by Max Coombes
After the Burial of Dog Stanley is a road trip comic about loss, memory, and the act of storytelling. It employs an uncertain relationship between text and image, so that the text can be read as a coherent story, and the images follow their own parallel logic, supporting and undermining the words’ narrative authority. A full colour, always pretty, stream of consciousness weaves in and out of a more rigorous comic-essay framework, so that the comic can be read in any way that the reader chooses.
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Dog Stanley was drawn to hot pools like a moth to light, until one day he wasn’t any more. When Dog Christina sees pine trees, she’s struck with the smell of sulphur and chlorine, and the image of Dog Stanley off in the distance, waist deep in hot soupy water, with his back turned. When Tom smells sulphur he asks if someone farted, something he doesn’t know that he got from the late Dog Stanley. When Sandra thinks of Dog Stanley she gets angry and confused and her heart breaks in two. Dog Stanley had a European car he was low-key stoked with, and which he drove daily with relish. Dog Stanley was drawn to hot pools like a moth to light, mould to damp, but dust to dust, not any more, never again.
Sandra, alone, lakeview: ‘I’d paint the whole world orange if I could.’
Everyone in unison: ‘You’ve just gotta look at her to know that’s not the case!’
(Quiet, Sandra sulks)
(Some members of Whau Valley Harmony Chorus break the silence, shuffling their feet)
Sandra: ‘She gets her days lined up for the next little while, and not a single one features the lake.’
(Pause. Someone sneezes)
(Sandra glances over)
Whau Valley Harmony Chorus: ‘Some call it rudeness, others, great sadness, but she drowns in that thing every night.’
Sandra, proud, eyes glistening: ‘Although just last week, she still can’t believe it, she started to swim to the top.’
(Yawns, looks at window)
Narrator: ‘And now Sandra says ‘I’m going away next year.’ And where? ‘To Iceland, I s’pose.’’
(Sandra, confused, opens her mouth to say something, but stops and stands motionless)
Then goes out.
Now Sandra says ‘I’ll cash it all in,’ and they say ‘Cash what in?’ and she says ‘I dunno, but I can’t stay here any longer.’
The shittiest thing Dog Stanley ever did wasn’t even that shitty – he slipped away once at the hot pool motor lodge to eat a pie under a tree. The thing he felt shittiest about in his life was that same summer getting seen by Dog Christina as he was putting out the washing, ciggie dangling from his mouth, back when she was nine.
THE BEST FRIEND
Sandra had a best friend and he was an abusive creep with a small pointy nose and weird jeans. When he and his family went away on holiday, Sandra and her kids Tom and Dog Christina house-sat for them, and the house smelled like orange juice and chlorine. Every single room. Dog Christina broke a lamp and never told anybody. Tom pissed in the spa pool.
THE SPA POOL (21 March, 2021)
Dog Christina stares shitfaced at a can of New Zealand Lager. She cannot, and it’s driving her crazy, cannot get out of her head the image of an outdoor spa pool lined with artificial punga, surrounded by native bush. A cartoon moa (hand-drawn) steps out from the fern and asks her for a cigarette. The moa seems good natured and like he’ll have good banter, and just before she can tell him ‘No, sorry, I’m all out,’ Dog Stanley saves the day, regretfully (for in front of his children he never smoked) pulling a pack of Dunnie blues from his jacket pocket and plucking one out for the moa, and one for himself. He pauses and considers offering one to Dog Christina, but then returns the pack to his pocket and asks the moa how his night’s going.
What about Christmas screams Duck Dodgers? What does Christmas scream for you?
THE BIGGEST FAILURE
‘The biggest failure is never trying,’ but it’s in her DNA- she never stood a chance! Because trying to what? It’s not trying itself that anyone’s concerned with- trying to be happy, or trying to be good, or trying to help, none of this counts. ‘You’ve got to play the game to win,’ but she’s playing the wrong game! How embarrassing for her! While not going out to make this political, Dog Christina’s chemical predicament is every day exacerbated by the context into which she was so miserably born, marking her to others and not just her silly self as the biggest failure there ever was. Because even if she woke up tomorrow and screamed through all her particles I AM JUST GETTING BY, I AM ALIVE AND NOT DEAD AND THAT IS ENOUGH, even if she managed to do that and believe it and practice it day after day, that is all she would ever be, the biggest failure.
She imagines disappearing into the woods so as to communicate ‘You won, I’ve given up,’ and this entertains her for a while, but then she freaks out and pulls back into the cubicle that stands dutiful at the start and end of all her dreams. She never dreams at night, or at least she never takes the dreams’ contents with her into the morning, but she wakes up every day with a feeling that will last its full duration. Her daydreams are recurring; they’re not coloured by the residual moods that stand in for whatever she saw that night. Otherwise she couldn’t trust her brain, not if it had uninhibited access to everything beyond her skull. What’s out there is sacred. She thinks then why do I daydream myself so cold and lonely? Dog Christina has never been alone, can’t imagine it really. The one time she went off by herself at the beach she ran into a deer and got the fright of her life.
THE BREATH OF THE WORLD
Dog Christina thinks about killing herself every day and has done for nineteen years. She has always considered an early death a sort of Get Out of Jail Free card, but how she’ll actually play the card is another matter. Not by her own hand, that’s gross, she’ll just I don’t know, evaporate. Evaporation almost completely avoids the question of grossness, corporeal grossness any way, in the sense that it’s only the air we’ve got to worry about, and the air’s already got the whole world’s breath in it, dead, alive, putrid, minty, and so on. The idea of her vaporised guts and bones swarming around in the air-soup of everyone that ever was is an image to which she regularly sets sail from the hideous mildewed cove of her sad brain. The problem for Dog Christina is that the card has and will always be a ‘future move’ and anyone can tell you that the future’s always in the future. And so here she is, thirty two, and she’d only ever planned for twenty one. The cruelest thing is that her worst fear is disappearing and turning up dead later, and guess what happened to poor Dog Stanley?
THERE’S ALWAYS A BODY
Gone for nine days, gone forever.
THERE’S ALWAYS A BODY
It’s like gravity.
“YOU’RE SO FUCKING ESCHATOLOGICAL”
What are you then?
THE MAN WHO FLEW UPSIDE DOWN
Dogs Christina and Stanley would hoist themselves up against the edge of the hot pool to cool their bodies in the breeze, and Tom would dive to the bottom, roll over, and then swim along looking face-up at the sky through the water.
The deer was beautiful but not like everybody says. It looked to her like an alien.
THE MAN WHO FLEW UPSIDE DOWN
On the evening of 21 October 1978 Frederick Valentich disappeared flying over Bass Strait in Australia. Before contact was lost, the pilot had radioed air traffic control in a panic to say that he was being followed by a large, fast moving object. When he was asked to describe the aircraft he said ‘It’s not an aircraft,’ and transmission was interrupted by ‘metallic, scraping sounds.’ A common explanation for Valentich’s disappearance is that he might have flipped his aircraft and begun flying upside down, and that the orbiting lights he thought were stalking above him were actually the lights from his own aircraft reflected in the ocean below that he was rapidly plummeting into and which was about to become his grave..
Tom thinks this is the saddest story he has ever heard.
All art was eschatological, then it was useless, then it got paranoid.
The most successful member of the family, Tom earns 80k a year and chooses his own hours. He likes to start and finish work late so there’s less time sitting in his room not doing anything. He lives with five other people, all of whom he avoids. He keeps perfectly still when they are in the hall so that no one can hear him breathe. The other night he and his friend Mikey went to see a standup comedian who in her routine described through alternating broad and hyper-specific strokes a ‘certain type of person’ that Mikey saw himself in as well as his cousin and a bit of his friend Dan, but in which Tom saw only himself. This lead Tom to conclude that the comedian must be real good friends with his ex and that they must regularly discuss Tom and his foibles, and that therefore the comedian and this whole venue actually will have to from this night on be avoided at all costs. Tom said to Mikey That was so good man holy shit hahaha, then caught a taxi home and tried to masturbate until his arm seized up.
