Comics and graphic novels, we’re told, can do anything, yet few offer the type of challenging cultural and societal commentary that asks for – no, actually demands – repeat reading.
In her second graphic novel, following 2007’s Percy Gloom, Cathy Malkasian expects readers to revisit the world she’s created and to ask themselves some very hard questions afterward. Temperance, her new book from Fantagraphics, doesn’t provide answers; it only forces the questions, examining the role of violence and control in modern society.
Minerva, Temperance’s most central character, finds herself torn between the influences of angry, mistrustful Pa and beautiful, serene Peggy, and when she takes charge of a cloistered society aboard an enormous ship, Minerva’s looks for the most powerful means of keeping her flock focused and content.
The title character Temperance, a wooden doll carved from a forest where Pa and Peggy lived, has witnessed the range of humanity, observes the antics of humanity until he feels compelled to act, despite being himself torn apart by the conflicting influences of Pa and Peggy.
We spoke to Cathy Malkasian about working on the book and creating a narrative as nuanced and open to personal reactions as Temperance.
“Temperance started percolating years back,” she explained. “Originally it was going to be a graphic novel, but it thumbnailed out at 550 pages, and I just couldn’t commit myself to something so intense for so long. Then I wrote it out as a draft for a novel, but that proved unsatisfying, since so much of my writing is visually descriptive. Both of these earlier versions had very different plots. This version took two years to do, and was a thorough overhaul of previous versions. Many characters were cut out, and the plot changed drastically.”
Malkasian laughed at the notion of readers trying to pull all the meaning from Temperance in one sitting.
“I don’t expect people to absorb all of this in one go. I’m always a bit bereft after reading a story whose meaning drops off with the final page! What I like most about books is that they can be re-read as many times as needed,” she said. “I want this story to provide something new to readers each time they visit. The ‘graphic novel’ format seemed to be the best means to tell this story. But implied in your question is the view that comics aren’t as ambitious as written works. Is this true? And what about the reading experience? When we open a comic, as opposed to a written novel, are we giving our experience comparable respect? Writing an extended comic is just as demanding as writing a novel. You go through all the same rigors of research, structuring, character development, drafts, etc., except that with a comic you’re working in two very different languages at once.
“I had no particular literary goals,” Malkasian said, before admitting, “What I wanted to touch upon was our current state of engaging in distant wars and how these have altered the lives of returning soldiers and their loved ones. This and the increasing taste for violence in our cultural palette. Do these currents rise together? Is the latter a reaction to the former? I still don’t know, but I have a feeling we’re seriously rearranging the role of violence in our collective mind. As usual, we are flirting a lot with violence in our popular media, in a very child-like way. We treat it with a kind of graphic fascination, but are still unnerved at exploring its consequences. Unless you show the full story you’ll never get past the flirtation stage. So I wanted to make a story all about the long-term consequences of destructive choices.”
On the subject of the book’s four primary characters, Malkasian explained, “Pa is an embodiment of the natural force of entropy and all its expressions. He also embodies the human fascination with and revulsion toward this force.”
He is contrasted by Minerva, who is driven by both her love for and fear of Pa. She manages to create a fairly productive, if deluded, society by promoting Pa as a figure of mythic proportion and providing a healthy bit of paranoid fear-mongering.
From her own perspective, Malkasian says that “Minerva is simply trying to manage in a world shaped in large part by Pa. She starts out believing that, by staying close to him, she’ll be near the source of power and stay out of harm’s way. It’s a crazy logic, but one that people often employ when living in violent cultures with no way out.
“Paradoxically she uses the worship of Pa to shield herself from him, surrounding herself with a community what worships him, reinforcing in them the delusions she once held. In this way she is never alone, even though she is probably the loneliest character in the story.”
Continuing on to discuss Peggy and Temperance, she said, “Peggy is actually the inextricable foil of Pa, the force of creation and the persistence of memory. Her influence seems to be in short supply, but it’s there, as a whisper to Pa’s shout. That’s sort of the state of things in our world, too. The doll, like everyone and everything, contains both forces. It can get pretty hot headed with anger, with those destructive urges! Not the best disposition for a piece of wood.”
The word temperance typically refers to a movement against alcohol or a general moderation of “excess.” Temperance manages to avoid the extremes of both Pa and Minerva, yet there’s a clear rage in him as well.
Discussing Temperance’s motivations, Malkasian offered, “The word also has its roots in a balancing of forces. The doll is trying to understand the human world and how it processes and balances natural forces in the form of emotions and ethics. It also has a timeless, enduring quality – a piece of wood that has taken many, many forms and somehow retains its awareness.”
Coming from a background in animation, Malkasian – who co-directed 2002’s The Wild Thornberrys Movie feature film – began pursuing comics as a creative outlet several years ago. The experience served as a training ground for her, but also served to push Malkasian toward the type of challenging stories she wished to see in animation.
Malkasian: “I have learned and yearned from being in animation. Technically it’s been my art school. But in terms of stories it’s left me wanting. I think that our friends in Europe, Canada and Russia have more freedom to tell a greater range of stories through animation. Hopefully we’ll get there, too. I love animation and really look forward to the day when the content matches the sophistication of the medium.”
With Temperance in the bag, Malkasian’s already moving forward with new comic book projects. Next, she says, is “a comedy, which will be a nice change of pace!”