Subtitled “A Surreal Graphic Memoir of My Shadow Side,” Stefan Salinas’ Within the Rat (Camelopardolis) is a slippery, black-and-white picture book of odd and symbol-laden character studies. The winner of a Xeric Grant which allowed San Francisco-based Salinas to self-publish his 236-page alt graphic novel, Rat opens on a trio of kids who are telling scary stories as they camp out in the backyard. After one of the threesome tells of the “mud-crud” — a “horrible man-eating beast with long, sharp claws, ferocious teeth, a spiky tail and beady eyes” — the crew lights out in search of the creature, unknowingly passing a rat carrying a sack. The rat looks out at the reader and invites us into his lair, where he tells us he’s been working on “a collection of stories; of scenes … I dunno.”
In one of these stories/scenes, a horse/mother flees her burdensome children, only to return after contemplating suicide; in another, the rat recounts a failed relationship with a lover who is “so full of compassion” that he can’t connect with him. The rat's collection of tales circles around several motifs — the death of the author’s mother, his pattern of failed relationships, urban anxiety — before returning to a slam-bang confrontation with the mud-crud. Perhaps the center figure in the midst of this mélange (she’s given the cover spot) is Mildred, the professional mourner, who takes us through her dour weekly routine and rages against what she sees as an indifferent God. In the midst of her rant, the mourner morphs into one more manifestation of the artist, retreating into a prenatal state and re-emerging as the rat narrator.
This might all be overly self-absorbed if Salinas wasn’t honest enough to acknowledge that his characters’ frequently bleak view of the world comes from within. At one point in the book, a former lover tells the author, “Y’know, some of us men in this book of yours are more comfortable with ourselves than you may realize,” though it's clear the author doesn't believe this assertion. When Mildred the mourner actually hears from her Father/God over the phone and is given some simple sensible advice on how to make a small change in the world, she refuses to listen, instead retreating into a round of self-pitying rationalization. The world may have its monsters, Rat tells us, but nobody can make us as miserable as ourselves. “So many of you are disconnected from each other,” a tearful Mother Nature says late in the book, her tears ironically adding to a flood that threatens our rat hero.
Salinas’s gray-washed illustrations look like something you might find in a precocious child’s notebook: which is apt, considering the blend of naive fantasy and adult angst that he’s working to evoke here. I’m less enamored by his decision to use type font both for the book’s narration and his characters’ speeches, but, then, I’m old-fashioned in this regard. (But if we’re reading from a rat’s journal, wouldn’t it be claw-written?) Still as a debut work of art comics, Within the Rat proves poetic and refreshingly open-faced. Would like to see what Salinas can do with characters who aren’t manifestations of his shadow self.