3 Panels is a monthly column examining graphic novels and their influences on everyday life.
Staring down the long barrel of the COVID-19 pandemic, my life has flashed before my eyes in my own personal remake of Sliding Doors (1998). (If you’re unfamiliar with the movie, Gwyneth Paltrow plays Helen, a woman whose life unfolds in two different timelines, depending on whether she catches a train or not — its sliding doors closing in her face.) I’ve found myself contemplating the choices I’ve made. What if I never had children? What if I never got married? What if I were living alone? What if I had moved closer to my family? In my Sliding Doors moments, I think a lot about safety and security. It almost seems expected to slip into the fantasy imaginings of a better life when our current living conditions are literally killing us. We become consumed by the what ifs of our past, present, and future.
Chronophage, written by Tim Seeley and illustrated by Ilias Kyriazis (Humanoids, February 2022), is a sci-fi and (body) horror graphic novel that delves into the consequences of what ifs. Time manipulation is a major plot point as the novel centers Chloe Lawal, a Black woman and single mother who dreams of creating her own fashion line. Leaving work one night, she blacks out before entering a nearby bar where she meets the handsome Heath Doran, a Czech businessman. They immediately hook up and, for a blissful moment, all of her worries fall away.
Chloe’s life is a mess. Work monopolizes her life as she juggles two jobs. She struggles to rein in Kai, her 17-year-old daughter who drinks, does drugs, and clings to a boyfriend who cheats on her. When Chloe and Kai argue, which is often, Kai accuses her mother of never wanting her. Heath quickly becomes a stable respite for Chloe. He adores her fashion ideas, encourages her, and loves her. They have passionate sex—their entwined bodies multiplying and spiraling across brightly colored panels with an otherworldly aura.
You don’t have to read too far into the graphic novel to sense that an underlying, parasitic force is undermining Chloe’s life. She experiences random blackouts that are unacknowledged. The specter of a mutilated woman suddenly haunts her apartment bathroom, and even though we’ve seen this woman’s face appear on Chloe’s phone before, Chloe doesn’t recognize her. And then there’s the title of the novel, which quite literally means “time eater.” Time is eaten in obvious and subtle ways throughout the novel: Chloe often runs late, there’s never enough time for important conversations; there are minor narrative leaps post-blackouts, and characters’ personality traits shift.
Chronophage is an impressive brainchild of Tim Seeley and Ilias Kyriazis. Seeley is the writer of New York Times best-sellers Grayson, Nightwing, and Injustice v. Masters of the Universe, and Kyriazis is an award-winning artist who has worked on DC Comics’ Collapser and Melody. The skill of their artistry jumps off the panels, injecting fresh energy and motion in an already imaginative storyline. As the repetitive consumption of Chloe’s life is whittled down to a fine point, Seeley and Kyriazis excavate the consequences of desire and perfection. They don’t pull their punches when they finally show us how a parasitic relationship between desire and perfection can end in unimaginable heartbreak.
Chronophage brilliantly highlights its characters’ complexities, particularly Chloe. It’s more than a story about a sad mom getting her groove back. It’s about the delicateness of human nature. About how one person’s powerful longing can disrupt lives. We see Chloe’s dreams and regrets — we see her completely. The novel’s climactic reveal is an astounding visual. A marvel of villain design and detail that is at once grotesque horror and clever mythology. We immediately see how great the stakes are for Chloe and those closest to her. When the realization of how ill-equipped we — Chloe and reader alike — are for this conflict, it’s truly a gag worthy moment.
Whenever I read comics and graphic novels where the main antagonist is quite literally larger than life, an overpowered supernatural being that exists beyond comprehensible limits of space and time, I cannot fathom how the protagonist will gain the upper hand, especially when they’re not super-powered. It’s a question that many of us are asking ourselves now. How can we gain the upper hand when our well-being is situated in the hands of others, making decisions and pulling invisible strings? How can we gain control when it feels like our lives are falling apart?
In many comics universes, overcoming the Big Bad hinges on realizing the value of humanity, or the collective strength of New Yorkers, or some abstract power that aggregates when riotous crowds of people unite against a large extraterrestrial force. In this case, Chronophage pulls us back down to the individual level, to Chloe, and gives us a more tangible element of humanity to reconcile the grandness of the villain.
So much of what Chloe (and her mother and her daughter) have experienced is generational trauma related to maternal care. And so much of what Chloe experiences from the chronophage is also generational. To break that trauma requires a great personal sacrifice. To stand firm and reject the falsehoods of perfection in the now to instead create a better generation in the future.
Chronophage is not a hero story, but it’s absolutely a metaphor for the what ifs. What if you or I, like Chloe, got everything we wanted, but with the consequence of not having our original lived experiences? I don’t know what that would look like for me. I only know how much more capable, fuller, and vibrant I am having had those experiences. Sometimes we become overwhelmed by life’s broad scope when really we need to appreciate the smaller moments that make up the mosaic of our lives. There’s some truth in the refrain that Chloe repeats toward the novel’s conclusion: “The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have.”