Dwelling together

A labyrinth can be a lonely place. In a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, Asterion, the most famous of labyrinthine inhabitants, is consoled in his solitude only by a prophecy that his redeemer will some day seek him out. That redeemer, the son of Aethra, fathered by both Aegeus and Poseidon, is the mythical unifier of Attica under the rule of Athens, a symbolic founder of Western civilisation. As Borges describes it in his story, this redemptive encounter will bring to an end one of only two singular objects (the other being the sun) in a labyrinth, and in a wider world, of infinite repetition. Lissa Treiman’s version of the labyrinth and its resident is different to Borges’ in important respects: in Borges’ story, Asterion proudly proclaims that ‘even my detractors admit there is not one single piece of furniture’ in his labyrinth. Treiman’s labyrinth, located in Ikos rather than Crete, is conversely home to a seemingly infinite plenitude of furnishings; but like Borges’, and like the labyrinth of Classical mythology, it is in an encounter with the one unique inhabitant at its centre that its infinite repetitions are induced to disclose their significance. Like Theseus after his conquest of the Minotaur, Treiman’s protagonists are able to achieve synoikismos, ‘dwelling together’.

Or to put it another way, Minötaar is a story about two housemates shopping for storage solutions in a well-known Swedish furniture superstore. Negotiating a common space for their two quite different personalities, and their two quite different approaches to the getting and ordering of stuff, is challenging. This scenario will be familiar to anyone who has lived in communal or shared accommodation, as will hopefully be the tolerant and flexible attitude required to make it work. The search for that tolerance, that common ground of friendship on which to found a domestic synoecism, forms the allegorical narrative of this short comic. The plot follows two young women around a branch of a thinly veiled Ikea, in search of a transcendent storage solution, which is rumoured to be found at the very centre of the labyrinthine store. Along the way they are advised by deathly shop assistants, they consult an oracle, they quarrel, they become lost, and eventually… well, I’m not about to give the game away, but suffice it to say that this is not a sad or depressing story.

Lissa Treiman works as a ‘head of story’ for Disney. This is a kind of senior storyboard artist, a direct assistant to a film’s director, responsible for shepherding the narrative through the production process. They make sure that the story flows with clarity, building and releasing tension in a rhythm that will bring the audience to the conclusion of the film satisfied and in concert with its narrative trajectory, and they do this by looking after the details in each scene before its production begins. These responsibilities clearly inculcate a skill-set that is ideally suited to writing and drawing a short comic book. When comic artists and cartoonists talk about each other, one of the grounds for praise that is most often to be heard, is that someone is a ‘good storyteller’. For a visual artist this means that they are able to draw action in such a way that it is immediately apparent to the reader what’s happening. For the lay-reader of comics its probably easier to get hung up on liking or disliking the way that an artist draws people, or guns, or animals, but none of that really matters if they are not a good storyteller. Treiman is a good storyteller.

Her characters are formed in a stylistically mature manner, one which doesn’t really look like anybody else’s way of cartooning, although she doesn’t draw in an outlandish or formally radical way. She varies figures and faces considerably, in contrast to some cartoonists, which produces an immediately recognisable outline on the page for each of her characters. Her characters are cute and amusing, but they are able to bear sufficient visual affect that the reader will have no difficulty accepting them as rounded and fully-imagined human beings. They move through a simply drawn world that employs the whole range of perspectives and viewpoints one might expect from a cartoonist who works in cinema; and the story proceeds through dynamic and varied page layouts that almost fling the reader forwards from page to page. Even on the simple, regular beat of a six- or nine-panel layout, Treiman syncopates like a jazz drummer, never once letting her panel borders line up vertically.

Aside from the hilarious basic conceit of this comic, Treiman pulls us in by making us care about her two protagonists. They have great dialogue, an affectionate banter that rings absolutely true, and an interpersonal dynamic which is recognisable without being clichéd. These elements are established with complete clarity in the opening panel, and reinforced at every subsequent turn of the story. The strength of their friendship is never more emphatically depicted than when they quarrel and go their separate ways. The divergence which this dramatises is the primary motor of the narrative: the difference between two friends, which will be the foundational strength of their relationship, if only they can find a storage solution robust enough to accommodate them both. The narrative comes to closure around the figure at the heart of the labyrinth, a figure which, unlike Theseus, they do not kill. Instead, they assemble it, and find it a receptacle in which chaos can live happily alongside order.

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