Courtesy Fantagraphics

A Little-Known Local Comics Artist Plays With Time and Identity to Brilliant Effect

D.J. Bryant’s Fantagraphics debut, ‘Unreal City,’ loops back on itself, merges, and disintegrates.

“Comics readers are conditioned by other media and the ‘real time’ of everyday life to expect a very linear progression,” Scott McCloud declared in his classic treatise on the medium, Understanding Comics. But as McCloud deftly illustrated, “time in comics is infinitely weirder than that.”

In D.J. Bryant’s debut Fantagraphics collection, Unreal City (out now), time rarely flows in one direction. In nearly all five bizarre short stories in the Seattle artist’s new book, narratives bunch up, loop back on themselves, or end where they began. A classic “THE END” might wrap up one story; in the next, “THE END” will be written backward; in another you find an even more circuitous “THE END BEFORE THE BEGINNING…” In “The Yellowknife Retrospective,” a man named Jack enters a gallery whose architecture happens to incorporate “temporal design.” As Jack runs around the dome-shaped building, he encounters past and future versions of himself. “Holy shit! That’s us from just moments before!” Jack exclaims from the bottom of the page, pointing up at a “previous” panel.

In person, Bryant is so casual about his stories’ gleefully serpentine nature that I wonder how he himself experiences time. “It’s just a natural way of telling a story to me,” he says. “It just seems to be such a fundamental principle. You know, you’ve got the Earth in rotation, day becomes night becomes day again. The cycle of death and rebirth.”

Bryant’s self-portrait.

Cartooning is a fairly lonesome art, but Seattle’s comics scene is more social than most. Café Racer’s regular Dune drawing night, the Short Run festival, the Exterminator City market, and collaborative newsprint anthologies like Thick as Thieves bring Seattle artists together. Despite this, and though he has now been published by one of the country’s most prestigious presses, most local comics artists and fans have likely never heard of Bryant. There’s a reason: He dropped out of time for seven years, quietly realizing the anxiety-riddled fever dreams that make up Unreal City. “I’m definitely guilty of being in my cave,” he says. “The way I write is almost the exact opposite of the way I draw. I write very very fast, as intuitively as possible. It’s a very weird, abstract thing that comes out. Part of the fun of it is taking this weird thing that came out that’s so nebulous, crafting it very meticulously, and carving it out of these very fine, sharp lines. But it takes a very long time to do it.”

Bryant’s presence in the scene may be new, but those fine, sharp lines will look very familiar to long-time Fantagraphics and Northwest alt-comix fans. Visually, Bryant’s style sits at the intersection of Daniel Clowes’ and Charles Burns’. “It’s pretty obvious,” Bryant says. His work is no hack job, though. Narratively, the closest his stories come to those of those forebears is at their most surreal–a leap off the hallucinatory cliffs of A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron and the X’ed Out trilogy and into some murkier, more disturbing void.

That darkness is no coincidence. Bryant began the first Unreal City story, “Evelyn Dalton-Hoyt,” back in 2010. In the tale, based on Steve Ditko’s 1972 comic “Driven to Destruction,” the marriage of Evelyn, a sex therapist, and a man named Henry is rapidly deteriorating. The story is full of graphically rendered penises, breasts, and vulvas, but the context is rarely sensual. Instead, the sex is fraught with anger, derision, and mania. An unwanted highway hand job begins the story, promptly ending a page later in a car crash. The line between love and hate gets thinner and thinner, and soon Henry begins dreaming of a world without Evelyn, a dream he eventually tries to act on.

“I didn’t think there was a connection between ‘Evelyn’ and my marriage,” Bryant says. “I should’ve realized it, but I didn’t. A few weeks after I finished with ‘Evelyn,’ my whole marriage fell apart. All the stories in Unreal City are relationship stories, but they all deal with the anxieties of relationships. None of them are happy romances… . ‘Emordana’ came out of the loneliness of the post-divorce period. I felt like a different person after I finished ‘Emordana,’ and I feel like a different person now that I’ve finished the book.”

Feeling “like a different person” is a sensation the prevails throughout Unreal City. Beyond loopy narratives and relationship anxieties, these tales are also bound by the blurry, shifting lines that compose one’s identity. In “Objet D’Art,” a comic artist named Leon starts obsessively drawing a femme-fatale character named Blanca Lagos, who is modeled after a character created by Leon’s favorite artist Lucien Lofficier. Leon’s wife, lonely due to her distant, workaholic husband, manages to regain his time and attention by dressing up like his creation, complete with leather rabbit ears and a Zorro mask. As Blanca, she later attracts a different man’s attention, who by the end of the story has also morphed into a different person altogether.

