mouths, perhaps even moreso.
That being said, McClements — who wisely chose to print this on an aesthetically-apropos pale yellow paper stock that really brings out his rich, inky blacks — only partially concerns himself with the day-to-day trivialities of his characters, spending some time examining their dream-state subconscious, as well. How, and how much, each informs the other is a strong but subtle subtext that runs throughout here, and while that’s an obvious enough subject for any story, not too many creators in any medium choose to tackle it, notable exceptions being Alan Moore in Providence and Promethea, Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut, and David Lynch in — well, just about everything he does. McClements doesn’t follow the paths of any of these artists precisely, of course, nor should he — but he touches on similar themes in a much more concise manner that’s utterly unique, and certainly just as open to individual interpretation.
That character or “vibe” isn’t merely confined to the script, though — the artwork, too, has what I’ll clumsily call a dreamlike quality to it, everything being completely recognizable but rendered with such borderline-insubstantiality (I may have just invented a word there) that it feels anyone and anything could not so much float away, but simply disappear from existence at any given time. That means this comic is both easy and challenging to examine on the basis of its illustrations alone, and the multi-layered narrative builds upon and reflects that same sense of “can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it” unease without clumsily or lazily crossing over the threshold into actual, ya know, dread.
Despite how things may sound, however, I’m not prepared to label this a “weird” comic. On its surface, at least, it’s an almost breathtakingly “A-to-Z” affair, but as with all surfaces herein, that thematic surface is transient, dimensionally fluid, less-than-fully-defined. McClements may have written and drawn this book, but what you make of it — how deeply you choose to dive into its metaphorical waters — is up to you. And the same is true of the rest of this mini’s uneven contents, the most intriguing of which is probably he stripe simply entitled “Anniversary,” a quasi-melancholic tale of a woman “celebrating” the anniversary of her marriage to a now-deceased husband that gently reminds readers that irony, when handled deftly, needn’t be inherently offensive. The other strips, I confess, simply didn’t quite “land” with me, although I do see what McClements was attempting to do with them. I think.
The title here, then, at least as it relates to “St. Rita,” is absolutely spot-on. This is a comic that slowly, almost imperceptibly, worms its way into the back of your mind, then lurches toward the front — and never lets go.
Lost In A Tree Of Thought is available for $6 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/lostinthought.html
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