Laid Waste is not a happy story. It’s a story of despair. It’s a story of the plague. There is a lot of death. There is a lot of the grotesque. There is some gore. And yet it’s beautiful, both visually and narratively.
The story begins and ends with fleas, those pesky little plague vectors who are so tiny yet so deadly, just like the details in Julia Gfrörer’s visual style, which is reminiscent of Edward Gorey, but more anguished. Laid Waste is thick with delicate line work that expresses all range of emotions and depicts all range of subjects with the same detailed poignancy. There is the perfect amount of looseness in her line work to suggest movement, and the way she draws us from one panel to the next, often repeating the previous panel with only slight variations, lends an intimate feel to her work that makes it even more powerful.
After the fleas, we have an opening scene that sets the mood for the rest of the story. A woman is holding a baby in her arms, pleading with an unseen force to let her keep the child. She is in shocked despair when she wakes to find that an angel and Death stole the baby, Agnès, from her. All is not lost, however. She refuses to accept what everyone else knows to be true—that her child is in the churchyard—and digs her baby right back up. What follows is the story of Agnès, the young adult, as she survives the plague. A question remains unanswered at the end of the story: did the mother’s theft of a small life from Death lead to the plague that decimates the village? When the plague arrives in their village, Agnès and the rest of the villagers share in the pain that led her mother to dig up a grave.
The pacing of the story is exquisite. Gfrörer refuses to let us plow through the work, skimming over the gory details, as she focuses on certain scenes for several panels: a pair of dogs fighting over a severed forearm; Agnès making bread; Agnès and Giles holding hands; Agnès lying amongst corpses in various stages of decay. We have plenty of time to process the extent of the despondency that has invaded the village. I wonder, what keeps these people going? How do the children who are burning their parents’ bodies speak so matter-of-factly about how to get smoke out of their eyes? We are coming in in the middle of a tragedy, seeing the effect that months of loss have had on a population.
When you have lost everything, what is left to want? Only the truth, and this Agnès begs from her friend Giles after burying her sister: “Nothing is well,” he responds, “nor will it ever be again.” And yet with these words and cries of “Nothing matters,” Giles and Agnès make love, hinting at the creation of new life in the midst of hopelessness. Gfrörer’s depiction of their lovemaking has them becoming as one, clothes melding into clothes and bodies into bodies. It is nearly impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Lovemaking is a candle in the winds of despair, however, and Agnès succumbs to misery.
But again all is not lost, and Gfrörer sprinkles her work with moments of practicality that defy despair. Cows must be milked. Children who have already forgotten the deaths of their parents must be fed. Dogs will survive. Agnès will walk home again. Life will go on, and the best way to honour the dead is to keep on living.
This is not a happy story, but in the end it is one of hope.
Writer/Artist: Julia Gfrörer
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books, Inc.