Having a body feels, at times, like a betrayal of the notion that we, humans, are the rational animal. And it is our bodies that take the brunt of this unease; maybe because the mind’s expressions are inherently more ephemeral, although the trail of human progress is in a lot of senses a steady march away from its vagaries and limitations. The body, our most obvious link to the natural world, is a thing to be overcome, its whims and urges and steady needs a roadblock to our enlightenment.
Our minds are, far as we know, unique, the part of us that has already transcended the dirt and minerals. Though nature is the final arbiter, we’ve segregated ourselves from anything really resembling nature, an act which, in some sense, is an extension of our struggle to separate ourselves from our bodies.
A trio of the better graphic novels released this year embody (sorry) our modern anxiety about this widening gulf. All in some way wander through the natural world, and all are rife with body imagery, often bordering on grotesque; they try to find some kind of common ground between society and the wild — it’s almost always society that ultimately fails us.
Jesse Jacobs’ Safari Honeymoon drops a couple into a jungle that’s an overblown parody of an already mysterious, and deeply unsettling, place; even time has different rules here. On a vacation from their condo in the city, they’re surrounded by alien monsters, slithering, creeping things that aren’t so much malevolent as indifferent, but hungry. The couple’s hunger is sated by a guide who serves them carried-in gourmet meals: everything that surrounds them is too poisonous to eat. When he’s taken over by a parasite — which sneaks in while they’re having sex and he’s sleeping, opposite ends of the bodily needs spectrum — they’re left to flee, naked, into the jungle; they survive only by becoming a part of it.
The back-to-the-land arch doesn’t quite capture how sublimely strange Jacobs’ world is, but it gets to the message all the same: it’s the alienation from the land that makes the place horrible. It’s in giving up your creature comforts and embracing your creature that you might find hope. The road to salvation really begins when the couple kill a pregnant animal and eat its unborn fetus; it’s a hell of a cruel world, maybe, but every man has to eat.
Michael DeForge’s Ant Colony goes further on all counts. Set, as you’d guess, in a hill of anthropomorphized ants, the character designs call explicit attention to the needs of the body: predatory spiders are drawn with slobbering wolf heads, the ants’ guts are painted on their exteriors, and their queen is like a negative image earth mother. Within the first two pages, our hero has sex with her, and watches his fellow ants walk directly into the Queen’s oversized vagina. A bit later, he’ll fart out an “I love you” to his distant partner.
Though none of these bits are all that appealing, it’s not their physiology that gets the ants into trouble. DeForge rather sardonically breaks down their inherently fascist society (which still seems better off than the cultish red ants they end up going to war with), its drawbacks underlined by the few human interactions that do impinge: a chunk of Sweet N’Low that makes anyone who eats bleed from their eyes and die, a magnifying glass. Little wonder that the only ants with any sense end up alone under a spiderweb, profoundly ambivalent about the possibility of starting another colony. DeForge’s art emphasizes the body’s inescapable primacy, and his narrative warns us about what happens when we drift too far away from it; it’s a hell of a cruel world, and there’s no sense us piling on.
Beautiful Darkness, written by Fabien Vehlmann and painted, rather lushly, by French duo Kerascoët, literally spills the mind out into the natural world: it opens with the characters of a little girl’s imagination tumbling onto the forest floor, beside what turns out to be her body. That body’s decomposition mirrors the characters own slow devolution. Their cutesy games and fairy tale concerns slowly bleed into the Machiavellian, then straight out of Lord of the Flies (there’s a particularly gruesome visual callback to that book’s central image).
They don’t just turn on themselves, though; they also lay waste to the forest floor, at least on the micro level. Their cruelty to curious animals that come to visit — clipping a bird’s wings to use as a mount, gouging the eyes out of a mouse for witnessing a moment of personal shame — is all the more horrifying because it’s capricious; there’s no particular ill will, just whims, and the animals are a resource that can meet it. Being the manifestations of a young mind, consequence never troubles their thought process.
In Beautiful Darkness, then, the dichotomy is entirely reversed; it’s not us who should be afraid of nature, not the body that needs to be worried about, but exactly the opposite. The book ends — the girl’s body almost fully returned to the earth — with our hero, a naive princess, escaping to a nearby cabin; she tricks her fellow creatures, her persecutors, into an oven, and then sets them on fire — that great civilizing force their ultimate undoing. She’s warmed by the flame, safe inside again; it’s a hell of a cruel world, and it’s only with our deluded minds that we dream we might escape it.