Katherine takes her principles for a look round Clarence’s weird little world
The Clarence Principle
Written by Fehed Said, with art by Shari Chankhamma
Every so often, I review graphic novels for The Irish Times. This is a pretty good gig: I get to talk about comics in a national newspaper, introducing some of the best works available to an audience that might otherwise never even hear about them. But in some ways, reviewing for the Times is restrictive: the titles my editor is interested in are mostly “crossover”-type stories, with a lot of broad mainstream appeal. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of thing – some of my favourite comics are like that – but to be honest, the graphic novels that appeal to me the most are the ones that are very far from mainstream. I like the strange ones, the crazy ones, the ones that defy categorization. The ones that are so individual that they can’t be labelled or explained – only appreciated.
Like, for example, The Clarence Principle, by Fehed Said and Shari Chankhamma.
(a scene from The Clarence Principle, published by Slave Labor Graphics, written by Fehed Said, with art by Shari Chankhamma and (c) Fehed, Shari and SLG)
The first thing you need to know is that The Clarence Principle is a very strange book. The word “surreal” gets bandied about a lot these days, so much so that it’s almost lost all meaning, but in the case of The Clarence Principle, there’s no other word that fits. Surrealism is the philosophy of dreams and the unconscious mind, and The Clarence Principle is one long dream-like experience from beginning to end.
As far as the story goes: the “Clarence” of the title is a young man who commits suicide by the traditional method of slashing his wrists in a bathtub. But unlike most suicides, Clarence wakes up after he dies, to find himself in a bizarre and often hostile landscape. Following his memories of the girl who drove him to suicide, and a cryptic message written in the fog on a mirror that says only “FIND ME”, Clarence embarks on a journey through an afterlife that is neither heaven nor hell. The people he meets are doll-like creatures whose behaviour is as illogical as it is frustrating: they don’t seem to understand what’s going on any more than Clarence does, but they like to pretend they know what’s what. Being dead does not make them immune to pain or injury; the dead can even die. There is no relief in death, and certainly no eternal bliss; but there’s no punishment either. Death is as confusing as life, if not more so.
(death is neither an ending or a source of answers in The Clarence Principle, published by Slave Labor Graphics, written by Fehed Said, with art by Shari Chankhamma and (c) Fehed, Shari and SLG)
That doesn’t quite capture either the strangeness or the charm of The Clarence Principle. What makes it so unpredictable and so attractive is that it never lets you feel you’re on solid ground. Is Clarence really dead, or is he just dreaming? The things and people he encounters often seem to be symbolic: there are tiny people who worship a clock, a girl whose heart sprouts wings and flies around, a Grim Reaper figure who carries a bell rather than a scythe. Yet if they are symbolic, what are they symbolic of? At one point, Clarence finds himself acting a part in a play called The Clarence Principle, which includes lines that are uncannily close to things he might say himself – but who’s writing the play?
(SPOILER WARNING – there may be a few elements here pertaining to the end of the book which you may not want to know ahead of reading it, be warned!)
(“My heart will go on…“)
The Clarence Principle offers no pat answers to this or any of the other questions its story raises; its very last line is “And they all lived happily ever after,” which ironically doesn’t wrap up anything or explain anything at all. It’s this mystery that draws me to it, and keeps me wanting to read it again and again. Said and Chankhamma have made a splash before with stories that refuse to spell out exactly what’s going on or why it matters; their earlier collaboration, “The Forgotten Incident at San Sabian” (the standout entry in The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga 2), never explains exactly what it was that happened at San Sabian 70 years ago that has left the protagonist alone in a world of nightmares and accusing faces. The willingness not to explain can sometimes just cause confusion, but in the hands of storytellers as skilled as Said and Chankhamma, the effect is more ambiguous. Yes, it’s confusing, but the confusion is pleasant, even satisfying. There’s beauty in mystery.
Katherine Farmar writes regularly on comics and culture, you can read more on her comics blog Whereof One Can Speak.