written by Kevin Pyle
Although Lab U.S.A, from writer/illustrator Kevin Pyle (Blindspot, Katman), is not a newly published title, it’s arguably something better—a timeless one. And that assessment applies to it not only as art, but also as a work of historical scholarship. Its subtitle, “Illuminated Documents,” gives one a sense of Pyle’s strategy: He takes declassified materials and embellishes them, sometimes in baroque ways, sometimes with disturbing understatement, and sometimes he does nothing at all to them. In fact, it’s safe to say that if you’ve never viewed an invoice as a mysteriously compelling text, chances are you haven’t read Lab U.S.A.
In addition to reports, memoranda, and even more obscure documents from the military and the scientific communities, Pyle excerpts out-of-print published works, as in this section on inserting electrodes into the human brain by a 1950s authority on the subject: “Some women have shown their feminine adaptability to circumstances by wearing attractive hats or wigs to conceal their electrical headgear…” The accompanying piece of line art, which depicts a blond woman’s smiling face, is hardly gruesome (especially compared to other images in the book), but it’s that smile, and that carefully rendered dotted line that shows the contours of her skull beneath the wig, that are supremely unnerving. Indeed, it’s through such touches that Lab U.S.A. comes to read like the contents of a mad scientist’s brain dumped out on a lab table for our examination—except the madness depicted here isn’t pulpy or conveyed by a heavy European accent. Rather, the book presents acts committed by big pharma, academics, shadowy research agencies and the like, and the often matter-of-fact tone of their own records and correspondence suggests that these folks may have been innocuous-looking next door neighbors to our parents or grandparents.
Perhaps you’ve gathered by now that the common theme in the book’s chapters, which tend to run two to four spreads each and are accompanied by cited sources, is experimentation carried out on human beings in the name of science, industry, or national security. Nothing wrong with science, industry, or national security, but the exploitation, institutional racism, and plain old mind-boggling callousness of these experiments helps give these concepts a black eye from the first page on. But where a purely prose text on the same topic might numb the reader after a few pages, Pyle uses his complete command of a variety of graphic devices to keep us engaged, on edge, critical, and shocked all at once. In short, he makes us feel like witnesses to the quiet atrocities that he chronicles. Not through narrative, not through reportage, and not through memoir or polemic, but through a unique combination of all these approaches.
It’s interesting that Lab U.S.A. won the Silver Medal for Sequential Art from the Society of Illustrators—not because it doesn’t deserve such recognition, but because much of it isn’t “sequential” in the Will Eisner sense of the term. There are only a handful of sections that sport traditional panel-and-gutter storytelling. Instead, the layout for any given chapter is dictated by the subject matter itself. For example, a chapter on the notorious medical tests performed at Holmesburg, a detention center in Philadelphia, sports print that resembles handwritten scrawls on a prison wall while the visuals are arranged like tattoos on inmates’ backs. Yet this is one of the more straightforward page designs that Pyle employs. With their carbon copy-style smudges, schematic diagrams, photo simulations, and expressionistic sketches, the pages often recall mixed media canvasses or even a multimedia installation in print form (and in fact Pyle has organized museum and gallery pieces based upon the book). But that’s not to say that Lab U.S.A. is simply a form of avant-garde agitprop that will hold little appeal for readers of more conventional graphica. On the contrary, it’s probably the scariest horror comic I’ve ever read—except it’s not strictly a comic, and of course it’s nonfiction.
At times, Pyle is so inventive that reading itself becomes challenging—and even that works. If he were being opaque for its own sake, that would be one thing, but he wants to deconstruct and subvert the primary source texts because, in a sense, they were key accomplices in these crimes against humanity. The clearly organized data tables, the oh-so-reasonable-sounding quotes from experts, the “fine print”—all of these reflect the same tone of distant, unquestionable authority that was used against the victims and that intimidated the media from covering these incidents at the time. Have things really changed, though? It’s hard to say. It’s clear, however, that we need more graphic nonfiction like this. But who has the discipline, conviction, and integrity to create it—and who has the guts to publish it, or the resources to market it to the audience it deserves?-- Peter Gutiérrez