The last transformational conversation I had centered around openness. Seated in a 24 hour cafe after an evening spent on a festival grind, we talked about a shared grief side effect, a need to spill out info on our trauma to strangers, from first dates to cashiers at bakeries, while those closest to us remained off-limits and unaware. Both of us struggled to tell friends how we were feeling but we could open up to people we were counting on never seeing again, extending to the way we behaved online, dropping open hearted declarations into reviews, devoting our Twitter feeds to outpourings of grief we would never express IRL. Not coincidentally the last time I wrote about Pete Toms’ solo work, I was reeling from the death of a woman I loved, killed in a car crash on one of Austin’s many dangerous roads and while I struggled to talk about it to the people around me, I could casually drop it into an essay on a comic about unfiltered communication. Toms’ work has always been about this impasse, this inability to communicate in ways that allow us to understand one another despite our constant immersion in communication technology. Toms’ characters frequently have epiphanies or breakdowns through social media, they seem more comfortable in that world but also disturbed by that comfort, convinced it is costing them their humanity in some way. The Linguists is perhaps Toms’ greatest statement on this front, bridging the gap between absurd and profound, containing room for both halves of people like me, the side that is too emotionally open with strangers and the internet but comes across as unreadable to friends and loved ones as well as the side that recognizes he can only get his shit together when he allows other people in.
If there is a character who represents my particular dilemma best in The Linguists it’s Philip Pony, the first character we meet and the only character who connects to every other person in the work. A Philip Roth-esque writer who has made his name on documenting the ugliness of our internal monologues and impulses, Pony appears to be having a full fledged public meltdown not too dissimilar from what Harry Malloy went through in On Hiatus. Midway through The Linguists, Pony “destroys a talk show host” by confessing he didn’t write his latest hit novel, which the host takes to mean it was ghostwritten. But Pony means something more existential, clarifying that he typed the words, it’s just that he’s not sure where they actually came from, a common creative fear that the art you make is beyond your control, less a craft than an impulse, something that ebbs and flows and wreaks havoc on your life and well-being. Toms then depicts Pony lighting his face on fire on live television, which prompts a technically accurate but baffling statement from the host: “There’s no smoking…”
That serves as a perfect distillation of the fear people have about opening up, that the person they reveal themselves to will not only not understand but not care, too thrown off by the shock of someone breaking from the politeness of conversation to say some ugly truth that perhaps they have as well but are not yet ready to admit to. The Linguists’ other characters aren’t quite as explicit in their anxiety as Pony but they have similar struggles: a grad student is having an affair with his professor boss and seems incapable of acknowledging that he has already mentally checked out of the relationship, a researcher works for the same professor and briefly became obsessed with the idea of dog communication and spoke exclusively in barks, others circle around them, usually deepening their 21st century communication blocks.
The dog obsessed researcher also seems to serve as a way for Toms to communicate his own experiences, particularly in the section where she discusses her past as the mastermind behind a popular blog and Twitter account that had Toms’ favorite weird dessert artifact Cookiepuss speaking at length about classic literature. The stunt was popular enough to land her a book deal but it was an unfulfilling life, hollow and disconnected. She gets roped into the field of Telelinguism by its founder, Professor Herbert Pill, after he used images and psychology to break her out of her dog communication phase. For whatever reason, she is the character that the others open up to most, and in the most unexpected ways, and it’s through her perspective that we most clearly see Toms’ thesis that we can’t handle raw expressions of emotion anymore, at least not face to face.
Toms’ aesthetic is perfectly suited to this communication problem, his signature visual trait being the juxtaposition between shocking acts and calm dialogue and the blank expressions of characters witnessing both. Philip Pony, for instance, doesn’t just destroy that talk show host, he goes on the researcher’s podcast and casually tells her he needs her help while biting off his own fingertips. The page is filled with dialogue and brutal imagery but its punchline is the researcher’s silent, empty expression as blood splatters around her face.
In this same scene, Pony states “My books are a closer representation of who I am, than me,” millennial shorthand for “The persona I adopt online is more accurate than my IRL avatar.” Just as Pony explains that his fictional work is still nonfiction, because it utilizes experiences he actually had, Toms’ work might be completely surreal but it is also completely honest, better at capturing the horrors of communication in the current era than any bio comic drawn in a life-like way ever does. The eventual descent into Cronenbergian mind-body horror takes our technological fears to their logical extreme, imagining an entire telepathic community that operates like the internet, except with specific rules against trolling and with an invisible barrier that will melt your face off if you try to leave it. Here there is no questioning the “this is the real me” statement because the communication is literally happening brain to brain, with no filters, no hiding, no shame. There might not be strict anonymity but that also makes it more utopic, minimizing the desire for chaos that internet anonymity breeds.
That said, Toms is still conflicted over the internet/IRL divide, with The Linguists continuing his tradition of characters really only escaping their problems when they venture into reality, often at great cost, albeit frequently sparked by online intrusions into real life, from a message of “hashtag not hot” scrawled in blood on a projection sheet to Philip Pony realizing what a podcast was not through Google but through a dream and genetics. If there’s a specific message there it’s that the end result of communication is more important than its methods, that epiphanies are not neat and tidy but chaotic and unpredictable. Maybe the internet is making us worse communicators, or maybe it’s eventually going to make us better, but the beauty of The Linguists is that it embraces the confusion and uncertainty, encouraging us to break from whatever telepathic control that is obstructing us and just opening up. Maybe avoid following Philip Pony’s lead and biting off your fingers during your next real life monologue, though.
The Linguists is currently available for $4 on Pete Toms’ Gumroad.
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