Death is a multi-faceted subject and German cartoonist Eva Müller’s In The Future We Are Dead gives it the treatment it deserves. Müller comes at the subject from a number of vantage points that range from the intensely personal to the delightfully informational. Her focus is autobiographical, but she makes some interesting creative decisions in her depictions, sometimes having her autobiography unfold through the eyes of someone else, sometimes presenting a disassociated version of herself, and sometimes handing the narrative over to an older version of herself.
Müller begins her collection with a recollection of her paralyzing fear of death as a little girl. Not just death itself necessarily, but gruesome, sudden, and often painful deaths that she begins to find areas of her young life that won’t let her forget about it and sleep at night. Live Aid, fairy tales, bedtime stories, death is everywhere and it pounds away at her ability to cope, to just exist in the world, until she shuts herself off in an ersatz coffin.
But for all the build-up to the overwhelming horror of death, Müller confronts it in intimate terms in “The Thimble,” which recounts her acquaintance with an elderly neighbor. Attempting to step out of her shell, Müller makes overtures but soon finds the relationship a strain and as avoidance continues, Müller grapples with guilt. In some ways, Müller comes off as cold in this story, but there’s also an aspect of terror to her — terror of connection, specifically — and the ability to compartmentalize her emotions to escape the bonds of the living creates its own sort of isolated mental coffin.
Müller juxtaposes this story with an explanation of her relationship with Catholicism. As filtered through her grandparents, it becomes something she takes part in out of familial love. But as she mines Catholic territory for its obsession with death and its framing everything in terms of suffering, as well as her sweet grandparents’ indulgence of these aspects, it all begins to unfold as a subtext for the psychological fury that death plays in Müller’s brain, as well as the desperate disassociation she feels in “The Thimble.” Disassociation is a form of self-preservation.
This psychological fury repeats itself in a piece that explores her attempts at coming to terms with death. “Yoga” is about what it’s called, but Müller is obsessed with Shavasana, known as the corpse pose, a position that each yoga session ends with. It makes her uncomfortable and sends her into a narrative about a self-mummification method called Sokushinbutsu used by Buddhist monks that reveals another religious fixation on suffering as a means to spiritual epiphany.
Müller continues with a story about the “fancy parlor” in her grandparents’ home. I think many of us have had that kind of space in our grandparents’ places — the good living room for guests, that kind of thing. Müller discovers that it was used for the viewings of dead relatives prior to burial, which piques her interest and also brings up a strange fact — the most special room in the house is reserved for living relatives, and so as a special space that rewards passing. It also reminds me of the enclosed space that becomes part of the self-mummification process.
But sometimes death is a renewal, at least emotionally. In Brother and Sister, Müller takes on the viewpoint of her brother, using the opportunity to give a wider autobiography of herself, as well as examine emotional deaths and how physical expiration can lead to emotional rebirths, especially when that expiration involves an unpleasant and destructive force in your life. It’s here that Müller’s view becomes clearer — her fear of death is not necessarily aligned with the reality as she encounters it.
When she tempts fate in the attic in the next story, it leads her to relate the concept of “angstlust,” which she explains as “a process by which fear becomes an exciting experience,” which mirrors her psychological obsession with death versus the reality of it. Müller lets this concept lay there as she jets ahead to a much older self, obsessed with visions of death surrounding her, and then a remembrance of her punk rock days as a runaway, where self-destruction seemed to be her calling, though thankfully the only victims were a few teeth. But it launches a self-examination in her that leads to beginning to take care of herself — and perhaps preventing “angstlust” from taking over her life?
Müller brings it all together in her final story, which updates us on her life-long obsession with death and the related sleeplessness because of its place in her thoughts. Part of it has evolved into a sort of death tourism that brings her to cemeteries wherever she visits, and that’s something that I and probably plenty of people can identify with. But it also still infects many thoughts she has and that’s brought a kind of understanding between her and the object of her obsession.
Müller reveals herself as the perfect guide through this form of meditation. While some of the material gets dark and morbid, as well as alarming, Müller’s good humor and curiosity bring the heightened emotions down to earth, adding wider context to very personal circumstances. And by the end, the elements of her investigation begin to wrap themselves around each other thematically so successfully that the concepts she touches on in regard to death become important markers in the various circumstances she presents. It makes for a work of self-scrutiny that finds profundity by finding the commonality in what can seem so personal and singular to us.