There is plenty to be depressed about in Julia Gfrörer’s Laid Waste. It depicts a non-descript European village afflicted by the Plague and the tale of Agnes, a woman who is either immune, or simply hasn’t contracted the disease yet. Agnes’ older sister on her deathbed thinks Agnes has been blessed. Agnes knows it not to be the case. Agnes soon has to drag her sister’s corpse to the burying hole behind the church, laying her piled on top of the other dead bodies. On her way back that she meets a kindred spirit in Giles, a man who is about to lose his pregnant wife to the sickness. They meet again at Agnes’ house where they have sex to cope with pain and loss. They lay in bed wondering what the point of it all is. “Is it the end of the world”, they ask, not only unable to answer, but also unequipped to comprehend the complexities of the world, the disease or the holy forces at play or even if God has truly abandoned them. They suffer and carry on, such is their lot in life now. Agnes later helps Giles carry his dead wife to the hole and collapse. Living is a curse, dying an escape that she is denied. Giles gets her out of the hole, and they walk into the sunset together, unsure as to whether this is a nice moment, or their lowest low. A sort of bright, hopeful pessimism.
Julia Gfrörer’s work is decidedly not for everyone. The first time I read her 2013 debut Black is the Color, I thought it was an amusingly, existentially bleak graphic novel. Some of her other mini comics were so dark, I didn’t quite know what to do with them. I love horror, and yet her comic felt dark to a point of nauseating nihilism. They’re always impossibly beautiful, amazingly well crafted and dark beyond belief. It’s delightful in a way that one watches a dark and slow horror film like say, The VVitch, or Hereditary and admire the craft while feeling upset and distraught by what is happening to the characters. It does what good horror tales do, it’s unsettling and forces you to confront some uncomfortable elements of life. Julia Gfrörer’s work stands among the greatest horror work of this decade.
Gfrorer’s art is unique and matches her subject matter perfectly. Her cross-hatching art is also a wonder to look at, depicting everything with a clarity and depth that makes it instantly enjoyable. A subtle focus on animals throughout showcases Gfrörer’s artistic skill perfectly. Her body of work, and in Laid Waste in particular, focuses on loss, gothic or supernatural and vile elements intruding on the life of miserable people ill-equipped to deal with this kind of misery. Her art conveys that perfectly. It is sparse where it need to be, focusing on the figures and faces of her characters. It helps to make the reader feel their pain and sorrow. It’s visceral, painful and sick, like one should look away from away, but you keep on looking because there are lessons to be learned from pain, suffering and death. The world is unjust, no matter who you are.
When I finished Laid Waste for the first time, I hugged my son and told my wife I loved her. A little gesture of love in an unjust and depressing world. Laid Waste is ambiguous, dark and miserable and somehow manages to make you consider death and make you love life at the same time. It’s the Ottawa Public Library Comic Book Club selection of December 2018, a perfect Holiday read, it will leave you with an intense desire to be with the ones you love, and tell them how much they mean to you.
Philippe Leblanc is a Canadian comics journalist. In his regular life, he improves Canadian medical education, and is the co-host of the Ottawa Comic Book Club. He reads alternative, indie and art comics at night and write about them for the Comics Beat.