Holiday Reading Review: I WILL BITE YOU by Joseph Lambert
Though I attended MoCCA Fest 2012 where I WILL BITE YOU debuted, it went under my overwhelmed radar, but fortunately, it caught my attention at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival. Several people who saw me carrying my copy commented on what a worthy book it was, and that I certainly ought to read it. It made its way into my holiday travel bag and once I flipped it open, I read the entire work without particularly intending to: it’s just that engrossing. This is Joseph Lambert’s first full-length book, though it contains a number of compilations from previously award-winning strips and sequences. Lambert, a graduate of The Center for Cartoon Studies, had been preparing this compilation for several years, and its final release by Secret Acres was much anticipated.
I WILL BITE YOU contains a number of short works of varying lengths, each containing separate worlds with seemingly interrelated thematic elements. One of the most immediately striking features of BITE YOU is the room Lambert leaves- often vast and echoing voids- for interpretation. It’s a feature he employs with particular freedom as both the author and artist, and one which highlights the potential of the auteur stance in indie comics. Mood becomes paramount in establishing interpretation, and this is in no way a feature of laziness in composition. In fact, the lengths that Lambert goes to in order to establish mood are often dizzying, and give the impression that each segment of BITE YOU contains the intense focus typical of a much longer work. Several features of Lambert’s visual language recur throughout the pieces, and one of the most immediately recognizable is his use of patterned lines or heavily scrawled dark clouds of ink to represent sound, speech, or thought. This ties into his emphasis on mood. Verbal language becomes unnecessary, perhaps even a hindrance to storytelling, in favor of more immediate representation of emotion or tone. Mood drives several interlacing thematic patterns: the role of consumption to link internal and external realities, a possible indifference on the part of the universe to human emotional states, and the introduction of unusual avenues for change. This is, however, by no means an exhaustive list of themes, particularly given the breadth of interpretation possible in BITE YOU.
[Warning: Spoilers Ahead!]
Lambert’s title piece, “I Will Bite You”, originated as his first mini comic back in 2006, but it’s position in the collection suggests a stage-setting role and continuity in his work as a whole. The movement of the narrative seems circular, but actually introduces a satisfying, and intriguing, element of change by the finale. Action plays out in two threads, one depicting an angry character below (represented by dark brushstrokes in a speech bubble), and the other the harmonious relationship between two sun-like globes above (shown with faces). As the angry character goes on a tirade, biting chunks out of winningly odd amorphous creatures, his mother, and finally one of the smiling globes above, the initially unphased globes finally face the widespread wrath, and wholesale destruction of the earth ensues. When the dust settles, the globes have been separated, seemingly into a sun and moon isolation, and the wrath of the angry figure finally elicits sympathetic disharmony from the moon. The indifference of the cosmos has been altered, albeit through violent methods. Lambert has charted the path of change, but leaves readers questioning whether the change is, in fact, positive.
“Turtle, Keep it Steady” began as a project that Lambert completed for the Center for Cartoon Studies, and stands out centrally in the book partly due to its bold yellow background and largely one-panel per page structure. It’s a retelling of the classic fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, and features anthropomorphic animals as musicians, but triumphs in rendering the tale modern through detail. One of Lambert’s most effective techniques here is using vertical line patterns to represent musical tones, contrasting the Tortoise’s measured balance between heavy and lighter rhythms and the Hare’s increasingly erratic, booze-fueled and darker tones. It’s a story that could be told in hundreds of pages of prose, but Lambert presents the most basic elements of the Hare’s rise to success and final breakdown in instantly recognizable terms while the zen-like Tortoise wins the day, or in this case, life journey. Lambert reserves a double-page spread, breaking free from panel constraints, for the most satisfying element of the tale, the Tortoise’s enduring success as a musician. Exuberant, dancing animals crowd the pages, benefiting from the Tortoise’s upbeat message. The story couldn’t be more “human” despite its animal-based competitors.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most intriguing narrative in the collection, PSR, “Paper, Rock, Scissors”. It’s a departure from the uncrowded panels typical of the book, and chooses moments from what readers may construct as a much more detailed narrative and universe. Lambert is able to suggest unusual worlds quite easily, but chooses to let the reader construct just how bizarre his narrative universe may be. At first, the reader sees what seems to be an everyman character having ice-cream stolen by a little girl, only to have it replaced by a newspaper. The story continues at year-spaced intervals, as the theft recurs, leaving scissors, and then a rock, instead of ice-cream. More narrative detail unfolds with each theft, revealing that the “everyman” is in fact some form of devil let loose from his subterranean prison once a year on a break. When he finally takes action to right the wrongs he has suffered, and stage an escape from prison, we find a theme that resonates with the earlier “I Will Bite You” narrative, and also “Tortoise, Keep it Steady”, that of outwitting a repetitive chain of events to introduce change. The central character, in each case, forces change through increasing action. If comics, traditionally, are about returning to status quo after a crisis, these characters have instead altered the status quo. That reason alone is enough to keep readers engaged and thinking.
One larger sequence within I WILL BITE YOU may hint at future directions for Lambert’s visual narratives. Like several of the other comics in the collection, “(Caveman)” features a pair of characters who are both competitive and companionable, but Lambert launches into full color panels and multi-panel layouts. The results are impressive, and impact the narrative by placing his caveman duo as smaller entities within a larger, harsh environment. Like the sun and moon in “I Will Bite You”, one character suffers the loss of the other, and engages with grief on a cosmic scale, receiving some form of consolation from the universe before moving on with his life. It’s a silent comic that seems to willfully cast off written language, and there’s a strong emphasis on the beauty as well as the danger of a threatening and ecstatic environment. Lambert appears to be pushing his storytelling onto a wider canvas and into even more universal features of human experience.
And those are only some of the stories contained within the collection I WILL BITE YOU. It combines all of the best features of a compilation by the same creator, including a development in their own storytelling methods over time, the reconsideration of key concepts in varying narratives, and a mix of visual styles that can satisfy different indie tastes. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s likely to engage with a wide spectrum of readers looking for something distinctive and different, not just in visual style, but in story content. I WILL BITE YOU is imaginative at its most basic level, from the unpredictable, and often dream-like plot movements to the diverse ways in which “character” is redefined while still remaining relatable. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait several years for Lambert’s next collection or longer narrative. It’s a book that makes you wonder where Lambert’s going next as much as how he managed to tell such significant stories in such a unique way. Though I WILL BITE YOU is currently listed as “sold out” at Secret Acres (attesting to its popularity), Lambert’s new mini comic SUPPOSED TO, also debuted at the BCGF this fall.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.
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