Surrealism. What is it? According to the New Oxford Dictionary, Surrealism is “a 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images.” In simpler terms, in means doing whatever the hell you want as long as its dream-like and undefinable by traditional conventions of logic. Be illogical! Be, be, illogical! Be illogical, baby, and not heard!
Seriously though, many great artists have come from embracing the unorthodox but wild creative energy of surrealism, including comics! You can’t tell me Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, Dave McKean, Bill Sienkewicz, etc., aren’t at least inspired by surrealism. The works by them I’ve considered some of the most challenging to comprehend, yet also the most visually engaging. If anything, comics are made for surreal storytelling because hand-drawn visual art allows for manipulation of shape and color. You don’t have to play by the rules of reality in comics. The sky can be red for dramatic effect instead of typical blue. A Jewish man can be drawn as a mouse to represent his predator-prey relationship to Nazis. Hell, even Rob Liefeld’s walking meatsacks of huge shoulder pads and diamond feet could be considered surreal from a certain point of view.
Which brings us to Weaker Sides by Lifemachine aka Falco Verholen. It’s a webcomic about…well, I’m not exactly sure. The most I can tell you is that the story is about an artist named Kyoko Narisawa. She escapes from rehab one night only to be turned into a half-woman, half-doe creature. She’s almost run over by introverted nurse Ashley who invites her to stay at his place overnight. It seems like a generous offer until a gang of avian guards arrives. They want to know where Kyoko came from, how she turned into a doe woman, and are willing to use any methods to get their answers.
That’s about all I can piece together so far. The plot of Weaker Sides is not easy to comprehend. Actually, that’s an understatement. My first read through of Weaker Sides was like being on mushrooms again (I mean, not that I really know anything about that. I swear). It’s told through a series of images with abstract meaning. The only thing missing is the music. Although that’s not true because just about every chapter is packed with lyrics quoted from an eclectic mix of artists. The fact Rammstein exists in the same space as Florence and the Machine should tell you how off the walls the comic is. Aside from expanding your playlist, you might wonder what purpose those quotes serve? Just like the plot, I’m trying to figure it out. This comic challenges you to take apart each aspect and analyze it. Fortunately, I’m here to give you some idea of what it all means. So, you know, spoiler alert!
Whatever craziness goes on in Weaker Sides, it’s definitely a horror story. It’s set in the woods, and uses them similarly to movies like The VVitch and It Comes At Night to induce feelings of isolation and uneasiness. Anything could pop out at the moment from behind a branch. There are not a lot of witnesses around that could hear you scream. God knows how long the police would take to come rescue you even if you managed to call 911. The only refuge is inside Ashley’s house, but that’s not a strong enough barrier between them and the monsters outside. Surrealism is a natural, expertly used aesthetic in this genre. In fact, surrealism and horror have always been complimentary of each other. Films like Nosferatu, Suspiria, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, literally every Cronenberg body horror film, and even the crazy monster effects from Evil Dead used surrealism as an aesthetic to amplify the spooky bits. Weaker Sides is no exception, whether it’s the jumpscare of Kyoko appearing in Ashley’s headlights or the very, very intense scenes of the avian guards torturing Kyoko. Those scenes, in particular, are when the art is manipulated so much, at times entire panels breakdown into an incomprehensible whirlwind of line and color. It’s like extreme Cubism, or trying to wake from a terrible nightmare. It really emphasizes the pure terror and pain Kyoko’s experiencing. These scenes are also definitely not safe for work or meant for people triggered by such imagery. So, yeah, content warning all around for this comic. As for me, please bring more! I drink up that ugliness by the pitcher!
The characters are quite fascinating. Kyoko’s backstory is that she was an aspiring artist frustrated with the lack of ambition from her friends. She decided to build her repertoire, to work harder, and managed to gain semi-fame in the art world. Unfortunately, the mental stress led to drug addiction and she ended up in rehab. A lot of the very vague narration that pops up here in there seems to focus on her philosophy of art and being an artist. In this case, I think it’s constant transformation to stay motivated. For Kyoko, that’s both figurative and literal. I can’t think of how turning into a deer and fighting off avian people is meant to symbolize this. I’d have to do some serious rereading. In fact, everything I just described about Kyoko, I’m not sure how it fits to the larger narrative. I just currently enjoy her as a messy, stubborn person with emotional issues who still manages to make interesting points about art. That and she can seriously insult a mofo.
