By Ben Boruff
Deep below the colorful lithosphere of indie comics lies a core of melancholy, aphoristic, and often minimalistic comics that explore the more nuanced elements of loneliness, solitude, and longing. Occasionally, these comics bubble to the surface of the indie comic zeitgeist, but more often they remain hidden, churning below the consciousness of casual fans. I call this subgenre of indie comics "epigrammatic gloom," and it is oddly refreshing. Comics of the "epigrammatic gloom" genre eschew the usual dressings of intricate plot, and they favor the power of artwork over the power of dialogue. Like the beginning of Up and the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, an "epigrammatic gloom" comic allows visuals to lift the weight of the story's emotional elements, and this tactic is almost always effective. Without the burden of dialogue, panels are able to burn with color, and background artwork—often vast and simple to enhance the protagonist's isolation—is not obstructed by overbearing bubbles and squares. Claire Connelly’s clever comics contain copious amounts of this molten melancholy, and Paper Crown is among the best of Connelly’s impressive work.
Like the works of Tom Gauld, Connelly’s comics often feature solitary, unnervingly relatable protagonists—tragic heroes who spend their time reflecting on existence and social status. In Paper Crown, that protagonist is a lonely scarecrow with a paltry crown. Like many of Connelly's characters, the unnamed scarecrow has a smooth, round face and black circles for eyes. With his suspenders and mismatching shoes, Paper Crown's scarecrow looks like a frumpy version of Jack Skellington.
Most "epigrammatic gloom" comics do not offer backstories or resolutions, but they do offer ideas—and the ideas contained in Paper Crown are both intriguing and frightening. Philosopher and social critic Cornel West once spoke at length about "decline, decay, and despair," and Connelly's Paper Crown is one of the most concise and artfully rendered depictions of those three concepts. The comic's isolated scarecrow reflects on his existence, wondering about his past and cursing his present. Most readers of "Harlem" by Langston Hughes assume that "Or does it explode?" is the most poignant answer to the poem's initial question—"What happens to a dream deferred?"—but Connelly seems to focus on the poem's other scenarios:
"Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load."
Paper Crown's scarecrow sags, literally, from a couple sticks of splintered wood like a forgotten prophet. And we, the readers, get to experience his muted musings.
Claire Connelly's comics are more targeted than those of her contemporaries. Tom Gauld, author of Goliath and Mooncop, favors the relative complexity of situational irony. Red Giant's Rich Foster, a promising comic creator in the San Francisco Bay Area, takes time to highlight the grittiness of character flaws. Image's Malachi Ward, author of From Now On, injects his stories with more dialogue than most writers of "epigrammatic gloom" bother to include (though, in the case of From Now On, the dialogue works well). Paper Crown, however, explores a single experience, strips that experience raw, and then exposes it to the reader with thick, black silhouettes and volcanic color. Paper Crown is a tricky comic: Connelly filled the five-page story with ideas that are both plain and potent. Seemingly dormant—until they erupt.
Writer/Artist: Claire Connelly