On the way to the show Mikey told Tom that the appeal of Strange Days by The Doors lay in the dryness of its recording, to which Tom responded that it’s more the organ and the voice and the songs that he struggled with, rather than the presentation of these things. Tom knew that this would hurt Mikey because Mikey had a The Doors poster on his cubicle wall, wrote poetry inspired by the Beats in a small Moleskine notebook that he kept in the breast pocket of his jacket, and would ‘forget’ to plug in the headphones at his desk when listening to his own band playing covers of songs by Radiohead, The Doors, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Mikey told Tom that it’s just covers for now but that he was working on some original songs, and that all that mattered for the time being was playing these ones and playing them well.
Tom thought to himself Gosh Mikey’s a dickhead but then became self-conscious and considered man at least he’s trying, here I am with these weird olive green trousers and a haircut that could only be described as short. To have short hair in general one might as well forfeit one’s name. There was nothing unifying any of Tom’s clothing items, and come to think of it, very little substance to any of the individual items either. What a nothing person Tom was. Whenever his clothing items came together they did so inadvertently- just recently his boss had pointed out that his peach shirt and tan Chukka boots looked identical offset by the synthetic oxblood chinos that when he sat down pricked his right arse cheek and made him sweat behind the backs of his knees. No matter, at work tomorrow he would find a lookbook on one of his favourite message boards, order rough approximations of some of the items online, and then bin whatever happened to look like shit in real life.
Although they lived in the same city Dog Christina and Tom never bumped into one another, but then one Saturday they both found themselves at the opening of a new gym up the road from Dog Christina’s flat. When they caught sight of one another Tom thought Oh my god she knows about this too, and Dog Christina thought What the fuck is this place, what is a gym opening, and why is he pretending to be such a jock. Tom’s face had smirked for so long that smirking was all it ever could do, and Dog Christina was never taught to look anything other than confused and upset. Neither of them knew how a gym opening worked, but they both in their own ways looked as though they had assessed everything and felt that their standards had not been met.
That morning Tom’s friend Nick had suggested they leave a little early and stop in on their way to the field for touch rugby with Nick’s old friends from high school. Tom did not ask what happens at a gym opening because he did not want to indicate that he was not already one hundred and ten percent knowing of and enthusiastic for everything fitness, and critically, social fitness, related, lest Nick begin to notice incriminating patterns of behaviour in this fraudulent Tom person who on closer inspection struggles to bullet pass to his right, never uses the changing rooms, and barely goes below parallel on his squats. Dog Christina was actually on her way to something else but one of her colleagues from Fujitsu caught her eye and waved her in, and before Dog Christina could say Hello hope your weekend is going well, the speeches started and people flooded in from outside, blocking her exit.
Dog Christina was the only person there not wearing fitness gear, which lead both her and Tom to believe that the opening would be a very large gym session in which people would take turns trying out the equipment, but not for so many reps as to obviously exert themselves, thus transforming the apparently normal social gathering within a gym into something much more sinister. The skewed balance between gym resources and people wanting to use them would make spectators out of those waiting, performers out of the lucky ones, and a weird savage spectacle out of the whole event. To avoid this happening, the workouts would have to remain very much of a symbolic kind where everyone privately hopes for unexpected, even embarrassingly spontaneous muscular hypertrophy, and the people waiting would then follow suit, smiling and saying words that are just words like they were never watching or waiting and this was not exactly the kind of barbarous gladiatorial arena they all feared and envisioned when they found themselves invited in the post to a gym opening this Saturday up the road from Dog Christina’s flat.
