On Comics: Fiona Smyth, "Skin of Fate," in Nocturnal Emissions #3 (1991) & #4 (1992)

Fiona Smyth, Somnambulance (2018), cover

I recently presented at the second annual conference of the Comics Studies Society, “Comics/Politics,” which featured plenary sessions with Canadian and/or indigenous comics creators, including Canadian comics artist and illustrator Fiona Smyth, who was recently inducted into the Giants of the North Canadian Cartoonist Hall of Fame. I had seen her work occasionally, and remembered that she was the illustrator of things like Sex is a Funny Word (2015), but knew little of the main body of her work, which has consisted of a mix of underground comic ‘zines, public murals, and illustration. Lucky for me and those new to her work, I was able to pick up a recent collection covering selections from her more than thirty-year career, Somnambulance (Koyama Press, 2018).

[You can see excerpts here, see coverage at Four Color Apocalypse, Pop Matters, Broken Frontier, and The Comics Journal, or pick up a copy for a reasonable price on sites like Amazon. Light warning: images of sexual, spiritual, and surreal weirdness to follow.]

The collection surveys the wide variety of her work, which tends toward the surreal, bodily, and sexual, blending the likes of Art Spiegelman, Julie Doucet, and Lynda Barry with a dose of specific and strange iconography (like that of Justin Green without the guilt) and loose characterization and plotting that result in idiosyncratic but often very affecting stories. Perhaps the best way to get a sense of her style is from a long blurb by fellow comics artist Seth, penned in 1991, titled “That’s Why the Lady is a Tramp,” which is reproduced in Somnambulance (page 90):

Who is Fiona Smyth? Good question. Looking at her work, you’d probably get the idea that she’s some sort of wigged-out, over-sexed whore/goddess…and to be perfectly honest—you wouldn’t be too far wrong. […]

Fiona’s a pop culture black hole—anything passing by gets sucked in. She’s a grab-bag, reach in and you’ll pull out a handfull [sic] of blasphemy, babes, camp and castration. She’s the greasy-spoon where Mr. High-Brow has breakfast with Miss Low-Brow. She’s a 24 hour gin-joint, snooty art gallery by day, sleazy strip place by night. Look out…she’s a hoochie koochie girl.

You’re a lucky bunch. Those of you who are seeing Fiona’s work for the first time—it’s a fully realized world. Characters popping up out of nowhere often have a complicated history that runs back thru years of paintings and mini comics. Fiona’s world reveals itself slowly so be patient. But go on, dive into that obsessive, psychedelic, gum-sticky world…and remember as Fiona says, “that’s good chicken.”

I want to quickly dive into one of Smyth’s stories, “Skin of Fate,” which was originally published by Vortex Comics in her series Nocturnal Emissions, in issues #3 and #4, in 1991 and 1992 respectively. To get a sense of these comics, see a contemporaneous review in The Comics Journal is available here.

[All four issues, and one previously unplublished, are reproduced in Somnambulance, from which I will reproduce images.]

Fiona Smyth, Nocturnal Emissions #3 (Vortex Comics, 1991), cover

Fiona Smyth, Nocturnal Emissions #4 (Vortex Comics, 1992), cover

The story itself is fairly straightforward: broke lovers Pussy (Willow) and Roach have a mysterious vision while smoking (and high?) in an alley and head off to their friend/dealer Carmichael to try to score some weed. Carmichael, who wears a superhero-style cape, tells them that he has “some real freaky shit” to show them, which turns out to be a piece of tattooed skin, “from some old carnie freak, preserved forever for our continuing pleasure!” Pussy, disconcerted by the skin, steals it from Carmichael while he and Roach smoke up in the other room, taking it to another friend, Chuck, hoping to find out who it originally came from. Carmichael is incensed, setting out to find the skin, which Pussy leaves with Chuck. Roach freaks out a bit that he’s lost Carmichael as a friend over the stolen skin when Pussy finds him tripping on a bench and they head to a club, The Miami. While there, Pussy sees the vision again, which speaks to her as she is knocked out by someone jumping from the stage. A bouncer throws her on a bus out of town so she won’t be trouble and the story concludes with two baffling pages: one showing another couple and Roach at the club, surrounded by surreal imagery, the other showing four panels—two of Chuck and someone named Kahlo, appraising the skin, one of Roach waking up with Pussy gone, the other with Pussy being sped away in the back of a bus. So what was all that?

