Lone Pine by Jed McGowan
This post originally appeared at The Panelists on May 13, 2011.
This ended up being more of a response to Charles’ post on Lone Pine than a review of it’s own. If you haven’t already, go read his post, as he covers all the basics.
Lone Pine by Jed McGowan. Self-published, 2010. Distributed by Adhouse Books.
I’ve reread Lone Pine more times than I can remember now (six? seven?). I love its aesthetics of effective minimalism: flat visuals of depth, images of looking, tones and silhouettes, nature, clouds. Yet I am not sure what to make of it. I keep reading it, but I always end up wondering. The ending in particular defies any narratively logical explanation, though I am not sure any logical ending would improve the book.
McGowan plays against genre expectations in a way I find more effective than Charles seemed to. Lone Pine reads like some kind of modern noir as seen from a very minor character (Jasper), the boyfriend of the protagonist’s sister, the guy that might appear in one scene early in the story as a background figure with a line or two. He really has nothing to do with the troubles: the crime gone wrong, the heist, the double-cross, whatever has gone on that would form the plot. The antagonists admit as much in one scene: they give up chasing him down because he clearly doesn’t know anything. Jasper isn’t really part of that story. He just sees parts of it without really understanding, consequently, without the reader really understanding. And I don’t want to understand. Anything McGowan would have done to fill out the crime drama that goes would have only made Lone Pine more generic (in both senses of the word).
Strangely, while I don’t disagree with any of Charles’ descriptions of the book, its silences, its non-action, its lack of characterization, it’s story that never really jells, I evaluate them differently in the end. I find the non-action a positive aspect, action would be what an action hero, a superhero, would have done, I don’t want to see more of that. I don’t care that the protagonist “doesn’t seem worth reading about.” I could read this book if it were just Jasper wandering around in the words and having abstract conversations with his shadowy woman who cares. I think McGowan works the line between narrative and non-narrative quite successfully through the power of his visuals. He works that line by moving away from the narrative. Don’t we have enough comics that are all about the narrative at the expense of anything else? To me, the narrative, such as it is, reads as rather modern. It’s not following conventions of plot and conflict&em;at least any conflict that arises is quickly mitigated: the chase scene has no chase (the antagonists give up), the car crash is neither shown nor does it seem to affect anyone, at one point a character “may be pointing a gun” at Jasper but is obviously not, Jasper thinks about attacking the antagonists with a stick but he doesn’t. We don’t need these conflicts, we know how they go: “drugs, money stupidity… you can fill in the rest” as Jacqueline says in the story.
Charles notes that:
Lone Pine is a catalog of experiments strung along a vanishingly thin thread of story, the results favoring mood over outcome. Suspended between quietude and mute dread, the book privileges silence (only about a third of its pages include text), and the openness created by that silence allows bemusing effects to proliferate, a showcase for McGowan’s probing of form. The outcomes are often exquisite—but the trick for comics, at least for me, is to counterpose story and graphic effect in a mutually reinforcing relationship, a feedback loop in which each continually reinvests the other with meaning.
While I might not call Lone Pine “a catalog of experiments” I agree with Charles’ sentiments about the foregrounding of form, mood, and graphic effect. Except I don’t feel like that “reinforcing relationship” is missing. To me, in this case, and in many cases, the aesthetic of the graphic effect is enough in conjunction with what story there is to string it together, because I don’t think there is no “counterpose of story and graphic effect,” it is there, but it is weighted to the graphic. In fact, I don’t really see how that weighing of graphic over story is all that different than the all hallowed Kirby, who seems to be appreciated more for graphic effect than any particular narrative skill. Ditto many other comics “greats” (pick your favorite reclaimed/rediscovered comic artist from the past), but the difference being that McGowan is not concerned with placing his graphic effect onto a conventional, plot-based genre story (not that he has totally eschewed that base level, of course, though he does eschew the focus on heroic action). And he is all the more successful for it.
I feel like any comments I can make praising the visual narrative and aesthetic of Lone Pine would be little more than a list of examples: the use of point of view, the focus on nature, the lovely use of color and tone, the slow and deliberate pacing, the frequent movement into abstraction (particularly in that mystifying ending). All these elements work in conjunction with the narrative’s move away from action and conventional genre plotting, in fact they do much of the work to create those movements. I think Charles hits on a lot of those elements from a formal perspective, making it perhaps a little redundant for me to rehash those aesthetic/formal successes. For a first book, McGowan is exceedingly skilled at working with many formal elements of comics, and I could pull out dozens of examples that work both visually and in keeping with the narrative mood. I have sprinkled this post with a few examples that hopefully will (mostly) speak for themselves.
Sadly, Lone Pine hasn’t seemed to have gotten much attention since it’s release, perhaps it’s location somewhere between genre/action and autobiographical style realist fiction has turned off readers who don’t know what to do with it. That is to their detriment, for this is a strong comics from an artist worth paying attention to now and in the future.
Other reading: I wrote about McGowan’s webcomic “Ritual of the Savage” at ComixTalk. I’ve also written previously about Lone Pine’s earlier incarnation on the web as “Bluesy Face.”
Here are a few comments that were originally posted at The Panelists:
“It’s a bit unfair of you to dangle that comment about Kirby like bait when we’re supposed to be talking about Lone Pine, don’t you think? ”
Haha. I couldn’t resist. I just couldn’t. Even though I could have picked a better example.
In re the “action” comment, I was mostly reacting to your comments about the scene where Jasper picks up the stick as he watches the antagonists and his gf’s brother. At that point, the decision to not attack seemed to me like the choice against the genre plot, against heroic action. A heroic character would have engaged. Most people would not (three guys with guns against one stick held by one hungover guy).
For me the decision Jasper makes is against action. He, perhaps surprisingly in this type of generic context, actually listens to what people tell him (“don’t get involved”). To me, that works, because it is framed against the genre.
I do agree that it would have been silly to have Jasper attack the three thugs with a stick at that point. Actually, that’s a lovely scene, precisely because of the way action is threatened but then averted.
I have to admit that I’m not particularly interested in the book’s crime (?) angle, nor do I think I’m supposed to be—except as a frame for Jasper’s choices, of course. So I don’t have a problem with the story being “framed against the genre” (which is well put).
I guess what I don’t buy in Lone Pine is the plot’s final retreat into mystical (and formal) abstraction, which struck me as a kind of naive “Zen” gesture and fairly thinly motivated. OTOH, it may be that Jasper’s lack of any backstory—which I took as deliberate—would make any resolution seem thinly motivated.
What I’m trying to get it is not simply that the book refuses generic choices but also that it posits retreat as something like an ideological stance. That bugs me for some reason—probably because, at the end of the day, and all framing against genre aside, I do think that our lives are defined by the choices we make, or fail to make, at those meaningful decision-making moments.
Lone Pine pursues abstraction at the expense of character, a move that’s difficult to sustain IMO in a long-form story.
Sorry, slow to reply…
But isn’t “retreat” also a choice. Perhaps your issue is not so much that there isn’t a choice, but that we don’t see any effect from the choices made?
I do agree that the ending is problematic. As I noted in the post, I’m still not sure what to make of it.
Derik, thanks for a such a thought-provoking response. Stimulating!
It’s a bit unfair of you to dangle that comment about Kirby like bait when we’re supposed to be talking about Lone Pine, don’t you think? 😉
I like your observation that Lone Pine is “weighted to the graphic.” Well said, and true. It’s also true, as you point out, that graphic effects are central to the pleasures of comics, and that even many readers who say they prioritize story are actually at least as interested in visual and formal qualities. That’s certainly true of most of my comics reading, BTW.
I do think, though, that “conventional genre plotting” becomes a bit of a straw man in your comment above. I wasn’t asking for conventional genre plotting, per se; I was asking for action, and I didn’t mean that in a slam-bang Kirbyesque sense, or the usual genre sense. I meant that in terms of meaningful decision-making: genuine nodes of choice, consequential choice. It’s not parochial, I think, to ask that stories exhibit consequential action in that sense: meaningful decisions and meaningful outcomes.
What’s at the heart of my impatience with Lone Pine‘s narrative is not its refusal of genre tropes (hey, I like that refusal!) but its embrace of passivity and inaction at the expense of consequential moral action. I get the feeling that McGowan hasn’t quite managed to unite such action with his interest in visual poetic effect.
I think your point about Jasper being a bit player who’s been thrust into the spotlight is spot-on. My own point about Jasper was not simply that he is undifferentiated and therefore uninteresting as a personality, but that the book’s emphasis on perceptual effects—as in all those POV sequences you mention—in fact depends on his lack of personality, drive, and, well, gumption. Character and story are mutually dependent here: Jasper is like one of those nameless, dazed, and helpless characters, surprised by circumstance, that one sees so often in flash fiction. I kept waiting for him to make the transition from being someone to whom things happen to someone who makes things happen, yet when that moment finally comes—if it does—it’s in the form of Jasper becoming a “tree,” which in this case means becoming an abstract pattern among the many patterns that McGowan is so taken with. The story—and maybe this is genius, I don’t know—teases with the possibility of consequential action but then retreats, and even has its protagonist retreat, into abstract patterning. To express frustration with that sort of narrative move is not the same as demanding a generic, action-filled outcome to a genre story.
I do agree with you, Derik, that Lone Pine exhibits an exceptional command of comic art’s formal and aesthetic qualities, especially for a first book. I too have reread it a number of times, because, despite my griping, I can’t seem to leave the book alone! Where we differ is that it wouldn’t be enough for me, not in a book-length work like this, for Jasper to wander in the woods having eerie conversations without any narrative resolution.
Jasper, dammit, get a hold of yourself! 🙂