As art, as narrative, as formalist exercise, and as graphic literature, there’s no way to describe Julie Doucet’s long-awaited return to the medium she helped revolutionize, the recently-published Time Zone J, as anything other than a triumph. And quite likely a staggering one at that. But that doesn’t mean that getting through it isn’t a fair amount of work.
As with all labors, though, what matters here is how ENJOYABLE the expenditure of energy (in this case MENTAL energy) involved is, and how much VALUE one derives from it. On that score, we as readers needn’t fear, as we’re in the best possible hands, but as a CRITIC, this is a book that puts me in a bit of a tricky wicket because I feel the need to write a “how-to” guide every bit as much as a review. Perhaps I just need to learn to compromise and write something that’s a bit of both?
To begin with, then, Doucet drew — and politely admonishes us to read — each of these pages in “reverse,” bottom-top-top order, but that’s often FAR easier said than done. Drawing on her experience with collage, what Doucet has created here is the nearest thing to its comics equivalent : a miasmic, oftentimes dizzying array of tightly-placed images (usually faces, sometimes animals and objects and buildings, more rarely full-figure drawings) with no artificially-constructed “borders” between them. In purely practical terms, this means that not only are there no “panels” per se, but that each image flows and/or butts up against the next, and that each “side” of each folded page continues onto and into the one next to it. Yes, it’s confusing, but so is life, and you DO get used to it — again, like life. But there ARE numerous occasions where word balloons and the like have to be sort of intuitively organized because there’s no clear visual “running order” provided.
Strangely, though, this doesn’t feel like just haphazard methodology on Doucet’s part : again, I invoke the term “intuited” because it absolutely applies. And it applies to the STORY “structure,” as well, bobbing and weaving as it does between past and present, between Doucet as she is and as she was, and of course part of the fun here is teasing out both the differences and similarities (not only in terms of physical characteristics, but also in terms of outlook, mindset, and personality) between both “versions” of our author/protagonist. There IS a focal point to the narrative — that being the recounting of a painful, abusive, and ultimately doomed relationship between Doucet and a late-1980s/early-1990s paramour she refers to as “The Hussar” — but the circuitous route she travels getting to this series of recollections, as well as the various tributaries that emerge from them, are truthfully every bit as fascinating and involving as is the “meat” of the “plot” itself. Again, the obliteration of any and all demarcation between events and chronologies and their physical representations is absolutely crucial here : this isn’t about how things “begin” or “end,” it’s about showing AND telling that they all blend together, even (perhaps especially?) when said blending is far from seamless.
Viewed from that perspective, it’s no exaggeration to say that Time Zone J is one of the most conceptually and aesthetically HONEST comics you’re ever likely to read, even if the mileage individual readers get from it is BOUND to vary due to its absolutely unique construction. We’re all familiar with the idea that certain works are, as the cliche goes, “easier to respect than they are to like,” but Doucet ups the ante on that considerably here, crafting something that is downright IMPOSSIBLE not to respect REGARDLESS of how much one likes it.
Which sounds, I suppose, as though I might be damning Time Zone J with faint praise, but I assure you nothing could be further from the truth : I LOVED this book and consider it to be the crown jewel in Doucet’s stellar career — yes, I think I like it even more than Dirty Plotte. But it did have to grow on me as I went along — or, perhaps more accurately, I had to grow into it, as it’s something that offers no option apart from meeting it ENTIRELY on its own terms. To my mind, though, that is PRECISELY what an “auteur” work is, and if ever there was a book that lived and breathed an artistic philosophy of uncompromising singularity, it’s this one. Time will tell if it proves to be the year’s BEST comic, of course, but I’d be absolutely flabbergasted if, by calendar’s turn, it stands as anything less than the most IMPORTANT and GROUNDBREKING one.
By way of full disclosure, this review originally ran on my Patreon site and is presented here as part of a devious week-long scheme to entice more people to subscribe to said site.
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