Content Warning: This review includes a discussion of suicide and self-harm.
It is relatively simple to schematize the presentation of the self in autobiographical comics. On one level, you have the visual representation of the artist via their cartoon avatar. On another level, you have verbal representation as expressed through narrative text boxes. And the complex interplay between visual and verbal helps reveal the elusive nature of the cartoonist’s “true” self.
That’s it. That’s all you need to know.
I’m kidding of course. Autobio comics are way too weird for that to be true. Just try to build a tidy little theory and watch as some talented cartoonist comes along and blows your bullshit straight to hell.
Zoe Thorogood is one such cartoonist, and her new graphic memoir, It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth (Image, 2022), is a dizzying pyrotechnic cocktail of self-expression that will shred your expectations of what an autobiographical comic “should” look like and then cut your heart out of your chest with a pen. The book — nominally structured around six months of Thorogood’s life in 2021 — is about many things: It depicts an overwhelming and whimsical trip to a comics convention, documents a doomed international romance, and tells the broader story of her development as an artist. But the comic is primarily about Thorogood’s own experience with suicidal depression.
Thorogood is not shy about her priorities. In the opening pages, we are confronted with a blunt and excruciating picture of her mental illness at work. “I’ve been considering stabbing myself in the neck with a sharp knife,” Zoe tells us. The accompanying full-page image is drawn from her perspective, picturing Zoe as she looks into a mirror and grips a knife. But is this Zoe? Almost certainly, and yet we can’t see her face. The narrative text box that explains her suicidal ideation is obscuring it, as if Zoe’s dark thoughts are physically blotting out a vital part of herself.
This icon — Zoe with her face covered by a narrative about self-harm — recurs often in the book’s first section, and it is an elegant way of visualizing the complexity of her depression. The possibility that she might kill herself is, from a certain perspective, simply a story Zoe (who is a character in a comic book) tells herself — not a reality. Likewise, her narrative voice in this section describes her thoughts of suicide as “a performance for no audience” from which she could choose to walk away. But the stories we tell ourselves have immense power, and once you’ve started playing a role, it’s not so easy to leave the stage. “I am not my depression,” Zoe remarks later in the book. “But sometimes it’s comforting to believe that’s all that I am.”
The narrative text is not all-powerful, though. Our first head-on glimpse of Zoe’s face comes while she is beginning work on a new comic — this comic, in fact. We see her rejecting possible titles before landing on the right one and then scrawling a little doodle that will become the cover art for It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth. Though it might appear inconsequential, the small act of putting ink on paper peels back the narrative about suicide and allows Zoe to show herself, permitting a different storyline to take shape.
The page on which this new story begins to unfold is distinctly alive. Zoe’s internal thoughts (“Oh! Wait. Fuck! Shit. Yeah!”) break free from the confines of their narrative boxes and join with a riot of images and colors to form an expressionistic multi-panel collage. Immediately beneath the single-panel image of Zoe’s face — pen in mouth, eyes seemingly focused on her work — is a heart that hovers where her chest would be. This literal image of life anchors the entire page, and its arteries snake into the surrounding panels.
Alison Bechdel has observed, in reference to comics, that “paper is skin, ink is blood,” and the same seems true for Thorogood. It’s as though the act of drawing allows her to snatch control of her body — of her story — back from the version of Zoe who she sees in the mirror, the one holding the knife, the one whose face has been erased by thoughts of self-harm.
Meta-narratives and self-aware reflections on the creative process are hardly new to autobiographical comics. But one thing that distinguishes It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth from any other graphic memoir I’ve read is Thorogood’s frenetic and increasingly surreal representations of herself and her emotions. Many of the comic’s most important scenes feature something like a pantheon of Zoes, which orchestrates an ongoing conversation that oscillates between passive-aggressive arguments and collaborative therapy sessions.
