Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Entry 58: Solo

Sometimes, authors like to do something clever, and title the last chapter of a book “The Beginning.” Or a character at the end of a movie or a play might declare something like “This is where our story starts.” It’s used to imply to the audience a continuing narrative. Most stories never really end, and a natural conclusion to the plot doesn’t imply that the author has told everything that there is to tell. However, we rarely get to see those stories continue. It’s easier to tell the story of what leads up to a conclusion, than the story of what follows a conclusion.

Not everyone shies away from that challenge, though. There’ve been enough stories that end with beginnings, so today we’ll take a look at a story that does the opposite, and begins with an ending. That story is Solo.

Before we get into this, I’ll note that Solo is definitely the kind of comic that you have to read in order from the beginning. Feel free to jump over to it right now if you’d rather read with as few preconceived notions about it as possible. I won’t describe the plot in detail, but it will be impossible to discuss Solo without giving anything away about the story setup. Also, a note on navigation: You can read through each chapter by clicking “Next” (or on the comic image) to move to the next page, but at the end of each chapter you have to go up to the “Select a Chapter” dropdown to proceed. Don’t get confused and think you’ve finished the comic just because there’s no “Next” button on the last page of Chapter One!

Solo opens with two endings, one of a marriage, and one of the musical act that formed out of that marriage. Our protagonist is Leah, who was part of both of those things. Now they’re gone. That story is over. And Leah clearly has no idea how to deal with that.

I don’t know the author well enough to have an idea how much of herself is represented in Leah, but goddamn does Solo feel biting and personal. I’m certain there’s been some catharsis involved in creating it, but I’m not going to focus on that aspect because I’d rather deal with the comic as it exists independently than delve into how it might reflect the author’s personal life. I just want to observe that the pain Leah’s going through feels like it’s drawn from experience, and that makes everything all the more poignant.

Leah is a highly nuanced character. It’s difficult to sum her up; she’s not a victim, though she’s been hurt; she’s not a hero, though she’s sympathetic; she’s not a villain, though she can be cruel. She’s full of pain and anger and uncertainty, and while

At one point reading Solo, I started to worry about Leah, because I thought her actions were on the irresponsible side. I told myself I was being unreasonable, and she probably had arrangements to take care of herself. The single strongest emotional reaction I’ve had to Solo was the realization, shortly thereafter, that she was being irresponsible and the kind of thing I’d been worrying about happened and Leah hadn’t been thinking ahead like I’d assumed she would.

Normally I’d expect myself not to foolishly assume that everything’s going to be fine and conflict-free, since any story without drama is bound to be dull and/or over very quickly, but Solo somehow lulled me into thinking things would go smoothly. Maybe Leah was just so gung-ho in her fake optimism and denial that I just couldn’t escape it.

Solo has a quiet, deliberate pacing that encourages the reader to slow down and pay attention. When I first started reading, I skimmed the first few pages. There’s not a lot of dialog there, and my first impression was that those pages were just establishing the setting and atmosphere. Reading through the comic again, knowing what comes later, I see that every detail in those first several pages is important. A wealth of information lies there, even if it’s not immediately obvious what all of it means.

Given that experience, I’ve become more careful in my reading of the comic. Characters and details that show up in the background or seem to serve a clear, minor purpose are all part of the tapestry of Solo. Any one of them could prove to be more significant than they first appear. Those details didn’t happen by chance, after all. The author made a choice to include them, and that choice was made for a reason. Subtle details may foreshadow future events, or even serve to illuminate the past.

Most of the backstory and the characters’ personal histories, the situation that led up to the point of the comic, is not explicitly laid out. It’s clearly communicated; I may not know the specifics, but I have a definite idea of how Leah’s relationship with her ex-husband progressed and how she got to be where she is now. The action never stops to get the reader up to speed. Rather, the events of the comic flow so directly from earlier events that there’s very little doubt as to what happened before.

The more I read of Solo, the stronger a shape it takes. I get the sense that there’s a larger design I just can’t see yet because there are so many pieces that have yet to be exposed to me. With every new development, the story becomes richer and more complex.

Before I leave you to explore Solo on your own, I want to share my appreciation for the visual language of the comic. While the setting is mundane and the art typically shows a literal representation of events, certain moments are presented in a more symbolic and metaphorical manner. Sometimes objects in the background even seem to comment on or reflect what’s happening in the story. Look carefully at everything you see in this comic, because not a detail is wasted.

Solo is written and drawn by Hope Larson. In some ways it’s a difficult comic to read, because if you’re an empathetic person you can’t help but feel the main character’s pain. I don’t think this is a comic about dwelling on pain, though. It’s a comic about moving through pain.

At some point before the beginning of Solo was another story, one which didn’t have a happy ending, though it may have been played as bittersweet. Because of the way that hypothetical story ended, Solo necessarily starts with an unhappy beginning. But stories are all about change. Though Solo is still in progress and it may be too early to draw conclusions about it as a whole, I strongly suspect that it will be a far more life-affirming story than it would have been if everything had been happy right from the start.

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