Revisiting another Sparkplug classic, here’s my original review of Julia Gfrörer’s debut book, Flesh and Bone, from 2010.
Julia Gfrörer’s Flesh And Bone takes fairy-tale and folk legend tropes and both turns them on their heads and gets at their true roots. The plot of the story is simple: a forlorn young man seeks the aide of a cannibalistic witch to reunite him with his dead lover in the afterlife, but without risk to his immortal soul. The witch does so, by planting a piece of clothing from a girl that she killed and ate on his person. There’s a matter-of-fact manner with which Gfrörer depicts ritualistic sex, horrific violence and other truly demented acts that make them all the more shocking when they do occur. For the assorted witches and demons, it’s simply all in a day’s work.
The funniest turnabout in the story involves the despondent young man who so desperately wanted to rejoin his lover. There’s a great scene where we see him draped over his love’s grave, weeping tears that sweep across his face. Then, in the space of several excruciating panel-to-panel beats, he takes out his penis and masturbates to ejaculation–all while remaining in his splayed, hysterically mournful pose. Throughout the comic, Gfrörer strips away the romance of fable and reveals the flesh and bone she name-checks in the title. The humor she mines from these situations plays on both the shock value of her images but also the inherent ridiculousness of being embodied.
The witch eats children, participates in ritualistic sex with demons and has sex with a mandrake (a magical root vegetable that grew from the man’s ejaculate that spewed forth after he was executed at the gallows)–but it’s all in a day’s work. When we see a young boy hanging from a hook and the witch methodically gutting him, there’s no cackling or melodramatic gesturing–just someone going about a task.
What’s interesting is that to some degree, even the witch bought into some degree of romanticism. After she manipulates events to get the young man executed, she speaks to a demonic colleague to get his take on the situation. He quickly disabuses her of the notion that the young man would be reunited with his love in the afterlife, sternly reminding her that love was a deception that mankind saddled itself with that made them easy pickings for their kind. By the end of that fascinating conversation, despite her discomfort with what he had to say, one got the sense that she knew he was right–and he knew it too, telling her not to call if she didn’t want to hear the truth.
The reason why this comic works is primarily because of Gfrorer’s scratchy, even threadbare line. The drawings have the immediacy of a sketchbook drawing, giving them an almost tremulous quality. The spareness of Gfrörer’s line is what balances her sometimes graphic and over-the-top imagery, but it also contributes to the book’s relentlessly visceral nature. The way that Gfrörer depicts shocking daily rituals in a drawn-out, even mundane manner also serves the book’s attempts at capturing the mystical in temporal, embodied forms. It also forces the reader to confront these acts on their own terms, stripped of other connotations. Some actions that are deeply serious appear to the reader to be ridiculous, and vice-versa.
At its core, Flesh And Bone asks the reader to re-consider their own understanding of sex and love and how the two have been historically and culturally linked. The witch pleasuring herself with the mandrake root is drawn out in a way meant to link ritual and physical sensation in a manner that’s irreducible: material existence is all that matters. However, the last page of the book seems to suggest a reunion of sorts between the dead lovers in a way that belies the cynicism of the book’s other characters. Love may not conquer all, but in Gfrörer’s world, obsession can break through a lot of barriers.