Lilli Carré, Tales of Woodsman Pete (Top Shelf, 2006). 80pp. (Softcover). $7.00
By Matt Dube
Lilli Carré’s Tales of Woodsman Pete is a fantastic inquiry into friendship, loneliness, and storytelling. Title character Woodsman Pete talks to the heads of moose he’s shot and hung on his wall, but mostly to his bear rug Philippe, mixing stories of his life with tall tales (how Paul Bunyan once salivated an ocean, for example) and philosophical reflections. Bunyan appears to narrate his own adventures, too, including another tall tale in which the ocean was created with his tears. Both men—comically vain Pete and the more emo-centric Bunyan—talk mostly about and out of how lonely they feel, as if the desire to make oneself heard is at the root of storytelling.
Carré is bold to so directly tackle the roots of storytelling in this, her first widely distributed work (however we understand that term; the material in this Top Shelf collection is drawn from the mini-comics she published with the same title). But it works because the types of stories in this book, and the way they are arranged, are varied enough to hold a reader’s interest. Some stories show the clear and deliberate hand of a gag artist, like the first story, “I woke to the sound of this, ah…um…,” which carefully buries its punch line in an epilogue. Other strips, like “Woodsman Pete Gets Fixed Up” or “Saturday Night,” read like you are watching a webcam trained on the Big Brother house. Of course, that is a little ridiculous, because what we see on that show is clearly orchestrated. A comic should come across as much moreso, but these “unscripted” disclosures reveal an uninhibited, unself-conscious Pete: to see him dance naked, sure that he is unwatched, tells us everything we need to know about him. What are we to think, though, about the fact that Woodsman Pete doesn’t look much like a man? Those pursed, bicycle-tire lips, the way the beard rests on those full cheeks, make Pete look like a woman in particularly clumsy drag—as if Carré has written herself into her strip. It’s enough to make one think of the elementary school art-class rumors that the Mona Lisa is a da Vinci self-portrait, or that Whistler’s mother is really Whistler as tranny.
The first story in this book, which literally starts looking through a window and then pulls back to reveal that window’s frame, reveals Carré’s probing of the mechanics of storytelling and the role of the storyteller as arranger, whether it is Carré or Pete. But this early declaration of interest is only the first to challenge the distinction between framer and framed: at increasingly frequent intervals, there is an overlap between what Pete tells us of Bunyan’s (imaginary) world and what Pete encounters in his (real) world. The primacy of the real as a seed for fictional action is reversed, as story elements flower in Pete’s real life.
The carefully worked artifice of Carré’s composition, shifting as she does between inner and outer levels of story-logic, is novel and engaging. The book collects strips of different lengths, some as short as a page and some as many as fifteen pages long. It presents one-panel pages that act as chapter-heads or frontispieces and which are literally framed like cameos, even if sometimes they too are serial in nature. This is a bit like the last couple issues of Eightball, in which all the elements of comics [ads, etc.] are subservient to the larger story, except there’s no overarching narrative here. Or maybe it’s more like the “Wild Kingdom” issue of Kevin Huizenga’s Or Else, though the integrated elements are less iconic. The ordering of the strips in Woodsman Pete is not coincidental, but instead develops a kind of deliberate rhythm in which certain stories are told and then retold again to different effect. An element that is the natural climax of a story, like the tidal wave of Bunyan’s tears, can come back again, as it does when it wipes out Pete’s cottage and gives the book a mildly apocalyptic sense of closure.
It’s not as if these effects are flukes: this is the second time Carré has done this, or something like this, with the same material. Much—if not all—of the work in Woodsman Pete appeared first in her mini-comics. But the Top Shelf book has doesn’t merely collect those minis. I only have one of the minis, but the running order of those strips is different from the Top Shelf book; some of the same narrative effects are accomplished in the two books using different strips. What seemed just right at its original length does not feel padded when expanded, but rather more varied and even more interested in contrapuntal effects. It makes this a book worth going back to, given the creative synergies that Carré establishes, and it makes me really excited to see what she might do next.