A fable for the devouring

This book smells great. It’s a slim, perfect-bound volume, in a tall, narrow, custom format, printed to a very high standard, its pages heavy with dark ink. I want to eat it. Its physicality, its insistent presence as an object, is paralleled, and probably produced in part, by the solidity of Ariel Ries’ figure drawing. This can be seen on the cover, and throughout: unlike many cartoonists, Ries does not draw figures as symbols of characters, of units of narrative agency, but as symbols of bodies. Her drawing is no more or less schematic than anything that the term ‘comic art’ might bring to mind, but with its precisely nuanced curvature of line, its restrained indications of modelling, her technique produces figures and faces with a fleshy, ineluctable presence. The pages of Cry Wolf Girl are sexy, tangible, and ‘soulful’ precisely because they imagine with such concrete thoroughness the embodiment of the characters that inhabit them.

Its narrative is not fictional, but fabulous. It is a tissue of symbols, whose meanings are never completely stable or bounded. In that sense, it is like fiction, in attempting a mimesis of subjective experience – our lives are filled with wild symbols, objects of perception to which ill-fitting meanings are attached by the happenstance of our biographies, in contrast to those too-apt glyphs often crafted by writers to carry the thematic weight of their stories. And in its tracing of an individual trajectory through this ambiguous symbolic landscape, Cry Wolf Girl produces a concrete narrative around a clearly drawn character, full of the concrete details of village life; but it remains a fable.

Its symbols are almost too big for this small book to contain them. The wolves, the forest, the maimed, masked hunter. The colour red, marking forbidden, vatic speech and vision; the colour yellow, marking the monstrous, unknowable gaze of the wild other; and black, marking the domain of both memory and of fable itself, the void from which the self addresses itself in the second person. These powerful vessels of significance jostle against one another, producing harmonies and dissonances of archetypal resonance that almost crowd out the narrative, both concealing and propelling Ries’ carefully crafted sequence of events and transformations.

The enlarged eyes of the protagonist, quite unlike the conventional ocular exaggeration of manga, mark her as a seer. The narrative, without wishing to give away the specifics of this short tale, describes the burden of oracular knowledge, in a society which does not welcome it – and also its presence at the centre of power, concealed but observant. Although the story’s insights revolve primarily around the personal experience of gnosis, the cost of gaining it, and of the struggle to find a place in a world of conventional wisdom, it’s easy for the reader to generalise from the particularities of this tale to the high stakes with which the game of epistemology is suddenly being played in the post-truth information era. But of course, none of this need be foregrounded in an appreciation of this spectacularly beautiful comic. Ries’ dynamic page layouts, her forcefully expressive use of bleeds and irregular panel shapes, her tactile, decorative backgrounds, produce all of these meanings, and many more, as affect, in a sequence of words and images whose narrative logic is irresistible. This is a story to be felt, to be embraced, and with the forbidden appetite of the wolf, to be devoured.

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