Skibber Bee Bye

The Extremes of Ron Rege Jr.

Ron Rege Jr. has a drawing style that seems na´vely transparent, but which is in fact quite sophisticated. Looking at his drawings — simple and direct as a child’s, but anchored by a thoughtful deployment of composition and sequence — the viewer feels as though they are listening in on a private language, shorthand hatched in a diary. It’s a visual analogue to the precocious speech twins sometimes invent between themselves before learning their native, socialized tongue.

His latest most ambitious book (recently re-issued by Drawn and Quarterly) features two such siblings, and the title is drawn from their cognate gibberish: Skibber Bee Bye. The feeling of something private, sealed off from the wider world, but still full of self-created meaning, spreads out from the siblings’ sing-song dialogue and touches every aspect of the book. Rege answers a question he might not even have intended to ask: can a work of art create beauty out of the raw materials of perplexity?

Several of the characters in Skibber Bee Bye resemble the kind of visual figments that boil up from one’s mind when poised between wakefulness and sleep. There is an elephant, dressed very properly in a suit and fedora. There are flocks of cyclopean faeries with little insect wings, each standing on a single, cone-shaped leg. The two protagonists — the aforementioned siblings, a brother and sister who run a bookbinding business — are more ordinary human types, though the elder sister falls prey to periodic attacks of a disease that causes eyeballs to sprout all over her arms.

Such strange imagery might grab one’s attention if seen in a single drawing, its peculiarities taken at face value as pure acts of imagination. We might not understand the full import of what we are seeing, but a single drawing is easy enough to pass by. When there are two hundred and fifty pages of drawings, however, strung together in a narrative sequence, the peculiarities gain force, and the sense of mystery around them deepens. We try harder to pry the meaning from them, as their existence has been prolonged into behavior — they have been transformed from images into characters.

The story does nothing to smooth over their pictorial strangeness. Each time you think you’ve sussed where the book is heading, Rege changes the ground rules. It begins as a kind of romance, with the elephant admiring the elder book-binder from afar; Rege is very gentle here, paying attention to small gestures and details with an open, innocent eye. Then we are given an extended flashback, detailing the abandonment of the bookbinder siblings by their father. He leaves them after taking them to “see the elephant,” driving them to an itinerant circus in a horse-drawn cart. The book explains that “seeing the elephant” was a euphemism for the trek westward to join the Gold Rush, and we begin to take the story as a strange fabulization of history.

The flashback is then abandoned for a brief, beautifully colored interlude between the elephant and the bookbinder. For the first and last time, the story seems to be arcing towards an expected narrative closure, the intimations of romance moving towards their implied consummation. But even here, the meeting between characters plays out unexpectedly, with a strange sense of disconnect. The elephant cooks a seemingly endless series of desserts for the bookbinder, but they’re too sweet, and not quite what they seem — the assault of desserts finally amounts to a kind of unintentional abuse.

Finally, the story jackknifes towards a horribly violent climax. Violence is ordinarily the first refuge of the imaginatively impoverished, raising the stakes in a story that might otherwise be puttering out of steam. In Rege’s visual scheme, however, the violence is abstracted and aesthetically distanced to the point where it seems something other than what it is, in a literal sense. Rege has developed a style where, paradoxically, the act of drawing a thing doesn’t render what it is, but rather what it is not.

Violence tends to be a very coded exercise in art — the same violent act can be played for a visceral reaction or for laughs, depending on the context that surrounds it, and we usually grasp that context immediately without much reflection. Here, however, the overriding code is elusive, and the reader wonders what impels the violence. Perhaps it is impelled as a reaction to the gossamer-slight wistfulness of the style, which skirts being “cute” but makes everything light as air. If it is precipitated by the style’s attempt to contain the weight of an emotional darkness, it can be seen not merely as a reaction to, but rather as an result of, that style.

Which still leaves the question of how the reader is supposed to take the violence, which is meted out by a strange Rube Goldberg torture device — a device whose extravagant absurdity seems to make the torture both more ridiculous and more agonizing. It becomes nearly abstract in its impossibility, an extraordinary externalized diagram of despair, clutching at the farthest extremes of this particular visual universe to meet the demands of a powerful emotional effect.

The book takes a final side-step into nautical adventure before coming to a close. If the story as a whole functions at all, it does so on the level of poetry, not causality. Narrative impossibilities are almost held out as a taunt to the reader — there is a journal written by the bookbinders’ father, whose existence is crucial to the mechanics of the plot, but it is thrown into the sea at one point, and then later, inexplicably, shows up unharmed in the daughter’s house (at another point, pictures from the journal appear cut out and framed at a nightclub). None of the events of Skibber Bee Bye quite add up.

But this seems appropriate for a book that finds its center — and its sadness — by drawing a world where intentions are at radical odds with consequences. And it’s certainly appropriate for a book that answers the question of whether beauty can be teased from perplexity with a gibberish-inflected “yes.”