Metronome by Veronique Tanaka

Tanaka, Véronique. Metronome. NBM, 2008. 68p, black and white hardcover, $13.95. 9781561635269.

Metronome is an unusual and interesting comic, but it’s not as unusual as the back copy on the book would have you believe:

“Just when you thought that nobody could create something new in the comic medium, here comes Metronome – a 64-page debut graphic novel by Véronique Tanaka: a ‘silent’ erotically-charged visual poem, an experimental non-linear story using a palette of iconic ligne clair images. Symbolism, visual puns and trompe l’oeil conspire in a visual mantra that could be described as “existential manga” if it wasn’t for the fact that there is a very human and elegantly structured tale of doomed relationship providing a solid foundation to the cutting-edge storytelling. A gorgeous art/graphic novel from a mysterious new artist. An experience not to be missed!”

Jesus H. Christ! This book has everything. It’s experimental, but it has a human story of a relationship. It’s a poem and its a graphic novel and its manga. Copy that promises everything like that is a real turn-off. Somehow I ordered this despite the copy, trying to overlook the sheer impossibility of anything living up to such a description. In writing about Metronome, I find it hard not to just go through picking apart the copy in light of the actual work, and I probably won’t resist completely. “Existential manga?” What does that even mean?

Metronome is a story of a “doomed relationship.” In fact, its story is an utter cliche. Man meets woman (we don’t see that). Man and woman have sex. Man and woman move in together. Man ignores woman for his work (in this case piano composition). Woman is upset. Man is a jerk. Woman leaves. Man jerks himself. Sure it’s a human tale, but it’s also lacking in anything to make the story unique. The characters are two-dimensional (which does nicely mirror the flat figure drawing) and the plot is easy to telescope. In a publicity interview found online (at various sites) Tanaka mentions a story by Alain Robbe-Grillet as an influence. The story of his that she describes sounds much more atmospheric than the one she has crafted. Robbe-Grillet rarely offers such unambiguous narratives in his work. He does often start from a generic or cliched framework but never leaves them so intact and straightforward.

The story is non-linear, slightly. The relationship unfolds as a flashback within a single scene. Starting at what is effectively the end of a story and looping back to the beginning and through to the present is classic narrative organization, often overused, though Tanaka unfolds the story in such a way that this organization is well motivated.

The pace is set.
(The pace is set.)

The book begins with the metronome. Tanaka uses a four row by four column grid of panels for every page of the book, an unvarying breakdown of space that is matched by an unvarying breakdown of time. This is almost a paragon of the time/space idea of comics, carefully regulated. The metronome which starts the book teaches the reader to read each panel as a equal increment of time. Tick Tock Tick Tock, sixteen panels of the metronome’s hand going back and forth in four rows of four beats. This regular rhythm becomes quantified in the next page when a row of the metronome is interspersed with four panels of a watch, the second hand advancing one second per panel. In this way, Tanaka forces the reader to read the panels her way, with a steady rhythm of time.

Page three starts adding other objects: a fly, a phone, a framed photo of a woman, a tribal mask of some kind. The rows show a sequence of four panels starting at an extreme, all black close-up and then reframe the object at equal increments of distance until the object is completely contained in the panel.

Panning the room.
(Panning the room.)

Then the space is explored. In four regularly reframed panels, the room containing all these objects is paced out. Further movement is introduced as the fly moves and a fan oscillates. A black drop dripping into a puddle of black liquid reintroduces the second by second pacing. In various rows the dripping is interspersed with the metronome, counting out the drips second by second. Time has not stopped but it has slowed to a snails pace and Tanaka forces the reader to feel that time passing in a distinctly quantifiable way.

Finally, a man is introduced, unmoving. The framing closes in on his face, then it closes in on the woman’s face. A page turn, a white panel, and the woman’s face reappears, framed in the screen of a digital camera. We have travelled into the flashback, the man’s memory, no doubt.

As the story progresses the flashback tells the story of the relationship interspersed with images of the man alone in the present. The segments of the flashback are visually and narratively linked to the objects previously introduced in the room. We see the mask being purchased at the women’s request, and we see her wearing it, naked in anticipation of a sexual act. The tiny figure that sits on top/as part of the mask is shown in a panel transition from the woman as she straddles the man, it’s face and posture echoing hers (see part of that scene below). Throughout, these sorts of narrative connections fill-out the story and the significance of the objects, while visual puns and metaphors help to overdetermine the man’s memory work and flashbacks. Much of the iconic repetition in this book would fall under what Groensteen calls braiding (item ten in this post). These connections are what pull the work together, though in many cases Tanaka is too obvious with them. In a story with such a limited repertoire of images/objects, a lot of the connections can be drawn by the reader. A good example of this is a bird that appears on a painting/poster on the wall of the apartment is later echoed in a real bird flying in the air above the couple as they take a hike.

Abstraction courtsy of  a lava lamp.
(Abstraction courtsy of a lava lamp.)

Tanaka’s uses the row as a primary stuctural device. Within each row the four panels make frequent use of McCloud’s moment-to-moment transitions, slight reframings of the same image (zoom out, zoom in, pan), or a simple repetition of the same image four times.

The rhythm, pacing, and visual punning of Metronome is where Tanaka’s work really shines. To say it is “existential manga” or some kind of unheard of revelation of newness is stretching the praise. It is most unusual that the copy doesn’t mention the real interesting part of the story, the rhythm and pacing. Alas.

The copy also mentions the iconic images (though I wouldn’t consider it “ligne claire”), which I can’t argue against. Tanaka’s art is iconic and geometric. The objects and setting are well handled, particularly in the way the visual puns and associations are made, but she really fails in her characters which are flat and amateurish. The comic is supposed to be “erotically-charged” but it’s a little more erotic than drawings of those iconic man and woman restroom sign characters in sexual positions, which is to say, not much.

A nudity free sex scene with awkward characters.
(A nudity free sex scene with awkward characters.)

Experiments are by nature a mix of success and failure. This is an experimental work in some ways – pacing, rhythm, timing, breakdowns, and in those ways it is successful. The success does not carry over onto the non-experimental, traditional aspects of the work: plot, characters, figure drawing. By trying to have it both ways, the work is not quite the success it could be nor the failure it might be. As a debut work of comics (Tanaka is apparently a conceptual artist in the “fine arts” world using a different name (that’s the “mysterious” part)) it is an impressive attempt.

Edit: It has come out, since my original posting of this review that, Tanaka is a pseudonym for British comic artist Bryan Talbot.