Fixing A Hole: The Living Cain

Posted by on August 9th, 2010 at 5:52 AM

Rob reviews Lydia Conklin’s new comic, The Living Cain (Killing The Buddha).

The Living Cain, by Lydia Conklin, is a publication by Killing The Buddha, a web magazine aimed at “people both hostile and drawn to talk of god”.  This comic is part of the “What Is Missing” series, aiming more at an existential lack than any specific kind of spirituality or belief system.  That gnawing feeling that something is missing is frequently a sign that one’s steady-state of belief has been disrupted by something, leading to something else that will reset one’s equilibrium, creating a new steady-state of belief.  This is why an organized, dogmatic belief system can be so attractive for such a person: it’s a ready-made belief system that one simply needs to plug oneself into.

Conklin is one of my favorite young cartoonists.  Her stories to date have been somewhat oblique, navigating the waters of childhood wish fulfillment and cruelty.  Animals frequently play an important role as idealized savior figures.  The sheer ugliness of her figures gets across the crudeness of human interaction.  No character gets rougher treatment than Conklin’s own autobiographical likeness.  Conklin draws herself as lumpy, sullen and slightly deranged.  Her slumped-over characters and the ways in which they interact remind me a bit of what David Heatley does in his comics.

The Living Cain is a fairly straightforward account of Conklin’s battles with that gnawing feeling of emptiness.  After detailing a painful college  breakup and her own emotional inability to deal with it in anything resembling a healthy manner, Conklin goes on to talk about her idealized sense of what owning a dog might do for her.  These scenes are the best in the comic, reminiscent of Conklin’s other, weirder stories.  Conklin then discusses how the reality of owning a dog was nightmarish in comparison to her fantasies, but at least the dog she had was rescued and not dead.

Chasing that feeling is what gave her a sense of fulfillment, and led to her rescuing and fostering dogs.  Conklin doesn’t idealize the experience or try to make it cutesy; instead, she goes out of her way to discuss the less pleasant aspects of pet ownership.  She does this to underline the important part of the experience to her: that there are scores of dogs who are alive instead of dead, thanks to her.  Letting go of these dogs (to new homes) is what allowed her to fix that hole in herself.  By letting go of her desire to possess people, she gained serenity, an idea not unlike certain aspects of Buddhism.

Unfortunately, the way Conklin resolved this comic didn’t play to her strengths.  The fact that this story was mostly driven by first-person narrative captions stripped the comic of its ambiguity.  The way she wrapped up the comic was so on-the-nose as to be almost redundant; the careful reader would have reached the same conclusion without her spelling it out.  The awkward way she depicted the ugliness of her own feelings gave the comic a powerful initial charge, but that dissipated by the end.  The Living Cain was clearly a change of pace for Conklin, one that revealed that she’s better off delving into more ambiguous and even fantastical narratives.

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