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: