I’ve been thinking about the nature of art again. It’s hard to talk about art, as a vague and ever-mercurial concept, without descending into cliché and Gaimanesque, and yet one must, on occasion, scratch that itch until it bleeds and hope the bloodstains form some new shapes. So what is art, really? To me it is the attempt to emulate that “moment of birth” from Altermann’s poem “Moon” which I’ve quoted here recently: a new configuration of an old reality; a momentary elucidation that offers itself, of its own volition, to its observers. It is for this reason that we are instinctively repelled by art that feels overwrought, or inauthentic: art, that inherent fakery, must feel real, it must feel new. In this way, the actor, on stage or screen, is the embodiment of art: a good actor, over their career, will forever be a familiar figure turned strange, and will always feel real, a map applying itself to various and varying territories.
The opening sequence of Ezra David Mattes’ A Terrified Child Played by Jeremy Strong, the first chapter (of a planned eight) of which was published in July 2023, shows us precisely such a familiar figure, turned strange: Kieran Culkin, portraying the author-protagonist’s younger brother, Leo, meticulously rendered in colored pencil with a striking dimensionality apart from the uncolored, two-dimensional ears and tail of a cat. “Culkin,” or Leo, is sitting atop a well in an otherworldly, also-familiar space: the Room whose visitors’ deep-seated wishes come true, from Andrey Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Facing the reader directly, he monologues: “I hear friends reassuring the gathered crowd that they’re still the same inside. Maybe I’m the one who can’t undergo a material change without a spiritual one. Before and after pictures are misleading. They’re insufficient evidence for what has really occured [sic]. I don’t need you to believe me. I’m asking you to understand me, yeah?“
Let’s talk about etymology again. The word artifice is derived from two Latin roots: the first, ars, to denote that slippery and ever-evasive art; the second, facere, to denote making, crafting. Artifice, then, takes on two meanings: either (1) fakery or deception, or merely (2) the making of art. Now, tell me, fellow artists: when does performance cease to be fakery? When does artifice (definition 1) become artifice (definition 2)? And what is the function, in practice, of maintaining this distinction?
It is this conflict that lies at the heart of A Terrified Child Played by Jeremy Strong. Mattes, a young and supremely compelling trans cartoonist, lays bare his struggles with these issues of identity, using an unusual platform for doing so: externalization. In the first chapter, the cartoonist presents his premise, an appeal to Succession actor Jeremy Strong to “play” the author in his own autobiographical coming-of-age comic. Once the actor’s stand-in “assents,” the chapter becomes a tour through the realm of Mattes’ memory, culminating in a traumatic injury of his father’s, shortly before the parents’ separation.
This is, to begin with, a clever and surprising notion: the phrase “a terrified child played by Jeremy Strong” initially strikes one as a joke (especially given Strong’s performance as Kendall Roy, who for four seasons navigated a gorgeously frustrating petulance with stunning emotional nuance): intense and visceral as his performance is, the reader’s instinct is to remark on the mismatch between the role as cast and the role as perceived. But it is this mismatch, of course, entirely the author’s intent; in demonstrating his separation from his “past self,” and rendering it as a fictional performance, Mattes follows a grand tradition of the eschewing of memoir as a realm of fact: some of the most acclaimed comics of the genre (if the broad and decidedly treacherous terrain of “memory” can indeed be framed in terms of genre) like Thorogood’s recent hit It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth, Goblet’s Pretending is Lying, and (of course) Spiegelman’s Maus all employ the formal laws of comics—a form forever suspended, forever handheld and diminutive in presentation, forever limited in its power to immerse its reader—to remark, in their own ways, on the utter artifice of arranging memory, that ever-decaying mass, into the neatness of narrative. In lieu of suspending disbelief, Mattes enhances it in a theatre of associative allegory.
This is plainly demonstrated by Mattes’ pictorial choices in storytelling. Mattes renders the memory-world and many of its characters in Prismacolor pencil, employing a reference-heavy and photorealistic visual language that makes its internal physics known. There is something of a compositional awkwardness and skew that could be ascribed to the author’s style, but more often than not there is a precision.
