Mixed Metaphors: A Map in The Dirt

Posted by on March 22nd, 2010 at 6:44 AM

Rob reviews Jess Smart Smiley’s comic, A MAP IN THE DIRT, which will appear in the upcoming HIVE #4 anthology.

Jess Smart Smiley’s story, “A Map In The Dirt”, will be appearing in the fourth issue of the comics anthology HIVE.  It’s a cross between a children’s book quest comic and anti-hunting screed, and while there were individual elements of the story that were interesting on their own, they didn’t necessarily mesh as a coherent whole.  The story involved a group of animals (some anthropomorphic, some not) on a desperate journey, trying to avoid initially-unseen forces.  As more and more members of the group were lost, it was revealed that they’re being chased by hunters who were intent on slaughtering and then eating them.  In the end, the Deer character managed to reach the sea as she died, ensuring a sort of long-form triumph of collective memory.

Smiley’s page design at times was enormously striking, especially in the full-page evocations of the animals’ collective memory.  Smiley’s lettering in particular acts as part of the mark-making on pages that used white lines on black backgrounds that looked almost like a woodcut.  Unfortunately, her more conventional page design and figure work lacked the kind of delicacy that this story called for.  Smiley was clearly going for myth-making and world-building in this story and simply didn’t have the chops to pull it off on every page.

Part of the problem was Smiley’s character design.  Some of the animals were animals, but Deer was a woman wearing a deer mask.  The doughy character design of the humans revealed the way Smiley stacked the deck thematically.  There was a weird tension in the way humans and animals interacted.  The humans were one-dimensional predators that the animals didn’t understand, but the animals rarely acted in a predatory fashion either.  Indeed, when a fox caught a snake, Deer chastised fox for catching it.  The resolution of the story had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, with the helpless demise of the delicate animals coming at the hands of unreasoning, brutish (one might say animalistic) hunters.  The ways in which Smiley dragged out the deaths of the animals was especially manipulative.

Deer being a person wearing a deer mask was a particularly twee move, further stacking the deck against the hunters since they didn’t perceive her as a human.  It also bore an unfortunate, if perhaps unintentional, connection to Art Spiegelman’s MAUS.  I won’t pursue that connection any further here because I can’t be certain of the author’s intent.  What redeemed the story were its more mythical and mystical elements.  The pages toward the end that combined symbology with Smiley’s idea of collective memory as a tangible force.  The idea that memory is contained in water that would one day flood the world was a powerful one, made all the more so by Smiley’s use of more abstract imagery.  A comic that would have leaned more heavily on that sort of imagery might have been more affecting and more subtle at the same time.

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