by Kevin Czap
The old Jainist tale of the blind men and the elephant is a powerful parable for many reasons, particularly in the case it makes for the importance of diversity. Truth can’t be gained from a single perspective, and we need the combined information of multiple viewpoints to get anywhere close. In several ways this lesson is a core principle behind comics — the entire concept isn’t produced from a singularity but rather through the cumulative effect of the panels, pages and so on. Extrapolating this principle outward, it seems to me that fragmentary narrative structure is tailor made for comics. Going even further, I’d argue that fragmentary physical construction, or serialization, is a perfect presentation for comics, at least conceptually. When I got to read Emily Carroll‘s “That Night in June,” finally, it seemed to prove my theory as far as I’m concerned.
Carroll is mostly known for her breathtaking comics work on the web, which I’ve talked about briefly before. Illustrated beautifully, they also make expert use of their presentation method, deftly utilizing the web browser as a wide-open canvas. This along with well-timed page jumps squeezes as much old-fashioned comics storytelling out of the medium as we’ve seen (old-fashioned meaning not including animation, sound or flash interaction).So knowing how well she can use the internet to make comics, I was really interested to see how Carroll took to print, when she announced she’d be debuting a mini comic at TCAF this year.
The mini actually turned out to be seven mini-minis, modestly packaged together in a stamped brown envelope. All together, the comics tell the tale of the Truelock clan, a Compson-esque patriarchy that eventually crumbles due to the death of Mr. Thomas Truelock’s conspicuously absent first wife. Six of the mini books tell a very brief account of the titular event through the lens of each of the six characters named in the diagram above, with the seventh book serving as a kind of introduction to the family and the tragic lot in store for them all. There is no set order to the books, the only real change that comes from reading about Elizabeth before Paul, for instance, being how quickly certain pieces of the story become apparent to you. Regardless of your path through the work, you’re going to be compelled to re-read each chapter at least once.
Brandon Graham describes “That Night in June” as “… involv(ing) the reader like they’re a comic book detective.” This description set off a massive light bulb in my head, because not only is it accurate, but also because it’s occurred to me for a while that this is how I want comics to engage us. Carroll seems to master it with this book, with an engaging story made even more enthralling by the manner in which it’s told. The tone of the writing is like hushed and solemn gossip, but I think the real power comes from how Carroll relying on each of the character’s limited perceptions. While not told in first person, each mini’s narration is influenced by the emotions and interpretations of its spotlighted family member. For instance, the chapter featuring Thomas, the father and head of household, has no time or consideration for any of the feelings of his second wife, Margaret (in fact, her face is not even shown). We don’t learn any of this until we get to read her chapter, that she is alone and desperate for attention/affection. This then plays even more significant roles in other chapters.
This is very much how life is. We hear stories all the time but can never truly say with certainty that we know the whole story, even if we were there. This is the lesson of the blind men and the elephant, but in practice it’s our daily lives. Events are woven together from the individual movements of the various players, either in our lives or removed by degrees. “That Night in June” doesn’t tell the whole story, not by a long shot, but it tells us enough to be absolutely mystified by the peculiar events surrounding one night.
Physically, the individual books are thin and very small, but through the complex web of the narrative allows it to stretch out and resonate far beyond these bounds. We’re told as little as possible about the Truelocks, but in the gaps and holes we’re able to piece together an entire family history. The result is something almost magical. “That Night in June” feels like a classic already, carrying the weight of old oral folklore and ghost stories.
I was somewhat surprised when an internet search failed to turn up any reviews or really much talk at all about this book. Then I remembered how new and rare it is (as I understand it, it sold out at TCAF, and Emily has yet to make any more copies). I had to read a friend’s copy myself. This is a book that needs to be read by as many people as possible, but at the same time I think the particular way in which it’s printed needs to be retained. Just as Carroll’s webcomics are tailor-made for the web and would lose power if represented elsewhere, so too is this book linked thematically to its presentation, perhaps even more so. Each individual mini comes to embody that particular family member, personifying the disconnected nature of the Truelock family. They all are alone, and only tied together by what happened that night in June.
Big thanks to Jessi Zabarsky for having the good taste and sense to pick this book up at TCAF, and the kindness to let me read it.