Until, of course, there isn’t. With great intent Mattes depicts his stand-in, the esteemed Jeremy Strong, and his brother’s stand-in, with a sharp precision, attentive to every fold of the face—while Mattes and his brother Leo are drawn as hyper-simplified, uncolored cats. This contrast between protagonist and world is reminiscent of Inio Asano’s Goodnight Punpun‘s central visual conceit, with Asano’s human protagonist drawn as a small bird amidst an otherwise-realistic, solidified visual field. It’s a choice whose impact is immediate: it’s not that the hero is merely isolated—he exists on a completely separate semiotic plane. He is a stranger within the landscape of his own construction, voluntarily replaced by his appointed replacement.
Which brings us back to Jeremy Strong, or rather to the idea of a Jeremy Strong, before we get to the particulars of Jeremy Strong. A Terrified Child Played by Jeremy Strong emerges from several fields of context: the author’s independent experience, the author’s engagement with pop culture, the pop culture being engaged with, and the perception of the people behind the crafting of that pop culture. This perception, one must point out, is completely external; the inevitable fate of the successful craftsman is to be retroactively contextualized—caged—by their own craft. Let us examine, then, the contextual flow from which this comic emerges:
- Its primary source, the author (whose job is to create an art external by reorganizing the internal), externalizes his experiences to
- an actor (whose job is to embody that external art), or rather to
- the perception of the actor (the inherently external existence of a stranger, mediated by the art and by peri-artistic aids such as interviews), who takes on
- the character of
- the author (see phase 1).
It is not a loop, exactly, because we are not at all back at our starting points: these are external perceptions layered atop external perceptions, a celebration of simulacra. A struggle with alienation is thus engaged with through the very language of alienation in order to negate it. Consider, for example, the depiction of the author’s father’s injury: the actor, dressed in Succession‘s trademark black suits and dress shoes, wakes up one morning to hear screaming downstairs and runs downstairs to investigate. His mother commands him to go across the street and get help, and he does. But then, in “real” life, Jeremy Strong the actor interjects: “Ezra, sorry. If we can pause. I have a note. So… I just got out of bed. I should be running across the street in my bare feet.“ – the actor, the artifice, overwrites memory for a logic that is artistic more than representational.
Which brings us, then, back to art. It is hard to describe A Terrified Child Played by Jeremy Strong as a work of art on art, per se. It is, to be sure, a work not created in isolation—beyond Succession, there are allusions to Stalker and Fellini, and the author’s sibling tells a story, presumably made-up, of having seen George Lucas at the grocery store—but the cliché of all art being a metaphor for the creative process is impertinent here, because for once the creative process is the signifier rather than the signified, the means rather than the end. By framing it as a mere tool and vessel, Mattes strips away the externality of art, the separateness of art from artist and of art from consumer: art and people are both, ultimately, ornamental vessels of emotional impact, and A Terrified Child is preoccupied entirely with the purity of that impact, of the moment when internal and external collapse into one another.
In that regard, Jeremy Strong is a fitting “casting” choice; beyond Succession intertextualities such as Mattes’ fear of the supermarket lobster cages he recalls from his childhood and the show’s long-running application of bodies of water as symbolism for Kendall Roy’s mental state, the actor has been repeatedly noted for both his intense acting and his Method-like immersion in the text, to which co-stars have often reacted with a mix of admiration and worry. My kneejerk temptation is to compare this to Connor Willumsen’s employment of Bradley Cooper in Bradley of Him, but Mattes is not interested in similarly framing Strong’s immersion as an act of validation-hungry bullshit-artistry but rather to mirror the voluntary “staging” of reality with the erasure of the boundary between actor and acted; art and memory are both on equal footing as works of that most powerful of forces: dramaturgy.
Yet the comic’s Jeremy Strong is not Jeremy Strong, nor is he Ezra David Mattes, nor is he any one thing. He is a cipher, a likeness—a vessel. Over and over Mattes not only remarks on his own on-page rearrangement of the self but on the very artifice inherent to the Aristotelian notion of a fixed self (fixed in gender, in presentation, in the very core of one’s identity), forcibly confronting the reader with the limits of their preconceptions. In Mattes’ world, the material is the spiritual, both transient. It starts out as understanding. If you’re lucky enough, over time it becomes believing, too.