I first encountered Aidan Koch’s comic “What Did You See?” in my first Comics and Graphic Narrative class. It was grouped with other short comics assigned as weekly readings. Some were what I was used to from a comic, having grown up reading Archie and the Sunday “Funny Pages” as I called them – panels in color or black and white with word balloons above the characters. "What did you
See?” is an abrupt departure from that style, and after a quick reading, I dismissed it.
The dismissal wasn’t due to not understanding or relating to Koch’s work, but the exact opposite. “What Did You See?” evoked, to me, death and destruction. The words are sparse – IT WAS COMPLETELY DARK, I COULDN’T FEEL A THING, EXCEPT A WAVE – spread out over seven pages, mingle with images of erased eyes and detached mouths floating in white space. Everyday objects such as a bookcase and table lamp mix with images of lit candles and flowers, which, in my mind, represented prayers for those lost. Unanswered prayers.
I’m used to unanswered prayers. Three years ago was the unexpected death of a man I loved, then my grandmother after I spent months as her caretaker. Now, two close friends are struggling with terminal illnesses and I am left with my inability to offer words of comfort. All I think about is death and loss, and consequently it’s the focus of much of my writing. I fell into the habit of it being all I read about too, from Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights to Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala.
Deraniyagala’s memoir recounts her miraculously surviving the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, where both of her sons, her husband, and her parents perished. It is the most haunting and raw account of loss I have read. Koch’s images and brief words brought those feelings to the surface, and I pushed them away. I was sick of death.
It seemed, however, I could handle death as a means of justice. While I ignored Koch, my favorite comic assigned that week was Graham Annable’s “Burden.” “Burden” features a man seemingly cleaning up after the hurt and broken promises his brother left behind. He pays his brother’s debts and offers what he can to their father and the brother’s former lover. In the end, it’s revealed he has murdered the bad brother, putting an end to him causing any more pain. Most of my classmates didn’t care for “Burden,” but I appreciated the control the good brother had over life.
I harnessed that feeling of control in the first comic I drew, which was shortly after reading Annable and Koch. My main character was a diamond-headed, affable man named Ed who shared his living space with two cats, Max and Leo. Ed gets so aggravated with Max and Leo banging cabinet doors all night long that it appears he may have murdered them. A turn of the page reveals two happy cats, and the cabinet doors nailed shut. Life under control. Even my panels are drawn with the precision only afforded by a ruler, errors erased with no trace, sizes and shapes kept in relative perspective. There are no floating mouths. No vacant eyes. No question of meaning.
Koch, for her part, is fine if the meaning of her work is questioned or interpreted in various ways. As noted in an interview with Sean T. Collins for The Comics Journal, Koch is confident the intended tone of her work translates to the reader, even if meaning doesn’t. Collins notes “so much of the power of her elliptical comics stems from things left unsaid.” Koch does not abide by the traditional process of comics making – “thumbnails to pencil to ink to color process” – but rather makes it up as she goes, moving, erasing, and painting over parts that don’t fit. Koch states she is not trying to tell stories.
Maybe not telling the story is the key. As I revisit “What Did You See” a few months later in my second Comics and Graphic Narrative class, I notice similarities to the last comic I drew. Not that I am comparing my work to the talent of Koch by any means, but my comics did shift focus from a linear narrative to a specific feeling, a tone. Koch’s minimalist images may have been in my mind, or the gloaming described by Didion in Blue Nights. The result was six pages, focused on the separation of friends, one dying, under the same sky as it darkens. At the end, his erasure. But, like Koch’s eyes, he is still visible in another form, still here.