Reviewed by C. S. García Martínez
In A Terrified Child Played by Jeremy Strong, cartoonist Ezra David Mattes casts actor Jeremy Strong to play Mattes’s own childhood self. Currently, only one of eight parts of the self-billed “anti-memoir” has been completed, serving as a slice of what promises to be a rich, unnerving work that cuts to the very core of the idea of fiction and the depiction of memory. This completed section stands alone, depicting only one of these experiences: Mattes and Strong visit a grocery store where there used to be a lobster tank that unnerved the childhood Mattes. The pair walk through the brick back wall of the store and into Mattes’s home, where Jeremy re-enacts the experience of running for help the night the stitches in Mattes’s father’s intestines rupture.
These childhood memories are distorted by distance, by Mattes’s intense color pencil renderings, and, of course, by the presence of Jeremy Strong, who, as we learn, “takes this all very seriously”. This lack of concern for fidelity is the most obvious explanation for the label of “anti-memoir”. Memoirs, especially comic memoirs, often bank on the feeling of a candid intimacy. This results in a certain curated authenticity – an attempt to capture the specificity of a memory in spite of their being intended for reading by a sometimes non-specific audience. Each member of that audience is invited to spend their time in the presence of a constructed facsimile of what it means to be the author at some point in the past.
A Terrified Child, on the other hand, revels in being evasive with regards to Mattes’s history, the direct depiction of which is always kept at arm’s length. Mattes himself is present in the work, depicted as a white cartoon cat with a constant smirk and a sticker-like quality. Mattes and his brother are glaringly flat and monotone, in contrast to the obsessively rendered iridescent skin of Strong and their surroundings. The environment, and Strong himself, have a corporeal quality to them that heightens how specific their depictions are, how un-childlike Strong himself is, and how impossible it is to act the role he was cast for.
This evasiveness, however, does not result in indirectness. Departing from the self-focused first person narrative of a conventional memoir, A Terrified Child is written in the second person. That second person only occasionally overlaps with Mattes’s experiences. More often than not, the “you” being addressed is not even the reader: it is Jeremy Strong. Despite the point of view being an awkward fit, it conveys who we are instructed to project onto, and looking for another source of entry, we are only confronted with the cheshire-cat-like grin of Mattes’s persona.
And confronted we are indeed! The text and image of A Terrified Child seem to be constantly pointing, even grabbing out at the reader. Characters stare directly out from the page, and the reader is denied the traditional structure of tiers and panels which allow the eye to set its own pace; most comparable to television, we experience this work an image at a time, boxed into a nearly unchanging aspect ratio. This is bolstered by the sheer obsessiveness of the image itself, reminiscent of the vague nausea of seeing a television actor’s individual pores on a large high-resolution screen. In the case of the drawn image, however, there cannot be any ignoring of the intense physical nature required to make the image. The layers of color pencil create deep, gaping, aquifers of color set aside quivering black. The weight of Mattes’s hand layers color over color until the “entire terrifying world” – with the exception of Mattes’s and his brother’s avatars – acquires the tonality of dead flesh.
This single volume has done something truly novel with the genres of autobiography and memoir, but it is not exhaustive in its short length (the entire work is under 100 pages). Mattes has included references to the other cast members of Succession, and to the film oeuvre of Andrei Tarkovsky, that feel superfluous in the current abridged text – albeit hinting at a larger scheme in Mattes’s imagination. This first installment is a tantalizing look at a full series that could, if completed, capture something complex and unique about media and identity in our century.
C. S. García Martínez is a trained biomedical illustrator and comic artist based in New York City, originally from Monterrey, Mexico. Previous published work has been featured in Iron Circus Comics’s 2022 Failure To Launch anthology, and the Ignatz-nominated Dates! anthology by Margins Publishing. C. S. García Martínez’s debut graphic novel, Malatona When It Rains, is scheduled for a gradual online release in October of 2023. Work can be found online at https://makkine.github.io .