Sunday Slugfest - Worry Doll

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Jason Sacks, Michael Deeley, Robert Murray, Steven G. Saunders
EDITOR’S NOTE: Worry Doll graphic novel can be purchased via Paypal directly through Mam Tor’s website.

Jason Sacks:

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” - Aristotle

In general, when a reviewer quotes Aristotle at the beginning of a review, he’s either a pretentious jerk or is looking to explain something really unique. I’ll leave it up to you readers to determine if I’m a pretentious jerk, but Worry Doll is a really unique graphic novel, and unique comics are often very hard to review. Then again, that’s part of what makes reviewing fun, getting to confront and take the measure of a work of comics art.

Matt Coyle’s Worry Doll is, simply stated, an exploration of the inner life of a British serial killer who has a bizarre obsession with dolls. Dolls seem to reflect his inner passions and struggles, the pain and stress and worry that take up so much of his life. There’s some obvious symbolism there, reflecting the inner turmoil that was obviously a hallmark of the killer’s life as a child. Perhaps dolls were fetishized by him because of the intense pain and horror of his youth. So much of Coyle’s story isn’t stated outright but is instead implied; the reason for an obsession with dolls is just one of many examples of that approach.

In fact, we’re never actually told outright that the protagonist is a killer. Sure, there’s the bloody aftermath of a killing shown on page six, but is the man connected to the events? Is person who imagines himself to be a child’s doll actually connected in a deep way to these horrific events? The police think so, and the reader is pretty sure, too, but it’s clear that the main character of the story has much more complicated feeling on the issue. He seems disconnected from everything around him, separated from reality, emotionally stunted and divorced from everything that happens to him. It’s this ambiguity, this odd and subjective view of the events depicted in this comic, that raise Worry Doll from being something bizarre to something that really is special. This isn’t Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. This is a book that attempts something different. Coyle works to present the inward significance of the events to the protagonist. His body may be that of a killer, Coyle is implying, but inside he has a doll-like innocence that means that in his soul, the man is not a killer. He may have committed the act, but the protagonist’s body and mind are separated from each other.

All of this is emphasized by the unique way that Coyle presents the book. There are essentially three separate threads on each page. One is a title that sometimes reflects what is presented in the accompanying text and static artwork. Within the artwork there are from one to many distinct bits of artwork. This book is quite different from traditional comics narrative, and that’s part of what makes it so challenging to read and review. The artistic segment of each page is uniquely tailored to each page. There’s an eerie full page of spooky-looking dolls playing in the park on page 16, while a scene of the protagonist remembering a ride in a car with his family (though the family aspect is never explicitly called out) on page 24 is bizarrely disjointed. When blank word balloons appear on page 52, it just emphasizes how strange the whole story has felt and how very isolated the protagonist’s life really is.

If you’re getting the idea that this is no Civil War, you’re right. This is a thoughtful and intriguing graphic novel that takes a reader into some very uncomfortable territory. Worry Doll delivers an unsettling look at the inner life of a very bad man, and does so in a way that emphasizes the tremendous malleability of the graphic novel medium.

Michael Deeley

The page on the left is text of the author describing a conversation he had with someone else. The page on the right contains pencil drawings of dolls walking through the world. Occasionally, they encounter dead bodies. The connection between the two narratives becomes clearer as they come closer to reality.

Worry Doll is one of the few graphic novels that I’d consider post-modern art more than a narrative. The act of reading this book involves the reader more deeply in the experience than other books. The reader is trying to solve the mystery behind the meaning of the two narratives. What is the author talking about? What could those pictures mean?

The pencil drawings look like they were based on photographs. (Photos of the outdoors with large dolls walking around.) People are drawn in a way similar to Alex Ross’ style. The images are also fragmented and altered to convey a sense of instability. The reader feels that there is madness and horror at work before the truth is revealed. There are times when it becomes difficult to see exactly what’s going on. This could be put down to a stylistic choice, or excessive shading.

Worry Doll is a very strange, unsettling book. It presents a journey through the eyes of a madman and takes the reader along. I wish it was longer.