This particular thematic element gets a boost thanks to one of Bryant’s cartooning quirks: his use of recurring “cartoon actors.” “I’ll repurpose these same figures in different roles from story to story,” Bryant says. “It’s an idea I pulled from film—I noticed a lot of my favorite directors used the same actors, like Scorsese and De Niro. In one Scorsese film, De Niro would be a gangster, and in the next he’d play a comedian. Cartooning-wise, it’s nice, because you really learn how to draw these ‘actors,’ and as you get more comfortable with them, you get better performances out of them.” While he initially drew the idea from film, Bryant would later discover that pioneering manga master Osamu Tezuka employed a similar method.

Bryant’s cartoon actor “Johnny” (although he’s never referred to as such in the book) makes an appearance in two paranoia-filled stories. While he retains the same facial structure, darkened brow, and sullen Humphrey Bogart eyes throughout, in the latter story he sports a thin mustache. The stories are spaced out enough that you might not catch this at first, but when you do make the connection, the collection’s merging and disintegrating webs of identities become even more tangled and confounded.

“The world is inherently surreal,” Bryant says. “We’re kind of born into the middle of this story we didn’t start, and we can never get the full picture, and we go out before the picture is finished. Our whole lives are just kind of this one mystery puzzle piece. Even if Unreal City is a really dark book, I hope it’s positive for people and helps them get a handle on our human anxieties, because it definitely helped me.”

Like McCloud says, time in comics is “infinitely weirder” than the “ ‘real time’ of everyday life.” But then again, everyday life in 2017 seems to be getting infinitely weirder each day. As much as Unreal City might make you scratch your head, the surreal stories within it grasp at something very real. Unreal City Book Launch and Art Exhibition. Fantagraphics Bookstore, 1201 S. Vale St. Free. All ages. 6–9 p.m. Sat., Sept. 9.

More in Arts & Culture

Cast trailers for “Three Busy Debras” filming at the Snoqualmie YMCA parking lot on Sept. 4. Madison Miller / staff photo
New TV show filming in Snoqualmie

“Three Busy Debras” is being filmed in cities in the Seattle area, including Snoqualmie.

Tyler, The Creator performs during Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019 in Seattle, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Gallery: Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival 2019

Scenes from Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival at the Seattle Center.

Acquisition gift chosen from 2018 Seattle Art Fair. Installation view of Recent Acquisitions: Toyin Ojih Odutola, Frye Art Museum, 2019. Photo: Jueqian Fang.
Seattle Art Fair renews partnership with Frye Art Museum

The Seattle Art Fair, presented by AIG, is pleased to announce the… Continue reading

Bread Face. Courtesy of the artist @breadfaceblog.
Seattle Art Fair returns Aug. 1

The Seattle Art Fair, presented by AIG, is proud to announce the… Continue reading

Linda Hodges Gallery in Pioneer Square. Photo courtesy Linda Hodges Gallery
Despite Construction, Pioneer Square’s Art Galleries Remain Strong

Long a hub for Seattle’s visual arts scene, the neighborhood gets an new space this spring with the opening of ARTS at King Street Station.

Patty Gone offers an artistic toast to Danielle Steel. Photo courtesy Mount Analogue
Patty Gone’s Queer Romance Novel Reflections

The artist’s upcoming residency at Mount Analogue explores the cultural impact of pulpy romantic fantasy.

Photo by Spencer Baker 
                                Mark Haim’s torso will be guided by his friends’ movements in Parts to a Sum.
Crowdsourced Choreography

Mark Haim’s ‘Parts to a Sum’ exemplifies how choreographers are relinquishing control in the name of collaboration.

Seeing the Seattle Opera’s <em>The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs</em> counts as screen time. Photo by Philip Newton
The Innovative Tech Disconnect of ‘The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs’

Like the technology Jobs pioneered, the Seattle Opera production is flashy but lacking in soul.

Seattle Asian American Film Festival 2019 Picks

Make the most of the cultural cinematic event with these four selections.

‘Roma’ projects to be the big winner at the 91st Academy Awards this Sunday. Photo by Carlos Somonte
And The Winner Is: 2019 Oscars Preditions

Who will take home the awards on cinema’s biggest night?

Britney Barber (center) and Samantha Demboski (left) perform in ‘Empty Orchestra.’ Photo courtesy Jet City Improv
Making It Up As They Go Along

Jet City Improv’s retributive actions towards a former player raise issues of the comedy institution’s staff culture.