Tile by Maryanne Rose Papke
Reviewed by Michael H. Payne
14 October 2009
A friend of mine in high school used to describe people as being either "Apollonian" or "Dionysian." Essentially, "Apollonians" are those who like things more orderly while "Dionysians" prefer a bit more randomness in their surroundings.
Of course, like all "two kinds of people in the world" things, this one's pretty artificial, but I've always found it interesting when thinking about folks who enjoy sonnets more than free verse, or those who gravitate more toward abstraction than realism. It's all a matter of personal preference—some people like eating shrimp and some people don't—but those of us who fall squarely into the "Apollonian" camp, we like to classify things into groups, then compare the groups and see what similarities and differences pop out. At least, that's something I like to do . . .
So when I come across an author or artist who approaches the world using a combination of these two perspectives, I tend to sit up and take notice: the lovely "button-down surrealism" of Rene Magritte; M. C. Escher's ability to turn rigorous geometry into flying birds and steam-snorting lizards; Charles de Lint finding ancient magic on mundane street corners. And something that's grabbed me that way recently is the webcomic Tile by Maryanne Rose Papke.
This one is just plain fun, the way it exemplifies abstract surrealism while still being a series of character-driven stories with odd little beginnings, middles, and ends. Papke explains that Tile, our heroine, is her construction and stand-in during the introductory comics (beginning here), and Tile's adventures take her to the far corners of her own world, to other worlds, and to all the mysterious lands both inside and outside the boundaries of the usual four-panel comic strip.
It's the sheer randomness, I have to admit, that first struck me about Tile. Sprouting wings in one panel, Tile abandons them in the next; she starts off riding an elephant, loses him, but quickly finds a second; traveling through space and landing on another world, she technically becomes an alien, so she immediately sprouts little antennae and a cape as a proper alien should. Characters appear, are introduced, and vanish again after presenting Tile with a flower or receiving a rock from her, then show up weeks or months later to do some dancing or to join in Tile's latest quest. Wherever Tile finds herself, literally anything can happen there.
Now, that's not the sort of thing that usually grabs me. I mean, yes, a bit of randomness can be fun in its place, but all weird all the time is like drinking ketchup. Sure, it can be done, but isn't it just nicer with some french fries underneath? Chaos works best to my thinking when it's got some orderliness to play off of, something it can stand in contrast to. And in my first brush with Tile, I didn't see a great deal of anything that I would consider orderly.
Still, I found that I was enjoying the comic, and that made me wonder why. So I continued reading . . . and began to see that there was order in the seeming chaos, an organizing principle making connections from one panel to the next. Which is the basic definition of comics, sure—images presented in a sequence designed to create connections from the first to the last. But as "anything goes" as Tile is, it most certainly isn't four random images laid out for readers to spin whatever storyline they want in a sort of "choose your own adventure" style, something I don't think I've ever seen in a comic though I'm sure someone's done it somewhere.
In fact, the key to my enjoyment of Tile lies in another part of the definition of comics. "Words and pictures combined," the dictionary says, and there are indeed words that float above the wonderful surreal imagery here. These words function sometimes as narration, helping to explain the action, and sometimes as commentary, reacting to whatever's going on, but they aren't spoken by Tile—she has no facial features at all and therefore no mouth, something that causes a bit of worry at one point when she finds herself in possession of an ice cream cone. No, as the earliest strips demonstrate, these words come directly from the artist herself.
And that's what ties everything together and boosts Tile to a spot near the top of my favorite webcomics: the way Papke chooses to interact with her creation. I enjoy it especially because, well, when I tell a story or draw a comic, I tend to follow the example set by Tim Powers: he has to keep a firm hand on his characters, he says, since he knows they'd much rather go to Disneyland than run through whatever plot he's set up.
In Papke's case, however, I can't imagine she would lodge a single objection should Tile decide to flit off to the Magic Kingdom for the afternoon. There's such an easy-going acceptance of the peculiar, I get no feeling of an artist striving to keep things in control or even trying to understand the odd occurrences. The words in each panel take note of what's going on, report on it, and provide the occasional sound effect, but it's as if the artist is discovering it all right along with the reader, as if she's the lens through which we're seeing some new and ever-changing world. This perspective brings such a palpable sense of joy and wonder to the comic, I can't help but smile as I read.
It makes for a perfect combination of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the ordered and the chaotic. "Yes," the comic says to the reader like me who's perhaps a bit leery of the overly unusual, "random and inexplicable events are happening around us all the time. Isn't it interesting?" And gliding with Tile through her adventures, I find myself agreeing.