Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"Obsession" by William Rees and Jeff Clemens


One night in small-town America, sixteen year old Clarissa Case sneaks out of her crumbling Victorian house to join her classmates at a lakeside kegger. On the way, she's nearly run over by George Simmons, a gruff, middle-aged man she's never met before. So begins Obsession, William Rees' bizarre, parodying blend of noir mysteries and romantic melodramas. As the title suggests, Clarissa is instantly smitten with the grizzled stranger, and thoughts of him come to dominate her inner life. But Clarissa soon learns that her chance encounter with George Simmons may not have been so random after all. George soon reappears on her mother's doorstep, with news that Clarissa's father died in Mexico and a briefcase containing $50,000 in cash. Nevertheless, Clarissa insists that George stay in the apartment above the garage so that she might continue her not wholly unrequited obsession.

These scenes are interspersed with scenes from a romance comic, starring a 26 year-old Clarissa Case as a small-town nurse. Whereas the earlier Clarissa is a slender, childish Lolita who constantly bemoans her fate as her ailing mother's nursemaid and dreams of escape, Nurse Case is quite the opposite: shapely and diligent, she derives great satisfaction from caring for the sick and dying. But this Clarissa Case has a George Simmons of her own, a brilliant, Harvard-educated surgeon who abadoned a life of luxury to practice medicine. In true hospital romance fashion, they admire one another from afar -- she, his intellect and manner, and he, her compassion -- and gradually fall in love. At first, it appears that Clarissa is daydreaming these scenes as she writes in her diary, but it soon becomes clear that there's something more going on, something Clarissa has been alluding to all along.


I got my copy of Obsession at New York Comic Con, where Rees claimed David Lynch as an influence. Once I had forked over my cash, he also apologetically described the book as "kind of a joke," as if he had somehow tricked me into buying the book and suddenly regretted taking my money. I assume that by joke, he meant more "The Aristocrats" and less "sad and pathetic." It's true that Obsession has a bit of a punchline (one that's tragic rather than comedic), but its central purpose seems to be to explore the concepts and imagery of the noir and romance genres, and to find a way to resolve the two within the same story.

Clarissa's mother is straight out of American Gothic central casting. Hawk-nosed, wheelchair-bound, and vehemently Catholic, she boasts of her daughter's purity and creamy complexion in wickedly icy tone (rendered in deliberately over-the-top jagged speech balloons). Despite her debilitating bone condition, Mommy Dearest scratches out a living painting Madonna statuettes. The choice of Mother's profession is inspired; she paints only Madonnas, panicking at the thought of coloring Saint Peters or Pietas, and models their skin tone on her supposedly virginal daughter's, highlighting Mama's own obsession. It also gives artist Jeff Clemens a reason to fill the unadorned house with easily breakable religious icons.

George Simmons, when not in doctor mode, looks and speaks like a noir anti-hero and is free from the sensibilities of modern action heroes, who might be skeeved by the attentions of such a young girl (or at least make the pretense of being torn about the whole thing). Clarissa is as filled with longing as any Lichtenstein painting, but there are worse things in world than cheating boyfriends and men who don't call. Clarissa is resistant to her role in an increasingly dark crime drama; at sixteen, she's not prepared to be a dame with a past or a femme fatale. So, she tries to cast herself as a romantic heroine, replacing the typical noir monologue with the florid script of a girl writing in her diary. It's when things turn inescapably violent that she is unable to reconcile the two genres and her world comes crashing down -- if it ever existed in the first place.

But Rees' crack that Obsession is a bit of a joke rings true. He sets up all of this imagery, these notions of dualing realities, but gives them nothing to do. The noir plotline settles into its predictable ending, while the romance comic simply dissolves as reality punches through. Aside from the image of endless Madonnas, there is little strike or shock or cling to a reader too long after it's all over. It ultimately feels more like a draft or a study for a more detailed book. And Clemens' art is sadly inconsistent, especially during the action scenes, which is really a shame, since Clemens can do some truly beautiful drawings, as evidenced by this sketch his did in the back of my copy:

All in all, Obsession is a fun way to spend a couple genre-crunching hours (and it certainly warrants a second read), but not much more. It did encourage me to finally get around to watching Blue Velvet all the way through.

[Heavy Proton]
[Jeff Clemens]

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