Thursday Comics Hangover: The dead mammal

I can't stand raccoons. With their tiny little hands and the way they clamber, brazen and unafraid, into human spaces, they unsettle me in a way that no insect or snake ever could. There is just enough human in raccoons to be recognizeable, but just enough snout and fang and fur to make them alien. A live raccoon sighting will always raise my hackles, and raccoon corpses by the side of the road have never invoked my sympathy.

Seattle cartoonist Marie Hausauer's new book Raccoon centers around a dead raccoon in the middle of the woods. For the first few pages, the "camera" slowly pulls back from the racoon corpse. It's lying on its side, almost human in repose, its legs crossed demurely, one front paw extended out further than the other, as though reaching for something. Its eyes are closed, hidden behind the creepy black band of fur that masks the eyes like a cartoon burglar. It's impossible for anyone — even a lifelong raccoon hater like myself — to not feel sad for the critter.

Eventually, it rots. Its ribcage juts out of a gaping hole in its chest. The uglier the raccoon corpse gets, the more vivid its surroundings become. All around it, ferns and trees and grass grows in a circle, creating a kind of spotlight with the raccoon in the center.

And then come the people. Three sets of humans encounter the corpse, dealing with it in different ways. The first party is a group of adults who are complaining about kitchen remodel projects. "Looks like he died snarlin'," the guy in the hiking boots and the ugly floppy outdoorsman hat says as he crouches by the body. They complain a lot about the smell. Next, a group of teenage boys walk through, and then a moody young woman.

This is a book about death, and grieving, and morbid curiosity. No person who encounters the raccoon responds in exactly the same way as any other person. The reader observes them all, as though we're lurking back in the shady woods, hanging back and passively taking note of their reactions.

Raccoon demonstrates a terrific balance between words and images: the book is respectfully silent in its beginning and closing (death is traditionally a very quiet thing), and the human dialogue fades in and out, like happening upon snippets of conversation in the woods as people walk past you on the trail. The banality of hearing people complaining about their kitchen remodels in the midst of nature's baroque grandeur makes everything seem a little less important.

With Raccoon, Hausauer continues to rapidly grow and deepen as an artist. This is a confident literary work — it's easy to imagine a Carveresque story about these teenage boys, for instance — from a writer who's finding her voice. Raccoon's realism falls comfortably within the continuum of Northwest fiction. It feels like a story that could only spring from our part of the world, with its lush green backdrops and its brazenly invasive wildlife. You've seen the title character of this story rooting around in your trash. You've maybe even wished death upon it. This, Hausauer says, is what happens next.

(Raccoon is available for sale now at Fantagraphics Bookstore, Arcane Comics, Push/Pull, and Left Bank Books.)