Books covered in this dual review:
• The Bun Field, Amanda Vahamaki. Drawn and Quarterly. 80pp, $12.95.
• Cecil and Jordan in New York: Stories, Gabrielle Bell. Drawn and Quarterly. 112pp, $19.95.
The Bun Field
The Finnish artist Amanda Vahamaki is a relative newcomer to U.S. comics, having been published here only in the Drawn and Quarterly Showcase #5. But her debut full-length comic, The Bun Field, is an oddly powerful, lingering work, and it’s one of the strongest pieces I’ve seen in a long time, debut or otherwise.
The story is not so much surreal as it is dream-like—in fact, the entire book can be read in a quarter of an hour, about the amount of time it takes to actually /have/ a dream—and it proceeds by steps that are distinctly dream-logical.
Just to give an idea, I’ll relate the events of the first few pages: in the opening panel, Donald Duck and one of his nephews are expressing a desire to live in America, when a brontosaurus happens along and eats them both. In alternating panels during this scene, a child is shown sleeping, which implies that the scene is a dream. The sleeping child lives in a house with other children, and one of them is cracking open nuts that, disturbingly, have faces—as does most of the food in this little world. The child gets up and joins his housemates for breakfast, but at the table there’s an overbearing, doughy figure demanding food. But he can’t be fed, because the refrigerator is full of rotten food, which turns into a black goop that pours out of it as soon as the child opens the door. Soon this tableau is interrupted by a phone call for the child from a black bear, who shows up in a car and takes the child away.
And so on. Like most dreams, such sequences are tedious to describe, but as presented in Vahamaki’s deftly expressive drawings, they have an absorbing quality that draws the reader into something like a dream state, and it has much more of an impact than you expect at first. Everything about the surface of the book—its apparently naive drawing style (in ordinary pencil, resembling the sketches of bored students), its simple dialogue, its brevity (only 54 unnumbered pages of six panels each), its free-associative plot—encourages you to initially dismiss it as a slight work.
But there are subtle signs of mastery, perhaps even innovation. In a way, it ambushes you with its mastery. When you take a close look at the panels, you see that Vahamaki has struck a careful balance between gesture and fully realized drawing, and she has a light touch: I couldn’t find a single panel that looked overworked. There are many panels that appear—at first—to bear visible traces of previous attempts at the panel. But upon a second or third look, you see that these ghostly markings must be intentional, as they appear to convey one of two things: either movement before and after the instant of time that the panel depicts, or an alternate viewpoint in the same moment.
The best example of this latter is one impressive panel where a wolf is staring at a woman whose face is lightly drawn beside and half-obscured by the fully-drawn head of the wolf, giving the reader the impression of a rapid change of camera angle, seeing both what the woman sees (the wolf) and a shadow of what the wolf sees in the same instant. This is a device I don’t recall having seen in other comics, and if its genesis was accidental in the earlier pages, it was clearly applied intentionally in the later pages.
In the final pages it becomes clear that the opening sequence wasn’t a dream after all: Vahamaki brings us back, in the very last panels, to the scene of the very first panels, where the hungry brontosaurus is clearly present in “reality.” It’s a move that can only be a wink in the direction of Finnegans Wake, and it suggests that the whole comic is meant to be taken as a complete dream sequence in itself.
Cecil and Jordan in New York
Gabrielle Bell’s first hardback collection of comics, Lucky, was a 2006 compilation of the black-and-white diary comics that she had been publishing under the same title over the previous three years. The first installments featured rapidly-sketched, cartoonish figures and extremely text-heavy panels: some of them consisted almost entirely of narrative text combined with speech bubbles, the characters and backgrounds squeezed in around them, it seemed, only to spare Bell the trouble of describing them and using quotation marks. But later on the drawings became more sophisticated and expressive, and there were even moments when all talk would cease, and the story would proceed with panel after panel of nearly text-free imagery.
But one of the hallmarks of Lucky was Bell’s consistent habit, as her skills developed, of experimenting with her visual style, taking a slightly different approach with nearly every story; and her latest book, a collection of eleven mostly-fictional stories entitled Cecil and Jordan in New York, is evidence that she hasn’t given up that restless habit. Over the past couple of years, whenever I noticed that Bell had published something in an anthology, I’d flip to it first, out of sheer curiosity to see what it would look like this time.
The most striking difference from Lucky is Bell’s use of color in many of the new stories. Of those that do use color, most of them use it only as a background tint that suits the mood (a bluish-purple for the melancholy “Helpless,” for example), but the title story, which was adapted into a short film by Michel Gondry (in Tokyo!),—is the most brightly-colored of them all, done entirely in what looks to be gouache.
That one is pleasant to look at but almost a little too bright, and the story where Bell has experimented most successfully with color—and it would be among the strongest stories in the book even if it were in black and white—is the 34-page “Felix,” which originally appeared in the Drawn and Quarterly Showcase #4. The plot concerns a young woman named Anna in art school who routinely gets subjected to scathing critiques by her teacher. (“She doesn’t paint, but draws with her brush,” he says of one of her paintings.) In the course of the story, a star painter notices her work and hires her to teach his son, Felix, to draw—although it eventually comes out that the star painter pretty much agrees with her teacher about her work. (“You know enough about painting to impress a twelve-year-old,” he says, and not much more.) At its heart, the story is about the friendship that develops between Anna and her student Felix, and it’s about the basic pleasures of making art in spite of the vast pretentiousness and faddishness that surrounds it in the real world. You get the feeling that Bell suffered through a similar experience at art school, and made a similar peace with these contradictions herself at some point.
“Felix” is representative of Bell at her best—it’s a straightforward story well-told, with characters recognizable from life, that causes you to reflect on similar stories from your own life, and on similar dilemmas that you have had to resolve. “Robot DJ” is about a woman’s long relationship with a punk band she got obsessed with in high school; “Hit Me” is a story of schoolyard bullying; “Helpless” is a Ghost World–like story of two teenage girls trying to avoid death by boredom in their town; “I Feel Nothing” and “Year of the Arowana” are tales of unexpected seduction by strange men, successful and otherwise.
Bell also has a charming flair for whimsical surrealism that never gets tedious, perhaps because she employs it so infrequently—in the title story, a woman turns herself into a chair in order to escape her problems, and another story starts when a woman is captured by a giant—but Bell’s her stories set in the real world that have the most lasting impact, and that will stay with you long after reading.
Jeremy Hatch is a book reviewer for various websites and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him blogging on arts and literature at JeremyHatch.com.
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