Let’s start, perhaps, with an exercise in amateur lexicography. The term performance can be interpreted in two main ways: the first is the technical ability to enact a certain action (his performance in the race was underwhelming); the second, a pretense or false charade (his performance as Valjean) was wonderful.
It is performance, the enacting of the latter and the circumstances of the former, that acts as the beating heart of Daria Tessler’s latest graphic novel, Salome’s Last Dance. It’s a loose affair by design, continuing Tessler’s interest in the psyche and spirit as a backdrop by telling the story of a magician whose famous trick is to transform into a dancing poodle-like dog—and the psychologist-cum-conman who would wish to steal that trick and become rich along with his accomplice. How would that be done, you ask? Why, the only way one can steal an idea: by physically busting open the drugged magician’s skull and spelunking into his brains.
If the aspiration of a cartoonist is to craft a comic work that operates in perfect concert within itself—which is to say, which cannot be neatly separated into “story,” “art,” “coloring,” “lettering,” and so forth, those assembly-line component-minded categories often derided in comics-as-art circles—then Salome’s Last Dance can certainly be said to be the fulfillment hereof: it surrenders itself to an inherent looseness without losing itself in aimlessness, and yet I cannot analyze its story in a way that sets aside the art for even a moment.
Tessler’s cartooning, as ever, has an almost Jim Woodring quality to it, an ersatz-nostalgia defined in relation to a past that explicitly never existed. But, if Tessler’s Cult of the Ibis set itself in a world whose sweaty, breathless atmosphere merits comparisons to Thomas Ott or David Lynch, Salome‘s musings of mind and spirit afford the book a cleaner, airier look, with a night Aardmanesque approach to figure and physicality that is “cartoonish” in the most classically whimsical sense.
Perhaps the book’s strongest artistic decision is to underscore its stylistic artifice, to treat it as focal point rather than mere circumstance. At every point and turn Tessler reminds us of the relationship between reader and author, performer and audience: there is an inherent trickery in storytelling; the very idea of a “suspense of disbelief,” this unspoken contract between both parties, which must be justified by the author in order to be upheld by the reader in turn, is nothing but a consent to enter into a dissonance in which “true” and “fake” become not only coexistent but synonymous as well. Tessler brings this disbelief into the forefront by emphasizing the performance, and the form in its root, over the act being performed; Salome is more a vaudevillian act than a pretense to document.
Consider the sequence that takes up the bulk of the book, in which the two would-be thieves explore the magician’s brain in their search of the “solution” to the dog trick: in order to negate the monotextural sense of coherent spatiality in the “real world,” Tessler clutters these environs of the mind with advertisements for various novelty tricks, as well as eerie pseudo-cute dolls and toys. What readily comes to mind is, of course, Jack Kirby’s experiments with collage backgrounds, an overwhelming textural clash of a landscape that is not incoherent so much as anticoherent to the outsider. It’s an interesting choice: Tessler’s art certainly tends toward a depictive solidity, free of the overtly abstract—there is an immediate legibility to her work, always recognizable even if not existent; using collage, then, allows Tessler to subvert her own style without outright negating it—effective, if betraying a certain comfort.
In the absence of a “true” abstract, Tessler’s focus is on plays of tentative proportion and physicality. Much of the humorous impact in the narrative emerges from how tangible and literal the task of the thieves becomes: for all its Jungian nature, the two conmen are ultimately incompetent pretenders to an Ocean’s-type throne. Upon drugging themselves with the same concoction ingested by the magician, they manage to shrink down into a minuscule size, they physically climb into his head, rope and pickaxe in hand, and the two shrink down and grow larger arbitrarily in relation to the imagery they encounter. It makes perfect textual sense: beyond the thief’s nominal interest in the mind, he has no interest in engaging with any lofty ideas beyond profit; the mind, then, becomes a simplified landscape of cartoonish obstacles, not to be traversed into understanding but rather to be scoured for a quick-and-easy solution.
But that quick-and-easy solution is worth nothing without the platform that cultivated it. At the end of the comic, the two thieves have managed to abduct the dog out of the magician’s brain, and, upon returning into the “real” world, prod their dog into dancing, convinced that they’ll retain the success achieved by the magician. The dog, though, does not go along with it; she starts dancing only to reveal a zipper in her chest, and unzips herself to reveal a baboon. “But wait! There’s more…” says the baboon to the angered psychologist and his scared partner-in-crime, before stripping down to reveal a pig. And then a cat, and then a lobster. The psychologist, defeated, goes to sleep, while the emptied magician observes the lobster; the lobster, though, has a final trick: it unbuttons itself and reveals a cockroach, which crawls into the psychologist’s ear. The magician, for his part, performs the billowing gesture that typically results in the reveal of the dog, but no dog appears: only a void.
And isn’t that just the thing? Performance is nothing if not an act of synergy—and synergy is nothing if not an act of magic. At its best, it is a perfect alignment of style that even the finest critic cannot reverse-engineer its substance. Having taken some degree of comfort in the former, Tessler appears to offer a warning: prod too much, then, if you dare—but beware, lest you end up with nothing but a void.