There is a surface simplicity in Lone Pine by Jed McGowan that is deceptive. Upon first glance there is not much dialog, a minimal art style, and not a huge amount of story that transpires from beginning to end. However, there is subtle complexity of the combination of these elements and an academic approach to the medium that make this book strangely effective and compelling.
The plot, in its narrative essence, is not overly complicated. It is a mystery in the vein of a X-Files or Twin Peaks; a story with a great amount of ambiguity, intrigue and spiritual/mystical connotations. Jasper, the protagonist, finds himself in the woods, his car smashed into a tree perhaps after a little bit too much to drink. His girlfriend Jacqueline is missing, and in the woods he seems both physically and mentally lost. There are a series of interventions: a mysterious woman giving metaphysical directions, a potential captor of Jacqueline helping deliver a message from her to Jasper and a ghost like meetings in the woods at night. The mystery propels the reader through the pages, but there is no finite answer that is delivered at the conclusion of the book. In fact, the reader has almost no more absolute answers to the mystery than when they began reading.
Books that don’t deliver a narrative conclusion can cause frustration, which Lone Pine does. However, this feels secondary to the importance of the narrative space that McGowan creates, which seems to be the actual focus of the work. The drawings will often illustrate a series of panels that are almost empty space. There is a two-page spread that is primarily just empty blue sky and the contrails of a plane going by. There is another large series of panels where chickens walk out of the frame leaving nothing but the ground. Readers feel the characters emptiness not through what is told in the storytelling, but what is seen in the empty, abstract construction of the visual world.
McGowan returns again and again to a motif of not being able to completely believe what is being seen or heard. Readers can see that the silhouette in the woods giving Jasper directions is a woman, even though Jasper cannot because he is forced to keep his back to the voice due to a threat of physical violence. Is this woman his girlfriend? If so, would he have not recognized her voice? Even readers are not sure if she is real. McGowan, using a two color blue and black printing, has rendered her in silhouette without defining details. She could be real, a hallucination, or something else entirely. There are many other actions and interactions that follow forth similarly, creating a space that interesting, but at points, too mysterious.
This merging of the flatness of perceived space and the illustrated space of the book is complex and can sometimes feel too academic for the story. This is unfortunate, because when it does work, it is fantastic. Towards the end of the book, there is a sequence where the Jasper’s actions of staring into the sun create a visual abstraction for him which then mutates into a spatial and geometric both for Jasper and the reader. This portion of the story works both narratively and visually, perhaps better than many of the contemporary paintings that employee a similar reoccurring geometric style.
Lone Pine is an intriguing and quick read, one that lingers on after the book is completed. McGowan, while creating a work with plenty of imperfections, tugs at the edges of comic construction in ways that seem like a path that could continue to be explored in future publications. Lone Pine occupies a space that is challenging; it is a book that does not create an easy to understand experience for the reader. This is appreciated. Too often, comics and graphic novels underestimate the ability of the reader to stretch outside of their usual box. Lone Pine does not pander, and for that it is a rich and complex experience.