The opening page [below] introduces some of the complex and loosely-shared symbolism that laces its way through some of Smyth’s stories. On the left, occupying two-thirds of the page are Roach and Pussy, leaning against an alley wall. Roach, seated, looking zonked out, has a USA briefcase next to him (which doesn’t seem to show up later), while Pussy in her mis-matched tights stands with a cigarette between pursed lips. The other third of the page is a vaporous image of a woman, emerging from a #5 tin can, flanked by two quadupeds, ones male, one female. The figure with black, oval, alien eyes, smiles at the couple, her torso bare, including an open wound and/or vaginal opening beginning between her breasts, stretching downward to where a pelvis would start. Her hands hang, beatifically at her sides, and she is draped in quasi-religion iconography, including a form of halo, a garment like the Virgin Mary’s, and a sort of trident symbol on her forehead. Similarly, Roach and Pussy are surrounded by floating icons, of which they seem unaware. The scene is busy, visually contrasting the elements with the seeming ennui of our protagonists.

Fiona Smyth, Somnambulance (2018), page 142

Compare the alley scene to the mundane interiors of the story, like that of Carmichael’s pad, when he reveals the titular tattooed skin [below]. The only busy elements here are the patterns that Roach rests on and the shag carpet beneath the character’s feet. Note that the tattoo itself resembles a more classic Virgin Mary, complete with wings and conventional halo, though with (devil’s?) skulls in the upper corners.

Fiona Smyth, Somnambulance (2018), page145

As I noted in my overview, Carmichael is enthusiastic about this object, saying on the next page that “it’s art, real art. No pretension, just belief, flesh & needle. And now it’s dead but not” following up that he thinks he “can get a good price for it from some collector.” So for Carmichael, this representation of conventional belief, embedded into the flesh of a once-living person, is now both an object of interest and possible revenue source—the story makes clear than many of his clients aren’t paying for their drugs. Pussy is livid: “I think it should be buried with the rest of the person.” Responding to Roach and Carmichael’s equivocations, she responds “It’s just not right!” While they are distracted, she smuggles it out of Carmichael’s, bringing it to her other friend Chuck [below], hoping he can answer “who’s back did this come from?” closing the first part of the story.

Fiona Smyth, Somnambulance (2018), page148

Fiona Smyth, Somnambulance (2018), page166

When the story picks back up, it does so with a full page of Roach’s dream [right]. With “REM” written down the bridge of his nose, he imagines a shaggy rocker in an embrace with the figure from the alley, while he sleeps in sheets detailed with figures as in a childhood rebus puzzle. The page is again quite busy. Unbeknownst to Roach, the black-haired, skull-shirted guy is Toad, who in a separate series of stories has been pursuing the same figure on a kind of mystic quest. (We as readers could place “Skin of Fate” as an interlude in that story, but unless I’ve missed something, I don’t think Roach could do so.)

As the second part of the story moves forward, Pussy awakes at Chuck’s, shirt open with a bird motif tattooed between her breasts and a dark reversal of the tattooed skin above her head—a dark-habitted nun with a skull, surrounded in flames. These images are fleeting (as the tattoo on her chest does not appear later), perhaps the result of her parallel imagining, the result of drugs, some post-sexual reverie, or some combination thereof.

Carmichael starts looking for Pussy while she agrees to leave the skin with Chuck. He says, “My dearest Pussy, I don’t know who manufactured your precious artwork but if you leave it with me I can show it to a friend.” Pussy called Chuck “the only one I can trust with the skin” and he says “it is my very great pleasure to assist you in this mystery.”

