Sea Urchin

[This post originally appeared on Hazel & Wren, and it might still be viewable there with the accompanying images.]

Sea Urchin by Laura Knetzger (Retrofit Comics & Big Planet Comics, 2015)

Laura Knetzger’s Sea Urchin starts the same way many stories do: with the disruption of a status quo. “I’ve been stuck lately. The bad moods are lasting weeks.” Things aren’t how they were understood to be. What follows, though, is not a typical narrative conflict or escalation of consequences. Nor is it a typical autobiographical hand-wringing and exploration of options. Instead, Sea Urchin comes off as a chronicle of symptoms and a meditation on negative feelings.

Sea Urchin’s pages seem to have more white space than other books. For instance, Knetzger’s lines are thin and consistent, and spot blacks and halftones are rare. Also, panel borders are scarce, and even when they’re present, they’re often broken by characters or design elements leaking from one panel to another. Lastly, the book is made up of a number of discrete vignettes, but there are no chapter heads or stanza breaks between them, so it can be difficult to tell where one ends and another begins. These effects combine to create a sense of slow wandering and exploration; reading the book feels a bit like wandering through a garden (a pretty sadness garden).

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The things growing in the garden are surprising and occasionally dangerous. Knetzger gives her feelings imposing physical forms: black sea urchins pushing through her head, fractured faces dripping across her face, and raging anime villains. Characters grow and shrink in relation to each other and their emotional interactions. In prose (or in many autobio comics), narrators struggle to explain their negative feelings to the reader or to friends. In Sea Urchin, these feelings are more than metaphor. Knetzger’s depression isn’t like a sea urchin in her brain—it is an urchin.

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People with mental illnesses (or other “invisible” illnesses) often have to bear the burden of proof that something is affecting them, as though there’s a subjective element to what they’re going through. Knetzger’s stories challenge that, portraying her feelings as object facts and inviting others to walk through her life.

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