Those familiar with Kelly Froh’s previous work will find The Downed Deer to be a departure from her typical comics. It’s darker, that’s for sure, but most importantly it takes an aspect of her talent that’s always been on display and transfers it into an entirely new zone of storytelling where what was once entirely benign now has a tumult of other emotions behind them.
The story, which Froh prefaces as fiction and then after writes about its origins in a real road trip, joins Froh herself and real-life boyfriend Max stopping on the roadside in Georgia on a trip from Florida to Atlanta. It’s all very casual, not seeming any different from any other comic Froh has ever put out into the world, but when Max goes into the woods to pee, he unleashes an extended period of insular terror for Froh as she waits for him to return. And waits. And waits.
Well, I said that it didn’t seem any different from any of Froh’s previous comics, but that’s actually a lie. There is one detail that functions as a preface for everything that unfolds when the couple, a little prior to pulling over, a man looking pretty rough and carrying a bucket appears on the edge of the woods. He looks like he’s in a hurry and he startles Froh and Max.
That’s a kind of Deliverance moment for The Downed Deer, but those qualities are definitely in the air when you’re traveling in rural places through states like Georgia. In her afterword, Froh talks about her scary thoughts of what would happen to her if she was ever alone, stranded on the side of these roads that take you from Gainesville to Atlanta. Being from Savannah, GA, with relatives in other locations in Georgia, I’ve spent plenty of time on those roads, especially as a kid, and I know the exact feeling Froh is talking about. And while it’s possible to get similar chilling impressions from roads not in the south, like Vermont or Maine, for me, there’s something special about the ones in the south, it’s a more primal fear in American culture.
I don’t want to give away anything that happens in the comic from the point Froh starts waiting, but I will say that what is so revelatory about The Downed Deer is that one of Froh’s greatest talents — observance of other people and putting it down on the page — helps give her story texture and substance. This is the same skill that appears throughout her work over years, typically in the service of humor, but here it almost serves a Lynchian purpose in that there are moments that are amusing, awkward, and unnerving all at the same time, or at least leapfrogging over each other to keep your emotions in rapid cycle.
And Froh’s typical approach to comics in doing autobiographical work gives this story a raw quality. Even though she qualifies it as fiction, the inclusion of herself and her boyfriend, and the portrayals of other people that draw on her observation skills both give it an autobiographical feel that’s hard to shake.
What Froh is really depicting in The Downed Deer is the moment when a person is stripped of what grounds them and because of this loses control over events. The temptation is to dig in your heels because all that is left is the place where everything went away and while it may not feel like home, it’s all you have. That is, actually, autobiographical, since we all have fears of that happening. Froh accomplishes a lot in a short amount of time with The Downed Deer and I’m looking forward to more excursions to the place where her darker thoughts meet the wider world as she examines it.