Children of the Atom by Dave Lapp

Posted by on July 7th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Conundrum Press; 240 pp., $17; Softcover, B&W; ISBN: 978-1-894994-47-7

Franklin-Boy and Jim-Jam Girl live in an otherwise-uninhabited world; a dreamlike simulacra of our own.  Within their ever-shifting reality they play and explore — the landscape, their perceptions, often each other — with a childlike naïveté and profundity.  This is the basis for Dave Lapp’s comic-strip Children of the Atom, now collected by Conundrum Press.

The situations the two weave themselves into are seemingly philosophical fables.  While strips like Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes and even Dilbert have used the everyday to comment on larger ideas and beliefs, Lapp removes almost all semblance of the everyday to create a distillate strip of pure truth-seeking.  This reductivist approach carries over into his character designs as Franklin and Jim-Jam appear like amalgams of comic characters past: The blank eyes of Little Orphan Annie, the hairstyles of Calvin and Little Lulu, Charlie Brown’s zigzag shirt, etc.   Their speech, too — a jarring grammatical cacophony that’s equal parts Beckett, Joyce and Yoda — is a modernist reduction of language to the primary, subconscious level.

With these influences and references so clearly on display, it’s astonishing that Lapp manages to imbue Children of the Atom with any semblance of originality.  However, despite its obvious debt to other strips, it carries a highly original, singular voice.  He has managed to hone the rhythm of strip cartooning in such a way that it feels more like poetry than narrative storytelling.  Each strip finds an object or action to anchor it and, through Franklin and Jim-Jam’s free-form creativity, Lapp is able to use it as a springboard for wordplay, semiotic games or Freudian examination of the nature of relationships (in one strip, Jim-Jam takes a stick from Franklin before he hits her with it, to which he responds “Be you trying to take my magic from me?”).  Over the course of the collection, we see him build a mythology for the children through recurring symbols — boxes, shadows, water, trees — that build to form their own system of meaning.  The effect is that each strip is incredibly dense, often requiring — and rewarding — multiple readings.

The complexity of the strips makes this collection one that is best enjoyed over several sittings, as most are self-contained and discontinuous.  Only later in the run does Lapp branch out into story arcs (or perhaps “long-form poetry” is a better term) such as Franklin’s drowning (and subsequent rescue) and the saga of the “black thing.”  These let the ideas breathe more freely, allowing for fuller ruminations on, in the case of the latter, beauty, death and rebirth.

By the end of the strip’s five-year run, it’s difficult to say precisely what Children of the Atom is really about. Each reading opens up new interpretations of the relationship between the two children and what the various objects in their strange autumnal world tell us about ourselves. This is not a failing of the strip by any means: Indeed, it’s part of its charm, and speaks to Lapp’s talents as a writer and artist who is at one with his craft.

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3 Responses to “Children of the Atom by Dave Lapp”

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