Let Lightning Snake reveal yourself to you

Colleen Louise Barry

June 07, 2017

Around the time I first read Lightning Snake, I was gifted an old vinyl of The Moody Blues’ In Search of the Lost Chord by a regular member at the sensory deprivation tank spa where I sometimes work. On the inside of this record there’s an artist’s note. It says: A YANTRA is used in much the same way as a mantra, although visually. The YANTRA is something that can hold the mind to a form. The mind, contemplating that form and including all of the designs it contains, may easily pass along to the integral concept.

What strikes me about this is that the integral concept isn’t defined; it’s not important. Only that there is one, and that it exists inside of you, not inside of the form by which it may be embodied. To get to it, you must pass along toward it. I love so much the durational work implied in this; the idea that things can and must be repeated, that it is the ritual which creates understanding, even from the parts of life that give us pain.

From the first dizzying moment you look at Lightning Snake, you understand that the genius of this collection is in the process of its becoming, in the discovery of its own (your own) integral concept. Much like a yantra, the work in Lightning Snake comes apart and adheres in a kind of cosmic heaving.

While most printed matter convinces you to be still, Lightning Snake moves you, so much so that it makes a rhythm come alive inside you, changing as you see it, and changing you as it changes. It’s hypnotizing. And it feels fun, the way jumping off a tall diving board is fun, or riding The Ring of Fire. It’s an enormous life-affirming rush, a leap into the unknown.

Lightning Snake is a 52-page two-color risograph comic/artist book/visual diary/poem/collection of work published and printed by Cold Cube Press. Cold Cube is able to highlight this book’s important repetitive quality in the most radiant, singular way with the risograph printing process, an ink-based color-layering process, a mixture of tight control and unpredictability. The book is beautiful to hold, a lush visual experience, and no two copies are exactly the same.

Lightning Snake’s palette begins with the bold primary colors of the cover and title page (which might be the loveliest title page I’ve ever seen). These take a turn in the guts when red thins out and spreads into a rosy sea. A denser red and navy swim between tonalities like a dream, and the nuances of the work’s textures, which swing between hazy softness and bold opacity, are perfectly represented. All of this is laid down on a faintly yellow-cream paper, adding a warm glow, bathing everything. This is one of the best things about reading visual work, when it is printed so thoughtfully. It is a sensory experience.

Each page of Lightning Snake is singular, although the overall structure is uniform. Clusters of panels drift about the page together, like windows into other worlds, or constellations; sometimes they’re even placed in clouds. The left-hand page of each spread is a clear zone of air, a palate cleanser, and also a beat. It helps to pace us.

For a while, at the bottom of the panel-clusters, the author has signed their initials, along with the day’s (or sometimes a few days’) date and the place where the drawing was made. The routine of this lends Lightning Snake an air of a mystical log book, one which as a doctor might keep on a patient, or a truck driver on a long-haul. It blurs the line between the dream we’ve entered and the reality of the dreamer.

That dreamer remains unknown to us, a mystery — with only the initials “JTMM” and “JAZOR” used interchangeably; no author bio, no information. This helps to make Lightning Snake not only an intensely interior work, but also a very generous one.

We meet our author most clearly on the very last page of Lightning Snake, which collects their thoughts in a series of notes (another of this book’s spellbinding mysteries: the notes are numbered, and some of the numbers stand with nothing behind them — perhaps as a nod to the individual pages, like an index of sorts, or as an alternative chronology, or simply an organized list?). These function like a visual poem in their own right and are centered around the textual voice of the author solely.

In these notes, the author cites an art therapy experiment conducted by Jung on a Miss X, documented in the book Mandala Symbolism. As explained by our author: “Mandala symbolism is a ‘study in the process of individuation’.” In the broadest possible way, Jung’s individuation theory is the merging of the conscious and subconscious to create self-actualization. Jung intended for the theory of individuation to apply to more than analytical psychology; he wanted it to encompass the philosophical, mystical, and spiritual aspects of existence, or rather, the way human beings process existence. This is the basis of communing with this collection of work: everything is a process. As above, so below, the author writes.

Lightning Snake seems not simply to be inspired by this experiment, but to directly build on it, adding to the research material: “Jung worked with a Miss X and her 24 paintings in order to help her recognize and become = I presume = WHOLE.” Lightning Snake is what it looks like to work with yourself, to move through something that feels infinite.

The experience of reading Lightning Snake isn’t traditional, but it’s not frustrating. It reminds us that any experiment worth its salt (this one is) will raise more questions and possibilities than it answers.

Lightning Snake is not just an experiment, however. It is also an epic story, a hero’s tale. And like all epics, from the very start we can feel we are on a journey. The first three pages of the book introduce us to the leading characters (or symbols) that lead us through this universe — Lightning Saur, Lightning Snake, and Cousin Thunder — and there is much important work being done here.

