One of the things I like best about Liana Finck is her ability to not only be the only thing like her in comics but to communicate that fact clearly and with charm. Seldom are her cartoons transcriptions of actions — this happened then this happened then this happened — but rather the live unpacking of the actions either as they happen or as they are reflected upon, often with a mix of psychology and sociology probing for context and explanation. Things don’t just happen in a narrative vacuum and part of the storyteller’s voice is providing a less obvious context in an organized manner.
Plus she’s funny.
That humor is very much on display in Passing For Human in all its sly beauty, finishing a rounded perspective on the idea of humans and shadows as co-dependent beings, all in service of memoir and family history, as well as an examination of creativity. But Finck’s take on her own story, her mother’s, and her grandmother’s isn’t a dry retelling of events. Instead, it’s a fable, an extended one in which the circumstances drifted from one generation to another, and many details are presented in vague but evocative, sometimes surreal, sometimes metaphorical, sometimes purposefully dismissive way, as a method to uncovering the dynamic truth of the events unfolding.
It’s hard to describe Passing For Human in linear terms. Finck takes the reader through her story in the context of her discomfort in the world, her attempts to come to terms with what that is exactly, and her drive to capture this journey in her creative work. She mixes this up with Biblical stories filtered through her own sensibility and with telling tweaks to them that bring them alive in the world as the malleable and powerful myths they should be, that align themselves with the personal details of her biography.
Finck frames her discomfort through the concept of a shadow, a being that could be read in many different ways. Could be creativity. Could be a person’s conscience. Could be a creature that helps a person gather their own story, like an editor. Could be your author. Could be a family burden. Or the burden of women. Could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Could be all of these things and none of these things. A thing you feel you’re missing that isn’t there. A construct to make you feel less alone. A totem of commonality with your ancestors. A figment of your imagination.
Finck’s quest to regain her shadow is at the center of the narrative, a springboard to the Biblical tales and the personal stories and the family biographies. As Finck chases her shadow and renders these stories to her book, she creates a fully-formed personal mythology — or maybe that’s the wrong way to put it. Maybe it’s already created and here she’s just relating it.
But anyway, with this book, she puts it down on paper for other people to absorb as well, coming at her personal explorations from so many vantage points, embracing so many different ways of presenting moments that seem important, that they add up to a complicated, multi-faceted mythology that is bright enough that it shines way past her personal use. There’s an aspect to it that any of us could adopt it as their own even though it is so particular to Finck’s story and creative practice, and even though Finck’s art style is one that exudes a personal quality that makes it feel as though we’ve blundered upon someone’s private texts and we’re not supposed to be looking at this.
To me, Finck’s primary purpose with this book seems to be to communicate herself to the world and in doing that, expressing what is central to any given person — searching. It’s a book that’s filled with fables, inundated with questions, one where the mysteries pile on and what answers you find are poetic ones that pose further thoughts rather than impose an ending to the process. Finck constantly restarts the memoir throughout the book, abruptly finishing what she had previously set in motion and planting another “Chapter One” several times, illustrating the way searching works. It’s a constant journey. You find things, but that leads to more searching for more things.
You can read hundreds of graphic novels and not find a single one that approaches self the way Finck does here and that’s what makes her work so special, what’s lead so many people to embrace it so insistently. I don’t know if she realizes it, but there’s a lot about her experience, about her feelings throughout her life that many of us identify with. So many of us out here feel like we are only barely passing as human, just like her, and this memoir does the unlikely job of assuring us that even if we are technically alone due to our condition, we are not alone in the experience, and that is an important thing for any creative work to be able to accomplish.