My sister was never allowed to go over there, but then one afternoon she did. The house was just along from mum’s friend John’s, where we house-sat one school holidays. It never stuck out before that afternoon picking Christina up, because why would it: most of the houses in the area were colonial villas with front steps and external garages, all painted white, and from the outside Rachael’s looked much the same as John’s and everyone else’s. The area they lived in wasn’t given a name to differentiate it from any of the surrounding roads and reserves, but those who lived in it maintained that it was special and it seemed that way to outsiders as well. The difference was palpable: the roads hadn’t been widened in over half a century, and along every street were trees that changed colour in autumn and grew so tall that their branches could reach out and shake hands with those on the other side of the road. Being a hillier, greener place, the shadows that stalked grim in the day were so unrelenting that they would turn the grass into the coldest mud. Even when the sky was blue and the light was dappled you could see the breath leave your face to be lost in the cold forever.
Rachael and Christina became friends when Rachael joined her class in term two that year. She and her family had arrived from somewhere like Singapore or Canada and on hearing their daughter tell stories about the year six curriculum in New Zealand, her parents decided that she needed to be put with the year eight students. Principal Barrett put forward the compromise that Rachael could move in with the year seven class, as the school had a fairly rigorous intermediate education programme designed to prepare students for the high school experience in year nine, but Rachael’s parents had made up their minds and were very much used to getting their way with these things. When Rachael started in her class, Christina found her precociousness every bit as insufferable as the other kids did, but she felt bad about the ostracism Rachael faced as a consequence of this behaviour, and started sitting with her out of pity. In the beginning Christina picked Rachael’s prickliness as a sort of defensive thing to cope with her family’s always moving, but over time it became clear that to remove the prickles from Rachael would be to expel her very being, leaving only a desiccated husk of the child that would in a second float down with the newspapers, rotting leaves, and ACT party brochures, to be enveloped in the cold mud that followed her wherever she went.
When I asked Christina in the car home why before that evening she had not been invited to Rachael’s, she explained that the house was currently under the tyranny of a man named Uncle Chambers whom the family all feared with such intensity that they felt they had to endure alone. Rachael, teary eyed on the way there, had bemoaned the fact that not even her grandmother was allowed into the house when she was visiting from Toronto, and that her mother and father would instead leave to meet her at a nearby café. She also took that walk as an opportunity to give Christina a rundown of the method that the family had decided on for best navigating the house and avoiding Uncle Chambers. Doors in the house, Rachael said, could only be opened if Uncle Chambers had without a doubt passed the door and so would not be waiting outside. When Christina asked how one might know for certain whether or not Uncle Chambers would be standing outside any given door, Rachael explained that he would rush to any door that had just been opened, and so the only way to leave a room would be to listen out for another door in the house opening, at which point you would be given safe passage to the room of your choice (barring of course the one that now had Uncle Chambers waiting outside it). Christina asked why one could not just take a peek to see if Uncle Chambers was currently outside the door, but Rachael went pale and said that such a gamble doesn’t bear thinking about. The thought of actually encountering this Uncle Chambers was evidently too much for her to handle. Any number of pulleys, intercoms, and radio systems were discussed on the walk but it all came down to the conviction held by Rachael’s family that in order to avoid Uncle Chambers one must believe with certainty that he is at all times outside your door until you hear another door open at which point he is certainly on his way to that door instead.
Christina has said that whenever Rachael comes to mind she will have generated more questions than the last time, least of which is how the door opening cycle would each evening begin. The answer, Christina understood implicitly at the time, and still accepts now, was that a member of the family would every night take a sort of leap of faith for the sake of the other family members; breathing deeply, opening the door with the belief in their heart that Uncle Chambers would not be there waiting for them. The one detail she remembers from the walk, and she thinks about this regularly, was regarding the name Uncle Chambers, which Rachael failed to elucidate in any helpful way, as the man, she explained, came with the house.
