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I received a nice .pdf of this comic from its creator, and now he’s posting a page a day to his Tumblr, so I feel bad I didn’t get to it sooner. But at least I can write some nice things about it before the entire comic goes up!
Crystallized is by Bhanu Pratap and you can start reading some of it at his Tumblr. He’s up to page 6 of 20, so you can go over there and read along. The question is: Should you?
I’m going to begin with the art, because I feel like it. Pratap has a rough pencil line, which creates a very lived-in, organic feel to the comic. It takes place in and under a crowded city, and in the early scenes, Pratap piles buildings on top of buildings to give the city a crammed, claustrophobic feel, which is both reflective of the reality of many cities and also to contrast it with the later scenes. There’s a wild, almost undisciplined vibe to Pratap’s line work, which tends to belie his close attention to detail – the city is very precisely drawn, as it might be crowded, but it’s not chaotic. Pratap draws folds in the clothing of his characters very well – they look rumpled, but they don’t look ratty. There are some really nice “camera” angles in the comic, giving us some interesting views of the city as the main character zips around. Pratap still keeps it claustrophobic, but some of the way he shows it to us reveal hidden open ways to move around. Once the action moves into the sewers, the space is actually wider open, and Pratap isn’t quite as detailed in the backgrounds because he’s concentrating more on the characters. Early on, he relies a lot on body language, and he’s a bit exaggerated with it, but it tends to work well. Toward the end, he gets to use more facial expressions, and he’s quite good at that, too. There’s not a lot of action in the book, but Pratap’s use of fluid, squiggly lines helps create a nice feeling of movement when he needs it. He uses grayscaling and (I assume) ink washes to “color” the book, and the effect is quite nice. The figures tend to be starker black and white, but not always, while the backgrounds are grayer and more nuanced. This adds nice depth to the comic and makes the central metaphor (I’ll get to that) a bit sharper and more divisive. In a world of grays, some sharply defined things stand out much more.
So the art is quite good, and it’s nice to look at it for a while to catch all the details. I had a much harder time with the story. I just don’t get it. I’ve read it a few times, and it’s heavily allegorical (I guess), but I don’t know what the allegory is. Two young men sit on a roof in the city. Neither of them have proper faces – they have swirls where their faces should be. One of them pulls out a crystal that the other is anxious to see, but then the first guy smashes himself in the face with the crystal and dies. Our main character tries to find the crystal (which has disappeared) and, after killing a guy who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, goes into the sewer to find it. A strange creature that looks like a skinless person points him a certain way, but he falls from a drain and is rescued by a faceless naked woman. He tries to lick her, but she shoves him away. She then reveals that a crystal is growing from her crotch. Our hero pulls it out, and water floods out of her. He plugs the hole with the crystal, and for that (it seems) he gets an actual face. They have sex and apparently that “frees” her from the crystal. He heads back to the city, where … well, that’s the last page, and I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s just something else I don’t get.
Look, I don’t claim to be a smart guy. I know some things, but one thing I have always struggled with is extended metaphors. I can recognize obvious Christ symbols in fiction, because usually writers aren’t terribly good at obscuring them, and with more famous works, long allegories are obvious (Animal Farm being a famous example). But if you give me a work of fiction that hasn’t been hashed over, I’m going to struggle with the subtext, especially if the actual text is so opaque as to make the work an obvious metaphor. One reason I don’t like Grant Morrison’s more esoteric works are because I don’t get all the references, and if you write a book where the plot is secondary and make the references everything, it becomes more annoying than clever. So with Pratap’s comic, I don’t get it. Obviously everyone is a metaphor. For what, though? Are the crystals some kind of representation of perfection that oppresses us until we are cold and distant? Does the act of sex free us from this repression? Are they a metaphor for something more specific – a political regime, an ideology – that escapes me? What is the flood? Is it a literal if slightly exaggerated indication of body fluids, whatever they may be, that have terrified a male dominated society for centuries, even millennia? Is it representative of everything women themselves need to repress in themselves to get along in a patriarchy? The woman never gets a face even as our main character does – what does that mean? Why does his friend kill himself? Why does the protagonist kill a bystander? Why, when he is freed from the crystal, does it seem to become more oppressive toward others? Is any of this germane, or is it just a weird story about a dude getting laid? When the flood comes out of the woman’s vagina and almost washes our hero away, he shoves the crystal back into her and then, when he gets a face, he looks at her and says, “Oh now I see truly. You.” He received eyes, which is why he can see, but what does he see? How has she changed? It gets back to what the flood represents, as it’s now out of her, so has she been cleansed in some way? And why does that not free her from the crystal? Why does sex free her? The longest speech in the comic comes from her – she talks about orgasms giving birth to the universe. It seems to be the crux of the entire story, but I don’t get it. Pratap is Indian, and the woman speaks of the “Om sound” coming forth from the first orgasm, so is this something to do with Indian culture or religion that I don’t get? Can I ask more questions in one paragraph, or is this enough?
This stuff really bugs me. Pratap is clearly a talented artist, and I love the fact that he didn’t just write a regular story, because it’s always interesting to read stuff that’s challenging and different. Just because I don’t get this doesn’t mean I don’t like it, because I don’t mind puzzling over it, and maybe you’re smarter than I am and it’s all clear to you. Crystallized is a very odd comic, and it’s one of those stories that has stayed with me for three weeks, since Pratap sent it to me. That’s not a bad thing, when you can write something that I’ve been thinking about for that long. I encourage you to read it yourself, because it’s clear that Pratap knows what he’s doing. I’ve been poking around his Flickr stream and his Tumblr, and there’s a lot of cool stuff there. So while I don’t quite know what to make of Crystallized, it’s certainly interesting to read!