Julia Gfrörer's Laid Waste Raises a Hand From the Darkness

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Julia Gfrörer's <i>Laid Waste</i> Raises a Hand From the Darkness

Writer/Artist: Julia Gfrörer
Publisher: Fantagraphics
Release Date: November 1, 2016

One has to assume that Fantagraphics timed the release of Julia Gfrörer’s latest book to coincide with Halloween or the approach of winter, but its presence in our lives at this moment speaks to nothing so much as the horror of regression. Set in the plague years of the medieval era, the story is minimal; Gfrörer focuses on atmosphere more than sparkling dialogue or clever plot twists. In fact, her plots are often the opposite of twisty. They follow a terrifyingly linear structure, which can sometimes be the point: death, fear and the things that lurk in the dark don’t necessarily need to be witty. They have strength and inevitability on their side. It’s not a very glass-half-full view of the world, even if she does make room for love and familial ties.

Laid Waste follows the grieving process of a young woman, Agnes, whose sister has just died of the plague. Her parents are not mentioned. Her husband, too, is dead. She has no living children. The bodies of the dead in her village lie in a pile down the hillside from the church, unburied. The dogs that roam might casually carry a hand in their mouths, meat to fight over like any other. It feels, in short, like the end times. Gfrörer never spells out the theological outlook that ruled the world at the time, but she evokes the very real belief in the apocalypse, also countering the idea of a Godly presence in the world. Life being pain was one thing when an eternal reward awaited, but endless, random death is a test of faith. Why not throw out the old ways and enter into adultery and whatever else invites pleasure?

Laid Waste Interior Art by Julia Gfrörer

Gfrörer fits a lot into her simple four-panel, black-and-white pages. Sometimes, the set of four panels constitutes an entire scene—a narrative beat never overlaps a set. The end of the scene always comes at the end of the page, and the repetition can be powerful. A late set of eight panels (on facing pages) features two hands letting go of each other, then Agnes standing amid the splay of dead bodies. She collapses first to her knees, then lies flat, head in hands. She holds this latter posture for the last five panels, with only slight variation in the execution of the drawings, not in their conception. It’s a statement about grief and the desire to give up, a feeling many can relate to in our current political environment. Luckily (spoiler alert), the ending is less dark: a hand reaches up and out of the pit of spoiled flesh, at least temporarily. Let’s hope Gfrörer’s right.

Laid Waste Interior Art by Julia Gfrörer

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