Robert Murray:

Whoa there, cowboy! What in the heck did I just finish reading? I mean, I grasped the basic gist of Matt Coyle’s Worry Doll, but I had to go back and look over the graphic novel again once I had completed it. Coyle is obviously drinking from the same water supply as William Burroughs and David Lynch, especially the latter with his common knack for disturbing visuals (Actually, I kept thinking of the doll in Poltergeist. Creepy!). The cinematic artwork and the originality of the presentation are the two key elements that will excite readers of this tale. Unfortunately, the element that will alienate these same readers is the amount of leash he’s given his main character and his disturbed take on life. Coyle is very playful with his subject matter, which is okay since it is examining the inner workings of a diseased mind adjusted to his obvious maladies. However, this dialogue of the mentally unbalanced yields little for the reader to relate to, which is exacerbated by the disconnected storybook form of the work itself. Sometimes artists can be a little too clever for their own good. Worry Doll is an appropriate example of this, as the presentation will likely polarize readership, creating favorable opinions for those looking for quirky fiction and receiving poor marks from those who crave straightforward sequential arts. No matter what side you’re on, you can’t deny Coyle’s creativity in his telling of this story, nor fault his decision to produce the finished product like a children’s book. However, unlike quirky masterpieces like The Naked Lunch or Blue Velvet, there is a lack of connection with the material that ultimately acts to alienate, leaving the reader with an empty feeling that isn’t worth the $18 cover price.

If Coyle had intended this book as a collection of his artwork rather than a melding of narrative dialogue and imagery, I would give this book the highest of marks. The amount of detail and grotesque realism he packs into the art pages of this thin tome is truly staggering, showing that Coyle is definitely an artist to keep an eye out for. In fact, if you only look at the artwork and ignore the prose, you’ll find more enjoyment from this book than if you combine the two. I know this sounds rather harsh, but I would suggest you try it before you judge me. The construction of the artwork displays the fractured mind much more effectively than the sometimes banal mock-poetry can, clashing images that could potentially give people some nightmares (Mr. Marbles?). In a two page span, he displays a car radio informing the public about his acts, then his fantasies of Nazi Germany and one doll’s role as a Gestapo-looking murderer. It’s all quite psychotic, but that’s the general idea. This is a tale told from the perspective of a disturbed individual, which means that you can’t expect the details to be very reliable or to follow a normal cause-and-effect relationship. All we can accept as some semblance of reality are the images that we see, such as a doll vomiting, a room full of mutilated bodies, and a suitcase full of dolls (I swear I saw a guy’s schlonger as well, but it could be a doll’s...). This is not the kind of reality you’re probably expecting, but it is the reality of a sick man’s mind, and we should enjoy the short ride Coyle has made available for us.

Short is the operable word, considering you will plunk down 18 bucks for this graphic novel. Is it worth it? That depends on your passion for detailed sketch-work, because if you’re looking for an entire graphic novel for the cover price, you will be woefully disappointed. The prose in this book is ineffective in keeping the reader’s attention focused on the developing story, despite some enlightening moments at the beginning and end of the tale that explain some of the narrator’s behaviors. In fact, using the same technique I used with the artwork, I gleaned that reading the prose without looking at the art yields a totally different experience. Instead of the horrific imagery, we are privy to a conversation in a mental hospital, between our disturbed narrator and a doctor of some sort (or it could be a rational manifestation of his mind). Interesting and enlightening, but ultimately fractured from the images, page titles, and reactions that coincide with each other on the facing pages. Worry Doll can best be described as a fractured masterpiece, a work that will be lauded by some mainly on the strength of some fantastic artwork.

Steven G. Saunders:

Comics are an artform, and I must proclaim: It sure is a nice change of pace to read a comic book that emphasizes “art.” Matt Coyle’s Worry Doll
is something you don’t get to see all that often any more, it seems. The first thing a reader of Worry Doll will notice is the pictures. Upon first glance, they look like treated photographs, but actually they are incredibly detailed and executed drawings…, drawings done in felt-tip pen. Really, the art is the true star of this book, but the story is good too; unconventional as the layout may be.

The tale concerns three toys who discover the family they co-habitate with have been horribly murdered in the living room. We are then treated to a murder mystery involving this surreal premise, which is quite enjoyable... even if it’s extremely dark and, as some might say, disturbing (I didn’t find it that disturbing; but then again, this is ME we’re talking about). The layout may throw some for a loop since it is pretty unconventional as far as “standard funny books” go. The story is told by both white on black text to the left, engaging the reader with grimly entertaining prose and on the right is the outstanding illustration work, complimenting the text nicely. Wait, this is a Slugfest, isn’t it? I’m sure other the reviewers have gone on to describe Worry Doll and there’s no sense in providing an exercise in redundancy. Anyway, the bottom line is: This is worth getting, especially if you are looking for something different and interesting involving photo-realistic (photo-surrealistic?) art and a well-done yarn that’s a bloody good time. I hear this took six years to complete; for good reason, I should add. I certainly hope Coyle’s next work doesn’t take so long, as I really do enjoy his stories, art, and how his twisted mind ticks.

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