Dog Christina began to reject traditional story-driven media in about 2013 in protest of what she coined ‘the tyranny of narrative’, and started watching amateur holiday videos on YouTube instead. In 2014 Tom put her onto a colleague of his, and the two developed an extension for Chrome and Firefox that selected low-popularity holiday videos on YouTube, played them at 0.01 speed, and then added from the user’s cache any song listened to more than 5 times between 12-4am slowed to whatever speed was necessary to accompany the video for its full duration. The extension received positive write-ups from a few music websites (including some of Dog Christina’s favourites), but was more or less unanimously torn apart by any art blog that mentioned it. She used the extension’s download function once and once only- on hitting the ‘generate’ button one night, footage of a heavily pixelated deer appeared on her screen set to the slowed down sounds of Call on Me by Eric Prydz.
Thirty minutes into the video the camera-operator (uRunIllgo61) pans left to a wooden fence on the perimeter of a waterpark, pans right again to show that the deer has vanished, and then pans left and tilts up to the top of the Skull Spinner waterslide tower to find a figure casting a familiar shape in the blinding white sun. At this point the camera zooms in to the person-shape and the footage fragments into colourful jagged blocks of digital noise which loop in a cruel slow collapse only to rebuild themselves a little bit more broken every time into the image of what she still swears to god is the face of her father, Dog Stanley.
I’ve spent half this year listening to podcasts and staring at pictures of young Brando. I can’t absorb sound as information if it’s just a person talking at me it’s all noise. Are you able to get anything from them they were old then they were new now they’re old again. Probably. My heart ticks to northerner priests blessed forty water that’s neither step don’t trip. Though trip I might when you’re in sight I’ll match your skin with teeth. Maybe. I wonder would it be so bad if I surrounded myself in images images I care about when I went to set something meaningful as my desktop wallpaper I couldn’t think of a single painting I like now it’s just the standard screen which since the update cycles through laugh out loud bland photographs with enough regularity that you never get to know a place or get sick of a place just accept it and not get too down about anything it’s a placeholder. Doesn’t take up so much space. I wonder would it be so bad if I knew there was something there something back from when I could guarantee there was something there I was writing down everything I ever got lost in every book movie videogame I can’t find where I spent all that time in I feel it but it’s going past in motion always the more I try to slow it down or capture it the more the details shake. I died in everything I ever cared about and I thought I’d take it all with me. And can I tell you this but it’s gotta mean more than the way it just lands in your ears promise me it will promise it means every bit and the words fall out your ankles and you just know this I wonder would it be so bad if I knew it was right there if I knew I took it with me if I thought he was right there I wonder would it be so bad.
THE BURIAL OF DOG STANLEY
The happiest day of Dog Stanley’s life was buried this morning in a cheap pine coffin as per his request (the method of burial, not his memory of the day specifically). That’s not true, or it might be depending on how you look at it, but what I mean is that the knowledge of what Dog Stanley might call the happiest day of his life is not in the possession of anyone other than Dog Stanley himself, and that Dog Stanley was buried this morning. There are two questions that we can ask here, each leading to its own frustration. First, is there anyone in the family that could tell us? Second, and this is a bit more sentimental, did anyone ever ask? The answer to both is No but rather than being in any way identical, both instances of No contradict and even obstruct one another from making any progress in what comes next: the first No is engaged in a fact finding mission that the second one sends flailing, magnifying glass and all. Nobody. Ever. Asked. What this means is that the knowledge of the happiest day of Dog Stanley’s life didn’t go to the grave this morning, but that it never existed. There was never a happiest day of Dog Stanley’s life, just that label fluttering about overhead, unable to stick to anything, forever unresolved, peering down half-embarrassed at the crowd as the first few clumps of dirt land thump and the next few thump less hollow on the cheap pine lid as per his request, as Tom and Sandra bawl their eyes out and Dog Christina sits at The Continental Motel five minutes away, paralysed in a weird grey stupor, unable to leave the room.
