The Identity Group
Face Man (Domino Books): Clara Bessijelle’s book is a unique artifact that could probably serve as a perfect example of modern art comix. It favors reader interpretation over directly prescribing meaning, it values presentation diversity over bland conformity, and contends with the challenges of real life vs. anything more fantastical. Besijelle’s environments are rich and full of texture. The dense panels feel almost constricted and heavy at times, with a fuzzy quality (someone chime in and confirm the medium she’s working in, un-inked pencils, raw graphite, charcoal?) that adequately reflects the struggle the protagonist experiences on our behalf. His struggle is really one in which we all participate. It involves the identities we assume in society... but, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s talk about how we participate in society. With the rise of technology and social media (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, pick your poison…), essentially everyone has become a potential “star” or functions as a “broadcaster.” At times, we’re so preoccupied with documenting life that I fear we’re not actually experiencing it. Personal Anecdote: I recently attended my daughter’s Kindergarten graduation and it was a good example of this phenomenon. Surveying the crowd of parents and assorted family, approximately 90% of the crowd dutifully whipped out their cameras and iPhones and started snapping pics and recording the proceedings for posterity. They were largely so busy fiddling with settings and trying to contort their bodies to get that one perfect clip, that one perfect photo-op, that I think they missed the moment entirely. Precious few were sitting back and just really soaking it all in. Members of my party got their pictures and video clips too, but I deliberately tried to be consciously present and just took it all in. In the middle of this frenzy, I caught my daughter’s eye on stage through what I would like to believe is sheer willpower. I gave her a little wink. Her little chuckle and wave is etched into my memory, a shared moment of intimacy in the middle of this parental melee, that I’d gladly take over any picture produced that day. Anyway, Face Man knows this truth. Face Man grapples with this dynamic, literally opening with the detachment of critical discourse as a writer contends with how to properly review a play. It addresses these two ends of a continuum, are we merely observers in our lives stuck on the sidelines tracking the activity, or are we active participants in our own lives? If “all the world’s a stage,” as Shakespeare postulated, are we the critic in the audience or actually one of the players upon it? How are we truly interacting with the world? Or, are we truly interacting with the world? I think that’s the better question (or “aye, there’s the rub” if you prefer ol’ William from The Globe Theatre, follow him on Twitter @WillShakes). From there, the book jumps through its story of a writer sent on a mission. But is the writer the follower or the one being followed? Is he both? I usually hate writing reviews in this fasion, by throwing out a string of rhetorical questions, because it always feels like a lazy writer’s cheat, but that’s what this book does. It gets to the heart of our paranoia about there being no easy answers in life, about the masks we wear being literal or figurative representations of the personas we put on, worrying about how society perceives us. There’s odd imagery to accompany these ideas too, a flair for the dramatic, like the doctor laying a man on a table in order to eat a plate of food from his body, like society itself feeding off our own insecurities. The Identity Group, the secret organization the man encounters, is really a microcosm of society itself, and all that “other” imposes upon us. It’s funny that in this group, yes, there actually is a doctor in the house, yet another playful literal interpretation of a phrase that became a euphemism after being based on something literal. It’s come full circle, as layered as this book. Despite its clever cachet, there’s also something primal about the work, it reminds me subtly of Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut, in that there is so much raw unbridled power lurking just below the surface of the human condition, and it’s when we find a way to access it that we begin to intensely control our own lives. The last panel of the book is a favorite that bookends the very first panel. In the first panel, the guy is that detached observer I describe. In the final panel, the man looks out at us as and looks us square in the eye, as if to question the role we play (exhibitionist or voyeur, you can only watch or be watched in this binary arrangement), suddenly an active participant in his own drama. Grade A.