I find the secondary character, Ashley, even more fascinating. He starts off as very charming and sweet to the point of being naive. He does seem to have odd quirks, mostly his obsession with animals. On one hand, he takes in wild ones to heal back to health. On the other, he has some taxidermied animals, and he talks about them in eerily eager ways. You could write it off as eccentric, but then the facade starts to crack when the avians arrive. Without giving too much away, it starts becoming apparent that Ashley has a thing for violence. His attraction to it disgusts Kyoko, and she starts to doubt just how altruistic his motives in bringing her to his cabin are. Even with this slow reveal of his darker side, Ashley still tries to help. He’s trying to prove his moral fiber. He’s a complex kind of sociopath.
Kyoko and Ashley’s staunchly disparate personalities leads to an adverse relationship. It’s a game of cat and mouse, mostly Kyoko as the mouse. After the attack from the avian guards, she stops trusting him. She ties him up and interrogates him via torture. There is a heavy grindhouse tone to it. Kyoko even goes on a rant about creepy, sadistic men that Camille Keaton would be proud of. It keeps the tension going once the narrative slows down. The only issue I have with these scenes is the dialogue. For the most part, it’s fine, but there are a lot of moments when dialogue gets too formal, less like people talking and more of a Shakespearean dramatist monologue. If I were the author, I would read the dialogue out loud to see if it sounds natural. Or maybe it’s not supposed. Maybe the highbrow articulation is part of the comic’s highbrow narrative.
There’s not much else to say about the characters. I haven’t gotten into the avian guards because, well honestly I don’t really understand their motives. There are Kyoko’s friends, but are mostly they haven’t done anything than advance Kyoko’s backstory. Then again, that’s the entire cast. Even the stuff I’ve described about Kyoko and Ashley thus far, I get the impression of just scratching the surface.The vagueness of the storytelling consistently has me at an arm’s reach from the deeper meaning. It’s not even the vague writing. It’s the art.
The best way to describe the art in Weaker Sides is a series of panels that throw anything and everything at you. It’s pure sensory overload, challenging your ability to comprehend the narrative while consistently change in style and tone at the flick of a wrist. One page is traditional comic sequentials, albeit with experimental, dream-like qualities similar to Alvin Schwartz. While characters don’t have the same grotesque appearance of bloated corpses, LifeMachine still conveys a nightmarish aesthetic that permeates the setting. It sticks in your head and haunts you all day. Then the next page is a series of photographs, mostly still life collages with walls o’ text. What are these walls o’ text? Like the imagery, just about anything: narration, dialogue, quoted lyrics, quoted poems, or monologues that seem to come out of complete nowhere. Some of it does start to make sense. You soon realize that the majority is Kyoko reciting her backstory and personal art philosophy. Other times, it’s so vague that I do believe some pages are simply gibberish.
Does this make it an unreadable mess? Not really. Maybe on the more denser parts, but I like a challenge. Things do start to crystallize and make sense in later chapters. You’ll still have to go back and reread parts to really get the picture. However, when it comes to surrealism, I don’t see gradually comprehending the narrative as the thrill of the genre. For me, it’s visual sensation. When I read comics like Weaker Sides, I get the same sensation as when I’m having a really good dream or nightmare. Yes, nightmares can be good. They’re good if they’re visually stunning and make you feel. That feeling isn’t necessarily a good one. It could be the most sickening feeling in your life. Yet, it feels like something true. In your gut it’s a sensation that speaks to a higher truth you can’t explain. It’s sublime, ethereal, and the closest you can get to nirvana. I believe we experience this in our dreams, when our senses have a closer contact to our subconscious and create an uncanny valley to explore. Unfortunately, true to Plato’s cave, it’s something harder to express in waking life. We have art, music, and stories that, while not an exact replicate, can remind us vaguely of that sensation. We just have to open ourselves up, put aside logic, and just feel.
Not everyone will get it, but I do. Well, I don’t fully get it. Just enough to appreciate the sensation and let the comic guide me through the panels without doubt.
For the themes of Weaker Sides, well I’m not really concerned about it right now. There’s something about art and identity and blah blah, but for me I’m just soaking it in right now, reading pages as they update and rereading segments in an attempt to crystallize these themes I’m only slightly aware of. I say just experience the comic for the sake of it right now.
I highly recommend Weaker Sides. It might feel over your head at times, but the surreal art, and the intensity of both the story and characters is worth at least a glimpse. I say experience it. Take in the visuals for what they are and come to your own conclusions. In an industry of constant reboots, world events, crossovers, and superheroes, finding unconventional comics helps keep the medium fresh for us all.