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Grim Reaper Comedy 'Melancholia' Is Surprisingly Uplifting

It's hard to decide whether Nicholas Gurewitch's new book is jarringly at odds with our current moment or perfectly suited to it. That's because it's a comedy about death — or Death, to be more precise, as in the Grim Reaper himself. Notes on a Case of Melancholia, or: A Little Death probably won't sell well in a nation gripped by a pandemic. But given the nature of this strange project, Gurewitch probably has a longer horizon in mind.

He's best known for The Perry Bible Fellowship, the beloved, award-winning gag strip he started way back in 2001. If you're a PBF fan, you know the name signals a '90s-style mockery of all things clean-cut and sincere, not a focus on religious subjects in particular. Gurewitch does contemplate religion frequently in the strip, as when a flock of woolly sheep worship a fluffy cloud as their risen savior or two different kids pray to win their school spelling bee, triggering a no-holds-barred deathmatch between Jesus and Ganesh. But he's less interested in the particulars of competing faiths than in the painful absurdity of faith itself. In between grappling with conventional subjects like modern technology and modern relationships, Gurewitch's characters often encounter existential dilemmas that are simultaneously knotty and ludicrous.

PBF's often-mordant sense of humor is belied by the lightheartedness of the format (short, silly jokes) and the art, which varies according to Gurewitch's whim. That variability is itself a running joke, a sendup of the idea of auteur-ist style. One day Gurewitch might fill his panels with gentle watercolor scenes and realistic figures; the next day, he'll scrawl thickly lined blobs that are only recognizable as human thanks to the presence of limbs and an accessory or two (a pair of glasses, a BDSM-style ball gag).

With his leisurely pace and obsessive care, Gurewitch clearly intends a comprehensive rebuke to glib, insubstantial, always-expiring insta-culture.

Notes on a Case of Melancholia is different — style-wise, at least. After spending years dispensing digestible little comics through the ephemeral medium of the Internet, Gurewitch seems to have conceived this project as an opportunity to explore permanence and process. He worked on Notes for two and a half years, using a Kickstarter campaign as a source of both funds and community. As the book took shape, Gurewitch posted descriptions and videos of its evolution and received feedback along with donations. He drew his readers into every aspect of Notes' creation, from the pattern of its endsheets to the choice of paper stock. "The book will be printed on recycled paper, with forest-friendly methods, delaying Armageddon by (probably) 15 minutes!" he wrote in one update.

With his leisurely pace and obsessive care, Gurewitch clearly intends a comprehensive rebuke to glib, insubstantial, always-expiring insta-culture. And that's even before you get to the final product of his labors, a sizeable but extremely slim (as in, 48 pages total) hardcover. Notes is entirely free of dialogue. It's printed in chilly black-and-white with a few touches of hot pink, and its illustrations are etched. Not inked with a brush or written onto a chip by a frictionless stylus, but painstakingly scratched into pieces of clay with a pointy metal tool. Gurewitch actually hurt himself to create this book — etching strains your hand more than drawing does. He had to employ special stretches and exercises to ward off repetitive stress injury.

Etching also creates dense, physical images that demand thoughtful study. Notes has a tiny little story; it's not much meatier, plotwise, than a typical Perry gag. It's about how Death, feeling depressed, seeks psychoanalytic treatment. He's down because his child — an adorable mini-Reaper — seems to have no interest in carrying on the business. Death goes to a mustachioed, pipe-smoking analyst for answers, even lying on a couch like in a New Yorker cartoon. (He parks his scythe in the umbrella stand.) But the doctor's assistance takes an unexpected form, and the story's conclusion is a classic PBF-style twist.

Notes feels substantial and somber, though — and not just because of all the black. On every page, thickets of tiny hatches slow down your eye and force you to contemplate compositions, details and themes. Gurewitch deliberately emulates Edward Gorey (whom he names as an influence along with Maurice Sendak and Shel Silverstein), but his style is still distinctive. A family gallery of generations of Grim Reapers is especially Gurewitchean, what with the militaristic Cousin Peckols in his Kaiser Wilhelm helmet, the bewinged Cousin Namtar and surly Uncle Mors.

Despite such playfulness, Notes' visual weight gives it a solemnity that feels prescient. Make no mistake, Gurewitch's attitude toward death and the afterlife is as seditious as ever. This isn't a book for those seeking pat reassurances that everything will work out in the end. Even so, there's a distinct difference between Gurewitch's tone here and the armored snarkiness of PBF. Maybe that's the inevitable result of his long process. After spending all those hours scratching away minute shards of clay with a needle-sharp scraper, maybe you can't help but feel sentimental about the end.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.

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