So, we have a setup, albeit of the shaggy-dog sort, that could lead us through a seedy mystery, in the style, say, of The Long Goodbye (dir. Robert Altman, 1973) or Art Spiegelman’s “Ace Hole: Midget Detective” (1974), both of which feature detectives on the hunt of larger plots based on the scantest of evidence. But of course, that’s not where we end up.

Instead, Pussy and Roach end up at The Miami, let in by the bouncer, Joe, through a door that ominously (fatefully?) reads “This is it.” Inside, some insults are hurled, as Pussy and Roach make their way does into the pit to hear The Leather Uppers, who are screaming “skinhead, skinhead, running from the law… I don’t like you! Very much!” At the edge of the stage, Pussy sees the figure in her vision again [below, left], this time directly addressing her (something falls into frame), telling her to “go to Syd” and someone crashes down of Pussy’s head, knocking her out [below, right]. The figure is again bathed in radial light, contrasted with the circular pattern behind the band and the hatched on the stage, but the command is obscure—nowhere in the story is Syd mentioned, save for here.

Fiona Smyth, Somnambulance (2018), page172

Fiona Smyth, Somnambulance (2018), page173

The bouncer, Joe, is told to “throw her on the back of the bus,” as the club’s owner “don’t need another reason for the cops to close me down” and off Pussy goes, essentially leaving her own story, with no volition of her own. The final two pages leave even more mysteries. The penultimate [below] reveals, I think, the heart of the story, inaccessible to Pussy (knocked out and on a bus to Nevada) or Roach (still daytripping). A center rectangular panel features a couple of club kids on a seat, flanked on either side by Roach and a no-name mohawked fellow. The scene is pedestrian, and in stark contrast to the surrounding illustration, which is not bounded by a panel border, which depicts variously the trident-marked figure, an open wound/vagina with two arms holding flowers above it, a Medusa-like head in the upper left with a mesh-topped body in the club scene, another figure on the lower right with snakes or tentacles for hair, over-the knee boots, breasts, and a penis and scrotum, drinking a bottle of wine, our mystery man Toad (?) on the lower left, and the other half of the mohawk guy, revealed in the frame to have a demon’s skull atop his skeleton.

Fiona Smyth, Somnambulance (2018), page174

Fiona Smyth, Somnambulance (2018), page 175

And then the story closes with a return to the narrative. Chuck shows the skin to Kahlo, of Tats R’ Us, asking “do you recognize this finery to the hide of a particular personage” and in (his? someone’s?) eye, we see Pussy’s face. Roach wakes up in the club, asking where Pussy is, and in a final frame, we see her packed in the back of a bus with Nevada plates. The last caption reads “Bye Puss!”

These two pages reframe the story, perhaps revealing something about the Skin of Fate, the story’s MacGuffin. “Skin of Fate” exists not just in a shared social scene of the downtown stoners of Smyth’s stories, but sets characters in their mundane world against a new, mystical one all about them. The rules of that world are not clear or easily aligned with the convenient and pat symbolism of, say, Catholicism as emblazoned on the skin of a true believer. Thus, though the tattooed skin draws the interest of mercantile Carmichael and aesthete Chuck, it offers no path to the “true” nature of things.

In fact, in the sequence of stories to this point, only readers have access to this information—we are the only ones to be able to see both the pedestrian world of apartments and streets and clubs at the same time as the surrounding world of surreal, sexual, mystic wonder. Pussy, booted from her story at the end, will go on to learn more of this, just as Toad, in other stories already has—in a subsequent story, Toad and Syd, using a mirror and speculum (much to be said on that…) find a way to see their visions anew, leading to some strange revelations.

Oh, and to make things even stranger, in a different later story in an unpublished edition of Nocturnal Emissions, a new character, Mia, is introduced, who might have been dreaming all of this all along. (Not to mention that there are other Pussys and Roachs in other stories…)

With this heady mix of surrealism and icon play, Smyth toys with coherence and comprehension, while pulling at the very foundations of such, and “Skin of Fate” is a great introduction to her strange and wonderful work.