Gokudo Cats, Emma Ríos (2012)

I’m trying to write more. Probably the day after you read this, I’ll have a new short story up on essays.iamdavidbrothers.com. In the meantime, though, I’d like to talk about this old drawing from my friend Emma Ríos, co-creator of Pretty Deadly and Island magazine, and creator of ID from Image Comics.

The Flickr title for this one is “Gokudo Cats,” gokudo being a Japanese word that references the yakuza, and cats being…c’mon. You know what cats are. Meet me halfway here.

What first struck me about Emma’s art way back in 2011, when she was working on Osborn with Kelly Sue DeConnick, was the way she approached motion. She was using a technique in a way I found remarkable and striking, one of those “read the page, then read the page again, then save a screenshot of the page” kinds of things. She really brought some superhero bombast to the page, filtered through influences I’m not qualified to guess at. (I guessed that there was some Kirby in the mix when I first wrote about it, but I think that’s true of the vast majority of people who work with Marvel and DC.) That sense of motion made for exciting superhero comics, a genre where if the action scenes aren’t on point, everything else falls apart. More than that, it was new, novel—I saw it and it made me pause. That’s a feeling I chase in comics and media more generally, and Emma really delivered way back then.

Gokudo Cats is different. It’s from 2012, a single illustration that Emma submitted to a yakuza-themed art show in Portland that was running at the time. (I submitted a short story in zine form, which you can read here.) Emma perfectly captures stillness in this work. Not the absence of motion, that’s not what I mean. More like…if I had to describe this scene, I’d call it a vibe. There’s a narrative depicted here, but not necessarily one that’s being pushed forward or held back by the actions of the characters in the narrative. It’s just a moment, and in building that moment, Emma first had to build the vibe of that moment. I asked a few people about it, and most of them remarked on the way that it feels liminal, my favorite take being that it felt like a “calm between two storms.” It’s a moment frozen in time, but it’s a moment that lasts forever too. She’s drinking, he’s tattooing, and the cat is doing cat-things for eternity.

So: stillness in the sense of not inaction, but subdued or minimal action. It’s like watching a kid playing with building blocks. There is motion there, even though they may not be moving around too much. Every time you look at them, it feels like they’re in the same place, but there’s evidence of their movement too. If this picture were a Boomerang, like from Instagram, you’d see the old man pushing his tattoo needle down into the subject’s skin, the cat batting at something in the woman’s clothes, and the woman raising or appraising her beer can. Outside the window, a wind would blow back and forth, swirling in such a way that you can’t tell whether it’s coming or going.

The window is a crucial piece of the drawing for me. I like hiking and being outside, and recently went on a solo hike. It was eight miles, bright and early on a hot day, and I saw something that struck me early in the hike. The area where the cloud cover or fog met the tops of the trees looked like a mid-air waterfall almost, with the water vapor streaming down “into” the forest from afar. But it looked like the reverse, too, with the vapor rising out of the trees simultaneously. If I focused one way, the water fell. The other way, it rose. I was halfway up a mountain, staring at a sea of green and grey, trying to guess at the tides.

The way Emma drew the clouds, ground, and forest intermingling outside the window feels like that to me. It’s a concrete thing, very specific, but it’s anything too. It’s an ocean, it’s the sky, it’s the Earth. It’s an injection of the idea that some things are bigger than us into a piece that’s focused strictly on humanity otherwise. The posters, the tattoos, the posture, all of it feels deeply real to me, something that could be to such an extent that it might as well be. But the forest and clouds are out there saying, “There is more.”

The intrusion of the branches in the foreground does that for me too. It could be from a bonsai tree or from an off-screen full-sized tree, but it’s another reminder that nature surrounds us. We exist within it, rather than the opposite. In the Flickr post that went with this image, Emma described it as being a little Hayao Miyazaki-ish, and I can totally see it.

Even with the gun, the beer, and the tattooing, the image brings Miyazaki to mind because it evokes peace and contentment more than anything else to me. Everything and everyone in their right place, from the armed woman with a beer to the tattooist with a subject. Everything just looks right. Everything looks as it should, like the platonic ideal of a cool evening in this particular setting.

Sometimes, it kills me how good Emma is. I’m happy we’re friends.

Right now, Emma and Kelly Sue DeConnick are releasing the third part of their Pretty Deadly project. They just put #2 to bed, so that should hit in a few weeks. #1 is out at your favorite place to get comics, and the paperbacks are at bookstores, comic shops, libraries…shoot, you probably know somebody who owns them. Ask around. Tell your friends.

I do an irregular newsletter with lots of stuff like this. If you’re interested, check out (me+you) on TinyLetter. I also wrote a story inspired by this illustration called In-Between, which you can read here.