Apart from “regular” Zoe, who is perhaps the closest thing we get to Thorgood’s actual self (whatever that means), the most visible figures are chibi Zoe, whose dialogue is rendered only in lowercase comics sans, and “relatable” Zoe, a cartoony figure with a bald head that looks kinda like a squashed Saitama from One Punch Man. There is also a violent, brooding Zoe who seems to embody Thorogood’s self-loathing. And rounding out the regular rotation is a foreboding black shape with a face ripped from horror manga — a monster who symbolizes the constant, smothering presence of her depression.
But wait! There’s more. This is a memoir that deals with Thorogood’s development as an artist, and multiple younger versions of Zoe play a role in the narrative, from the blue-haired teenager who works in an industrial egg farm to the bespectacled seven-year-old who eats ants as a preemptive defense against bullying. In a powerful, time-bending scene that functions as an emotional climax, a fourteen-year-old Zoe confronts her twenty-three-year-old, present-day self with the clarity of her pure desire to draw.
Even the protagonist of Thorogood’s first graphic novel, The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott, is drafted here as an explicit fictional proxy. In that book, Billie is a reclusive visual artist who learns she is rapidly losing her vision. She undertakes a journey of self-discovery and finds her eyes metaphorically opened to the rich tapestry of humanity. Through her art, Billie learns how to connect with others in a way she couldn’t — or didn’t want to — before. And while Thorogood was previously reluctant to say that Billie was based on herself, she is more open about the relationship in her new book. “[Billie] becomes less like who Zoe is, and more like who Zoe wishes she was,” Thorogood observes. “I created a version of myself that people would root for.”
. . . . .
Oh, did you think we were done? Ahahaha. Wrong! This book also features:
- Zoe as a cat.
- Zoe as an ant.
- Zoe as a snail.
- Zoe as a worm.
- Zoe as a finger-puppet.
- Zoe as a virtual reality frog.
- Zoe with a sad-face emoji head.
- Zoe as a deconstructed stick-figure.
And maybe even one or two more that I missed. Of course, some of these Zoes are one-off gags. On their own, none have the same narrative significance or symbolic power as the eerie black shroud of Thorogood’s depression. But to me, there’s a distinct poignancy to their combined weight. It’s lonely at the center of the earth, in part, because all you have is yourself and your flaws and there are so damn many of them. When you’re depressed and isolated, you can’t get away from yourself. No matter where you turn, you’re the only one you can see.
While it’s impossible to neatly summarize such an ambitious comic, the core preoccupation of It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth could perhaps be condensed into something like this: Can Zoe Thorogood draw herself into a better place? Sometimes, her answers to this question are quite literal. In one particularly striking sequence, Thorogood maps out other, more hopeful prospects for her “self” on the comics page, ranging from seemingly minor aesthetic shifts (a different hair color) to drastic conceptual revisions (changing her past). This unfurling of possibilities also takes place in an imagined theater, which itself serves as a rebuke to the earlier moment when Thorogood compares her suicidal ideation to “a performance for no audience.” Instead of obscuring her face, the narrative text helps elucidate these versions of Zoe that appear on stage.
The exercise is, in part, an escapist fantasy — a way of visualizing things Thorogood knows can’t exist in the real world. At the same time, it’s a performance that overflows with vitality, and it helps keep Thorogood alive. She can be anything on the page, but what matters most is that she can create these drawings at all — that she can put down the knife and pick up the pen.
“Maybe the purpose of life is to make bad art,” Thorogood observes near the end of the book. “I don’t know. I’m just a cartoonist.” It’s true: Thorogood is a cartoonist. But she’s certainly not making bad art. If you told me five different cartoonists had drawn this book as a collaborative project, I’d probably believe you; her hand has that much stylistic virtuosity. I can’t imagine anyone without this level of skill — and such a deep understanding of comics — making a book that is simultaneously this funny, bizarre, and emotionally devastating all at once.
So don’t call Zoe Thorogood a rising star. Don’t call her the “future of comics” (a phrase that seems to fill her with dread). She’s alive, and she’s making mind-blowing comics right now.
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