Few questions are as toxic to the depressed as “are you okay?” It’s a simple question that generates numerous complications, most stemming from the fact that when you’re asked it, it’s not out of a desire to hear the details of your inner emotional maelstrom but a need for the other person to be absolved of obligation to you, as if to say “I am socially required to ask if you are okay because you aren’t behaving normally, but it would be great if you could just say ‘I’m fine’ and leave it at that.” In families, it’s an especially sensitive subject, the people asking it more intimately aware with how not okay you are but also more terrified of hearing your true thoughts and feelings, particularly if your response gives them a reason to believe they share some responsibility for how you’re feeling. What even is okay when your internal chemistry has you operating slightly out of sync from normalcy? Is okay being allowed quiet solitude, a respite from social expectations that make you anxious? Or is okay intended to mean a static happiness you’ve never and will never experience? If you’re Belle in Lake Imago, being okay would probably mean not being asked that anymore and being left in the blanket of your thoughts without intrusion or interruption, taking in the peace of philosophical audio books and the serenity of nature without the dabbling of a sister who has gone maternal a little too late, without the grating chatter of her obnoxious prima ballerina friend.
In the haunting road trip work Lake Imago, the duo of Jamaica Dyer and Eddie Wright showcase an exceptional grasp on this inward struggle of Belle’s, as well as the struggle her sister and friend face in trying to help her. Wright’s script has the narrative unfurling mostly from the perspective of Belle, so we’re naturally sympathetic towards her and her attempts to move on from an as yet unspecified family tragedy, but it’s fair to Belle’s sister and her plight too, specifically her guilt from being present during that family tragedy. Belle is the focus of the story and its eyes, yet she exists as a third wheel, situated on the polar opposite end from the rambunctious Pris, who has the least to gain from a getaway to Lake Imago but is the most gung ho about it and how it should function. Pris wants the lake trip to be a party, an opportunity to do shrooms and swim and maybe get some action. Belle’s sister wants it to be a reconnective exercise, a chance for her to rebuild a bridge with her sister that she worries has fallen down. And Belle wants to be left alone, to observe and ponder and forget.
Though much of the action of Lake Imago is confined within a car, Dyer’s art is remarkably open, showcasing a constant struggle between expansive white space and claustrophobic black ink. Lake Imago is full of simple symbols that communicate a lot of Belle’s internal process and Wright wisely keeps the dialogue to a minimum, so Belle’s attempts to figure out what cycle of life she is in at the moment are communicated through death, decay and rebirth motifs, specifically skulls and cocoons and butterflies. It’s abstract but clear, and there is a sense that Belle is hoping that her focus and interest in these symbols will serve as replacements for the human communication she struggles with. Still, the narrative conflicts that do arise mostly confirm Belle’s fears that no one around her actually understands what she is expressing, no matter how genuine their attempts to do so are. An early scene has Pris asking to hear what Belle is listening to, only to be confused and bewildered by the mantra-like audio. Pris then mocks Belle, almost certainly as an attempt to distract from her lack of understanding of what Belle is listening to and dealing with, jokingly asking if Belle has joined a death cult.
Truthfully, it’s not hard to see why Pris leaps to that conclusion, albeit jokingly. Dyer and Wright express their narrative with the aid of what we view as cult symbolism, though at the moment this is not a cult work, Belle merely shares a philosophy and interests with cults because the symbolism is timeless for a reason. Where Pris is more guilty is in her typical response to Belle’s struggles, her belief that Belle’s mood can be easily altered with drugs and alcohol and sex. The depressed are constantly told to think positively, to just go out and be social more, that this will fix their problems, and this is usually not communicated maliciously. The people who say these things mean well, but lack awareness of the side effects of these kinds of statements, the way being told this only serves to further remind you how different you are from the people around, how much like a black hole your depression is, constantly pulling you down into its depths while those outsides its orbit are able to course correct, engage in activities that resolve their less permanent bad moods.
Dyer’s narrative strength extends far beyond her use of symbolism, it’s her skill with character acting that enables Lake Imago to be an unusually powerful work. Belle isn’t in a constant sulk, she has moments of spontaneous happiness, like when she inexplicably dons a poncho, or when she is drawn towards a deer skull housing a mysterious cocoon. Belle’s sister is even more challenging, and Dyer deftly portrays her internal struggle between wanting to enjoy her trip with her friend and feeling guilty over her perceived abandonment of her sister and current inability to help her. Anyone who has dealt with a loved one or partner who suffers from depression or any other mental illness (or long term illness of any kind, really) knows the greatest struggle is in that feeling of helplessness, the pain that comes from knowing your genuine attempts to help often make things worse, the guilt over wanting to be able to solve something while recognizing it is beyond your power or understanding.
The beginning and ending of this first installment of Lake Imago indicate that darker things are ahead (as does the eerie tagline for the work as “A camping trip gone wrong”), and some of the more surreal images Belle sees play up a more traditional horror factor, but Dyer and Wright also make it obvious that the real horror is rooted in the helplessness Belle and her sister both face, one over an inability to change her internal feelings, the other in her inability to fix things from the outside. Haunting and yet deeply thoughtful, Lake Imago is an immensely promising study of depression and grief, a sort of bridge work between the more surrealistic Black Hole and the more emotional Blankets. Regardless of which end of that spectrum Lake Imago leans towards in future installments, it’s already well set up to be one of the most expressive works on depression in modern comics.
For more information on Lake Imago’s release, check out the comic’s site.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover