With Halloween coming up soon, this week I browsed the comics and graphic novels section on my App and checked out an e-book called Notes on a Case of Melancholia, or: A Little Death. This humorous story, authored and illustrated by Nicholas Gurewitch, is geared more towards older readers.
The main plot point is easily discernible from the cover: the grim reaper or Death is lying on a couch in the middle of a session. A therapist or psychoanalyst sits behind him listening intently. Through the window, you can make out a tinier and cuter version of him on a hilltop, offering a bright pink flower to a butterfly. Death’s child never gets a name within the book, but I would guess it as Little Death from the title.
Notes has no dialogue and very little in the way of narration, but the sparse words that are there are enough to build the plot. Gurewitch lets the impressively rendered etchings, black and white for most of the pages, speak for themselves. It made me spend a little more extra time on each page, marveling about the little details.
For example, when the psychoanalyst is skiing early on, one of the course flags looks more like a scythe sticking out of the snow. A small statue resting on a shelf later on another page becomes a critical element on the next page. I felt more engaged with the book, rather than flipping quickly to see the next drawing.
That being said, Notes has its ambiguity at times. Death tries to kill the psychoanalyst at the beginning, but then accepts the offer of therapy when his attempts fail. Was the reaping task difficult because Death was distracted or was he intentionally horrible at it to attract attention? Why is the ghost of the psychoanalyst’s wife, sometimes etched as a faint outline, there on the side of the frame? The unresolved questions present a fun challenge rather than a source of frustration, beckoning you to revisit the book.
The etchings are worth a closer look. They are stunningly executed by hand, a labor of love from Gurewitch in the two years he spent on the project. The lines contribute greatly to the rich textures of the rooms, the smoke curls from the psychoanalyst’s pipe, and the surrounding landscape by his house.
The dramatic play of light and dark swatches creates very rich scenes, too. As Death shows us his problems, diamond shapes depicting Little Death’s antics converge around his face at one point. It’s quite a clever way to represent the mental anguish he’s in about his child and to shatter the window near him.
Both the psychoanalyst and Little Death pursue Death across the rocky terrain in an effort to help him. By no means, don’t mistake it for teamwork between the two characters. It’s a suspenseful chase with a startling ending. The black and white palette is overtaken by the bright pink color matching the flower Little Death was holding at the beginning.
Gurewitch developed a thoughtful and entertaining story about the grim reaper. One funny moment is seeing Little Death trying to hold Daddy’s scythe. In another, we see Death explaining his family tree during therapy. Some relatives have names such as Uncle Mortis, think rigor mortis, and Uncle Kut, pronounced as “cut.” Interestingly enough, they don’t all wield scythes. Uncle Mors holds a large ship anchor, which made me wonder if his targets are sailors.
Due to the story’s slightly disturbing conclusion, I recommend that you proceed cautiously with giving this book as a gift to a friend while we’re in a pandemic. Someone who doesn’t usually read darkly comical Halloween stories may find it in poor taste. Safe bets include friends and family who are fans of Gurewitch’s offbeat comic strip, The Perry Bible Fellowship, or fans of works by illustrator and writer Edward Gorey.
Overall, I enjoyed Notes on a Case of Melancholia, or: A Little Death. The illustrations are so well done. The plot really keeps you guessing until the end. A seemingly innocuous detail ultimately becomes a sinister piece of the puzzle. Except for being cute and small, Little Death is not at all what Daddy Death thought!