I suppose I should have heard of Cathy Malkasian before reading this book, but we can't all be hip, groovy comics readers! So now I've rectified that, and I must write about her latest comic!
Temperance is Malkasian's quite sizable latest work (it's 240 pages long), and it's a fine bargain at $22.99. Fantagraphics, your source for fringe comics, brings this us. So what's the deal? you might ask. I'm here to tell you!
Temperance is a fascinating comic.
Malkasian gives us an odd, fairy-tale-esque world where we must accept unreal things so that she can make her points. We can and do, but I should point the weirdness of the story right away, because this is a story in which the narrator is a tree, or at least a section of a tree. That's just the kind of book it is! If you can live with that, you'll have no problem with the rest of the book. It begins with two young girls, Minerva and Peggy, watching a man they call "Pa" chopping wood and building a sanctuary. Pa tells the girls that they need to prepare for the war that's coming, even though Peggy tells Minerva that he's lying. Pa hates Peggy, and when he attacks her, a man in the forest (whose name, we learn, is Lester) comes to her aid. He can't save her, and Pa beats him almost to death and chops off part of his leg. Minerva begs Pa to let him save Lester, so he does. Minerva takes Lester inside the sanctuary that Pa has built, a bizarre place called Blessedbowl, and Pa disappears. So ends the prologue!
The meat of the story takes place 30 years later, as Minerva and Lester, now married, rule over Blessedbowl. Minerva knows that Blessedbowl is not the grand ship that Pa promised it would be and is actually immovable on land and not sailing the sea, and she also knows that there's no enemy to fight, but she has created a fiction about Pa and the enemy and keeps up the pretense, sending the amnesiac Lester out to patrol the perimeter of Blessedbowl (which is a fully functioning medieval-type village), shooing away birds that he believes are enemy spies and making sure the moon, which he believes is a sniper, doesn't pick any innocents off.
Lester's false leg is made from the wood of a tree Pa chopped down years before, and a knot in the trunk becomes the wood's eye on the world. Minerva must deal with some factions inside the town who are opposed to each other, and Lester is beginning to regain his memory. She tries to keep him on her leash by stealing his wooden leg and carving it into a wooden doll that she names "Temperance," but this backfires on her when the doll tries to escape with Lester hot on its heels. In the book's third act, Temperance flees into the wide world, while Lester remembers his past and Minerva must deal with an uprising inside the walls of Blessedbowl. Isn't that always the way?
The summary of the book makes it sound kind of weird, and, frankly, it kind of is. Much of the narrative is dream-like, even for a fairy tale, especially when Temperance roams far and wide across a blasted landscape and becomes locked in a strange relationship with Pa, whom it finds wandering the wasteland. Malkasian, however, explores some very interesting ideas in the book. The most prominent one is, of course, the idea of creating an enemy in order to unite a people. This isn't the most original idea, but it's not a bad one, especially as Malkasian commits to it so well. Pa is a despicable person, but his scheme is not to accrue power to himself, because he remains, like Moses, outside the promised land of Blessedbowl. His disappearance is unexplained - he chops Lester's leg off and walks away, and then we jump forward 30 years. Later, when he reappears in the story, we learn quite a bit more about him and Peggy and how they're entwined.
As Malkasian leads us to these final apocalyptic pages, the fable takes on a much more epic feel, and it's fascinating how she manages to keep the focus on Pa's misdeeds even as we gain new appreciation for him. The middle section, in which Minerva carries on Pa's work even though she knows it's a lie, remains the emotional heart of the book, as Minerva must lie to Lester and then watch as her world disintegrates. She knows the value of focusing everyone's attention on an unseen enemy, but in the third part, she understands when it's time to let go. Malkasian makes the point that people in general want to believe in something, even if it's not real, and that makes them easy to manipulate. Minerva is a true leader of her people, as she slowly realizes that being a leader doesn't mean telling people what they want to hear, but telling them what they need to hear. The path she takes to this realization is the triumph of the comic. And when she does realize it, Malkasian juxtaposes it with Temperance's awakening to Pa and Peggy's true natures. Malkasian does a fine job of grounding the tale of Blessedbowl in a real-world concern while still making sure it's fantastical enough so a sentient wooden doll doesn't seem too out of place.
Malkasian's art is tremendous, as well. The medieval splendor of Blessedbowl, sitting on the edge of a cliff, looking like the ship Pa claimed it was even though it rests on dry land, is a wonder to behold. She manages to give Temperance a personality even though it's a piece of wood, and she does a good job contrasting Pa's ugly earthiness with Peggy's ethereal beauty. Lester is a marvel, as well, as he moves through the early parts of his life in Blessedbowl with a maniacal verve that looks unreal, and then, when he begins to learn the truth, his face shifts first to despair and then to happiness as he understands what Temperance can give him. It's amazing watching how his glee from earlier in the book is almost fake when compared to his true happiness later in the narrative - we know his commitment to his job is genuine, but we also know it's built on a lie, and Malkasian does a nice job showing this in his face. Minerva, however, is the artistic star of the book. She's certainly ugly, with her bulbous nose and downturned mouth, but Malkasian doesn't let her be a stereotype. When she's happy, her face lights up, and as she starts to understand that she must let the lie of Blessedbowl die, we see the burden lifted from her and she becomes, if not beautiful, much more attractive. She runs the gamut of emotions, and Malkasian sells them all. Minerva, unlike Pa (who's a bit of a caricature and meant to be), is a fully realized human being, so we can see all the emotion that she's feeling written all over her face.
She and Lester have a wonderful relationship, and we they reunite toward the end of the book, we see the love they have for each other. Malkasian also does a fantastic job with the landscape and with movement in this book. The landscapes are often bleak, but they retain a stark kind of beauty. When people move or fight (as Pa often does), Malkasian stretches the figures and distorts their faces so that the figures become strange, surreal creatures, more like semi-solid smoke than people. It's an odd choice, but it works very well.
Temperance is a fascinating book to read, and while it's not difficult to figure out, it does raise some important questions about society and what people do to live in one. Malkasian has a lot on her mind, and it's impressive that she manages to get her real-world concerns into this fable without becoming preachy. Her use of Pa and Peggy is inspired in this regard, because her ideas take on much more mythic stature and makes it easier for us to digest them. Blessedbowl is a somewhat overbearing metaphor, but because of the strange, fabular structure of the book, it's more acceptable. And it allows Malkasian to bring us these wonderfully weird characters and show us the depths and heights they can reach. It's a very thoughtful comic, and I encourage you to check it out.
Tomorrow: Arkham Asylum? Really?