THE HAPPIEST DAY
The sky peeled blue on burnt church spire and a seagull shrieked its first, I love its guts. Far away the River Rea gulps kid brother’s cigs and steals Beorma’s bones to knead all thoughtful in its warm black tum, and it always will, God forbid. Further still I know its name but my clumsy tongue just won’t pronounce it, my silver teeth can’t bear to taste it, so sail off to far away in loathsome father’s sweat-stained hat. No, here the grass rattles quiet on the brow of some old god that like me knows this too shall pass, things have been worse, things always are, and thinks like me this is, it is. I’ll not got back. The seagull ate the church and in a moment shrieked no more, its blood ran black with River Rea and it choked on Arden’s ugly trees. It’s a pest if it slips through the Domesday- here’s in words for no discernible past, here’s nowhere for all to see. Because that’s the way I am and children that’s the way you’re bound to be. There was once a link but it broke, the land grew smaller from the boat, and muddied ankles soaked I’m ate, hat and all, broken Anglian bones stripped bare, and said the River ‘I love your guts- you’re no one.’
THE SADDEST DAY
Was any day he’d look out his head and find himself in the night sky and think Today I’ve not heard from my kids. He stopped seeing them as much when he moved city with the people they irrationally thought had replaced them, and within a few years both of his children were struggling to make the Skype conversations they scheduled for 7pm every Wednesday. He waited at the computer those nights ‘til he fell asleep, making sure each Wednesday morning before the fact to remind his second wife Diane and her adult son Jack that he would not be cooking or eating with them that night, and the miserablest thing is he was such a sad old angel that he never once held it against his kids when they didn’t pick up. The saddest day he thought is that way because it’s no one’s fault.
DOG CHRISTINA (2014)
Had never once travelled from out her head to find herself alone in the night sky as Dog Stanley so frequently did. At night she was her strongest and where she’d end up was anywhere better. The skies she saw were sunset pinks on warm beaches that still had people on them, laughing and splashing and eating for many hours to come, and if the night was dark she’d fight through it like it was sand and she’d always find a lighthouse. The air for her was never thin like Dog Stanley felt it was, never cold and open. She couldn’t bear to be alone, to think of it that way, she would rather die. On their nightly excursions to Muriwai beach in the summer of 1998, Dog Stanley would stare at the empty expanse and regretfully feel his presence (his heat, his breath, his eyes, his odour) trespassing on the clean cold scene, and Dog Christina would look to the hills at all the lights still on in people’s houses, the lights that made themselves known in the air and said whatever happens there is life here, no matter what there is someone here and you will never be alone.
THE LADY ON THE BEACH (2017)
Tom and Sandra drown every night while Dogs Christina and Stanley seek out beaches and hot pools in their waking hours. The persistent appearance of water in their dreams probably has less to do with any sort of family pathology than with Aotearoa’s relative narrowness as a country, as well as the plates beneath it and the lakes that the people made walking across it for the first time. There’s always a coast, a lake, a river nearby no matter where you are. And so Sandra wakes up at the bottom of the lake, Tom plummets into the coldest ocean, Dog Stanley hovers in the sky above, and Dog Christina runs through grass and bushes and over rocks and bridges until she finds the coast, and then she stops and turns back and looks for signs of life.
But now tonight she looks back and can’t find a single one. She for the first time turns back to face the water because that’s where she’d usually find Dog Stanley, out there with his back turned, but today she can’t see him anywhere. Alone on the beach, this is Dog Christina now. This is how she is.
THE LIFE THAT WAS
He loved his kids like he was made to do it, to love them no matter what, and still today his ex-wife Sandra loves and fears him with all her heart, until they both will rest forever, estranged in dirt as they were in life, as they will be soon, but with no raging thoughts in their sad dead heads.
AFTER THE BURIAL OF DOG STANLEY