The book opens with Lightning Saur, a stable navy blue, the patriarch (or matriarch) of the dream that is the book. Lightning Saur seems to spit Lightning Snake out and onto the next page — a bold red, our protagonist. And when we turn to the third page, everything explodes into Cousin Thunder. Cousin Thunder is followed on their path by floating, innocent hearts, like the kind you might have doodled in grade-school love notes. Cousin Thunder appears rarely but always spectacularly, creating a sense of real longing, a sort of sweet desire. (Sometimes I like to read Lightning Snake as a romance above all, with its heartbreaking vulnerability.)

Each character is an iteration of the last, and also its creation. Lightning Snake is Lightning Saur’s dream; Cousin Thunder is Lightning Snake’s dream. They each move across their pages in the same direction, toward the next page, and the next, giving the book’s loose narrative a sense of propulsion. They seem to be moving with purpose, perhaps searching for a lost thing, or perhaps running — from or toward, or both. Because of this they radiate a tension between them.

These characters look so much alike, however, that it hardly matters whether the reader understands who is who and where they are going. They occupy a universe where the particulars aren’t important. In a very Jungian definition of dream interpretation, these characters are what they symbolize, and not the other way around. They are images swimming in abstract possibility.

As when a character shows up as a poetic device, à la a James Tate poem, the characters in Lightning Snake may, falsely, appear simple. The end of this book doesn’t seem to be the motivation for making it. It hardly even seems to finish; it moves in a circle. There’s nobody telling us what happens or happened or will happen, or how it all connects. Everything is happening at once, and you, as the reader, are free to latch onto any of it, in any order. It is as much the reader’s responsibility as it Lightning Snake’s to create this universe and to enter it.

Lightning Snake is, amongst everything else, an artist’s book. It is perfectly complemented in book form. Being bound is a major component of its ability to create depth of emotion, as words and shapes and colors and textures speak to each other back and forth across the pages. As our author writes: “You can travel and read Lightning Snake’s past and future BUT I CAN’T!”

The work in Lightning Snake remains connected by sparse narrative phrases like MORNING GLORY and LETS GIT SERIOUS. These words, although subtle, carry an important weight, distinguishing between characters and between action and interpretation. They signal settings and motivations to us; they anchor the visual abstractions in the everyday. The text and image relationship in this book creates a beautiful poetry, needing only the barest elements to communicate something deeply human, something that can’t be discovered or spoken of in any other way. For example, where we read LET IT ALL COME IN:

we see Lightning Snake moving among soft, red strokes. By the end of this panel-cluster, Lightning Snake has let themselves become filled-in with the red strokes, their bolt-shape almost camouflaged.

There is a willingness to eschew all other conventions of drawing for the need to communicate something honest, something ephemeral. The less traditional “skill” employed, the more the subconscious can take over. As the author highlights in their notes, ignorance of craft is the path toward artistic liberation. Moving toward knowing less, not more.

The author continues to innovate and change as Lightning Snake progresses along its chronological, diaristic timeline, with new ways of digging-through, signifying. The dates and places and initials disappear from beneath the panel-clusters and JAZOR appears. The panel-clusters and the characters become more ambiguous, morphing and fading in and out of sight. The words migrate into and spin around the panel-clusters, creating new rhythms of reading. As the author’s views change, so does the landscape of Lightning Snake. It feels rare and important to watch an artist work through something over time, to be able to see how that kind of work shows itself visually.

Accumulation and repetition are an important part of any practice, especially a healing one (mantras are traditionally recited 108 times per day). It seems often that we have to encounter something on many occasions before we really know it. Returning to a collection like Lightning Snake over and over only produces more and more understanding, both of the work and — back to Jung — of the self.

One of my favorite ways to read Lightning Snake is to close my eyes, open the book, then fall into whatever page I’ve been shown. This is because, much like a poem, you can read it by following its lines, and much like a mantra or yantra, you can forget whatever comes before or after it. When I do this, I expect to learn from the pages, as if the ones I’ve opened to have chosen me and not the other way ‘round. Like having a spread of Tarot cards read, the artwork in Lightning Snake will reveal yourself to you.

I sometimes cheat my own game and open to this page on purpose:

This is when I feel closest to the book and farthest from my own thoughts imposing on it, when I’m really lost to this world. This drawing is mesmerizing in its motion. Although it moves inward, I feel an expansion in my thought process as I focus on it. There is nothing as simultaneously simple and complex as that.

Lightning Snake is that rare book that can be read in so many ways and never lose meaning. It operates on multiple planes, and it communicates a deeply human process. Grief and love are at the center of it all. What’s important is to keep moving. To develop a way to remember yourself and to remember other people. And that is the ultimate success of this book, among its many successes: we get to feel, with the author, the overwhelming and indescribable wave of being alive.

Books in this review:
  • Lightning Snake
    by Jason T. Miles
    Cold Cube Press
    June 10, 2017
    52 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online

About the writer

Colleen Louise Barry is a writer and artist living in Seattle, WA. She runs the bookshop/publishing project Mount Analogue. Find her on Instagram at @colleenlouisebarry.

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