“Don’t you want to come into the sunlight?”
Julia Gfrörer’s Dark Age is an anxiously intimate comic. Bookended by starkly sexual images of cave formations, the slim pink volume follows two young lovers living in a pristine wilderness near the dawn of humanity. One day, frustrated by the antics of their peers, they descend into a cave system on a romantic expedition. When Ulfe becomes stuck deep inside the cave, an interlude of profound anxiety begins. With only one lamp between them, Ulfe’s nameless lover must leave him helpless and in total darkness in order to get help. Gfrörer fills page after page with unaccented blackness, a move that could be hacky in lesser hands but which in hers proceeds from numbing, to terrifying, to crushing. It becomes oppressive, and even after it lifts, its cloying weight lingers.
A great deal of subtle emotional work, communicated through Gfrörer’s sparse, suggestive dialogue and through art that straddles the line between tender and alienating, underpins the tension of this interlude. A profound command of expression is present in all of Gfrörer’s work, especially the critically lauded Black is the Color, and Dark Age displays her talent to its best effect. Wonder, fear, and the manifold small uncertainties that characterize teenage relationships are instantly recognizable even when not broadly telegraphed. Ulfe’s desire to hoard his experiences with the woman is readily apparent in the sullen expression he wears when deriding the value of sharing their discovery of the cave. He claims that the two of them knowing it exists is good enough, betraying a foundational insecurity that earlier drove him to see a jest about his own reliability in the woman’s simple request that he wait for her. Their relationship feels young in a nervous, gentle, and occasionally ugly way that easily bridges the gulf of time. Gfrörer’s decision to adopt a casual, anachronistic voice lends her story a great deal of emotional immediacy.
The sacred, the banal, and the profane are closely intermingled in the world Gfrörer sketches. Teenagers ape their elders by eating hallucinogenic mushrooms and masturbating, sex is both intimate and hidden and public and unashamed, and the unknown holds terrors and wonders in equal measure. The cave is a place of shared secrecy, its eventual breach traumatic and destabilizing. Gfrörer depicts a moment of sexual connection between the two in a gorgeous sequence of panels where the water of a subterranean lake is a meniscus between union and separation. They progress through foreplay to urgency before holding one another in the aftermath, their expressions blending devastation with release. The cave’s vaulted chambers and rough, rugged walls are beautifully laid out and never overdone, and the tableau of the woman and Ulfe in the mouth of the crystal gallery is a haunting one.
When Ulfe becomes trapped the narrative could be said to halt, but in reality Gfrörer has built an uneasy machine out of stray words and glances and left it to run in the darkness. We, like Ulfe, are free in that terrible abyss to ponder all our fears and insecurities even as we feel the rasp of stone against our naked skin. Dark Age produces such a strong sense of claustrophobia that I became physically uncomfortable while paging through its black section, slowing down as the journey through Ulfe’s imprisonment began to feel more and more immediate. For a moment it seems entirely possible that the book could end in darkness with Ulfe abandoned to his awful fate for reasons to which we’ll never be privy. But no, he is rescued by his companion and several others, pulled out of the crack that nearly became his tomb and back into the world. Once freed, though, he collapses when confronted by the daylight outside the cave.
Ulfe has seen, in the darkness of the cave, a reflection of himself. The bottomlessness of his isolation has been transmuted into a horned figure of nebulous terror awaiting him in the liminal space between the cavern and the world outside it. Is it a newborn phobia birthed during his claustrophobic interlude as he is birthed from the cavern’s womb? Or is it a realization that the sense of self he possessed outside the cave has suffered irreparable damage, that he perceives himself now as hostile or unknowable? We do not know. The comic ends with this paralyzing image, Ulfe stricken and reduced to monosyllabic despair by the apparition before him. Boldly ambiguous, it captures the malignant character of masculine anxiety without condensing it to anything more concrete than that wavering, horrible figure.