Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 20: Cat and Girl

Consider your current environment. Consider what your surroundings say about you. Consider yourself. Consider who you are. Consider who you appear to be. Consider others, and who they appear to be to you. Consider the past, and its relationship with the future. Above all, consider the present, because right here, right now, I want you to consider Cat and Girl.

Cat and Girl is contemplative, and thought-provoking as well as thoughtful. The eponymous characters and their supporting cast discuss abstract concepts, trying to come to terms with the world around them, and sometimes they arrive at hypocritical conclusions or no conclusion at all, or where there could be a conclusion there’s a cheap punchline instead. The realm of ideas and uncertainty is Cat and Girl’s domain. Enter not for answers, but seeking questions, and you will be rewarded.

Note: While Cat and Girl has a loose continuity, it is in no way narrative-driven. For the most part, each installment can be enjoyed on its own, regardless of whether you’ve read any of the previous ones. The advantage of reading through the archive comes in getting to know the characters and their backgrounds, which makes it easier to immediately understand where any given character is coming from.

There’s a melancholic aesthetic running through Cat and Girl, which can be somewhat off-putting. “Discontent” is a decent watchword here; everyone is seeking something unreachable, and is continually dissatisfied with what they can reach. It’s not a happy comic, and it doesn’t always make up for the melancholy by being a funny comic. It’s a comic that asks you to look at the big questions about yourself, and that process can be difficult or even painful, but it is certainly worthwhile.

I’ve been reading Cat and Girl for a long time, since I was an impressionable teenager. Going through the archive to write this post, I noticed a lot of ways that Cat and Girl has informed my thinking. I realized that Cat and Girl has played a significant role in turning me into the person I am today. There are certain installments that have stuck with me ever since I first read them, sitting at a school computer when I was supposed to be doing some sort of research. This comment on the limitations of art forms is something that I’ve often called to mind, and it’s colored my perception of many works of art.

Then there are other ideas that I didn’t necessarily remember seeing in Cat and Girl, but that nonetheless ingrained themselves into my mind. I’d forgotten all about the following panel, but I’ve said some very similar things about myself, and I’m pretty sure this is where I got it from.

In some ways, Cat and Girl gave me the vocabulary to think through concepts that had barely occurred to me. Characters argue about identity and authenticity, and all of their viewpoints are problematic, no one getting what they want out of their relationship to the world or other people, and I read that and considered my own hang-ups and concerns and worries about things that don’t really matter. I saw myself reflected in these characters, imperfectly but still recognizably, and I realized that my internal arguments were often so pointless, so irrelevant to who I am, that I gave up on those particular concerns. “Authenticity,” as they use the word in Cat and Girl, is meaningless, I concluded. I can be authentic to my own life experience, and any attempt to fulfil some external requirement for authenticity would, it turns out, be inauthentic.

And here’s the thing: That conclusion is 100% my own. Cat and Girl didn’t tell me to think that, Cat and Girl just presented the concern, presented arguments and let me draw my own conclusions. While I give this comic a lot of credit for the person I’ve become, I think that any number of people, influenced by Cat and Girl, would each grow into very different expressions of self. There’s room for variability, there’s room for interpretation. As I said earlier, this isn’t a comic that will give you answers, it’s a comic that will ask you questions. What you do with those questions is your choice.

I’ve made Cat and Girl sound kind of like a self-help book! It really doesn’t feel that way when you read it. If you enjoy thinking about identity and self-expression, this comic is a really fun read, and all of my comments about it changing the way I think about things come from the way it has of sticking with you, long after you’ve read it. The conversations are enjoyable, if often sad, and there’s usually an attempt to inject levity into whatever the characters are moping about. It feels like gallows humor, much of the time; people trying to smile through situations that they don’t want to be in and can’t imagine escaping.

Not every installment is deep and far-reaching and demanding of the reader. Sometimes the characters argue about totally inane things, concepts without much relevance to daily life or simple practical disagreements. Often, the conversations and situations are absurd, and I am a sucker for absurd humor. The following excerpt made me laugh like crazy when I read it, and oftentimes I’ll remember it and just start giggling out of nowhere.

There are some interesting experiments with the comics medium, as well. There was a whole period of time where Cat and Girl was drawn, placed somewhere, and photographed, significantly changing the aesthetic, and furthermore, changing the context, which altered the meaning… and you know, this is exactly the kind of thing I could imagine reading about in Cat and Girl, but in this case rather than just considering the idea conceptually, the reader can actually experience it.

On occasion, the comics will focus on what was going on in the world at the time. This can be disconcerting if you’re reading through the archive in the future...um, I mean the present… and those events are far away. However, I’ve found it pretty easy to look back and remember what the big event was that the comic is referencing. It helps that the events aren’t ephemeral, TV-finale type deals, but legitimate historical events that were rightfully treated as significant at the time, such as Hurricane Katrina or presidential elections.

And while Cat and Girl is often sad, it will occasionally reverse your expectations and point out something genuinely pleasing about the world we live in. There’s a lot that’s worth getting upset about, but there’s also a lot that’s worth being happy about, and Cat and Girl is honest enough to acknowledge both extremes.

What you get with Cat and Girl is superficially simple entertainment, that will gently, subtly, insidiously warp you from the inside until you come out a better, more coherent person. Let these characters work out their conflicts so that you can have a better view of your internal conflicts. Let them whine and rage and feel guilty over things so that you can make a better-informed decision about what is worth whining and raging and feeling guilty about. Even if they’re all coming from a place you can’t relate to, even if you disagree wholeheartedly with everything they say… there’s still value in considering what they mean by saying it.

I am a different person than I would be today if I had never read Cat and Girl. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I do know that I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Cat and Girl is written and drawn by Dorothy Gambrell and currently updates on Tuesdays.

I recommend it for people who like thinking about things.

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