Rob reviews the recent translation of Finnish artist Amanda Vahamaki's THE BUN FIELD (Drawn & Quarterly).
The interpretation of dreams is much like the interpretation of any event: subject to a retroactive narrative of a primary experience. It's the same principle regarding the aesthetic experience vs. an interpretation of that experience--you can talk about it, and around it, and understand its origins and experiences, but the interpretation is not the same thing as the experience. It never can be. In much the same way, Amanda Vahamaki's THE BUN FIELD feels like an artist's best attempt to directly transcribe her own subconscious, but even that level of interpretation perhaps assumes a bit too much. This is a story with loose connections that follow the experience of a single character that starts off with a cartoonish but horrific dream and then delves into an even more cartoonish and horrific reality. The main character takes these events at face value and so must the reader.
That said, Vahamaki's art has a loose, scribbly quality to it that reflects immediacy and urgency. It feels like this was frantically scribbled into the artist's own sketchbook. Some of the images are actually beautifully rendered, while some panels retain the erasure marks of first tries. One of the ways in which comics are unique is that it's very easy to leave in those sort of tracings to reflect a change of artistic agency on a given page, an act that deconstructs both the act of drawing and reading the page. Seeing the artist's hand in such a direct way changes the way we perceive it but doesn't take us out of the narrative itself. It's one more story element that we simply must accept, just like a bear driving a car or an amateur dentist replacing the protagonist's tooth with a dog's tooth.
There are a number of recurring images and situations in THE BUN FIELD. The characters all obsess on eating, and in particular not having enough of or non-spoiled food. The protagonist is on some kind of journey, but it's not clear if she's moving toward or away from something. Indeed, aimlessness and the interminable length of journeys (represented by a number of panels tracking a tedious path) seem to be part of the equation here. The threat of death or personal injury always lurks, though it should be noted that the only significant injury the narrator sustains came when she tripped and fell on her face. Despite that vague sense of menace, there's an air of silliness as well, like the conversation the protagonist has with the bear driving a car, plowing a field of living buns, and the way various animals talk to her. Above all else, this comic seems to deal with how agency is frustrated in our dreams. The protagonist can't drive, can't decide where to go, can't finish a grisly job and eventually can't stop crying. The line between dream and reality is irrelevant here in very much the same way our own dreams can feel so very real.
In the end, that line between dream and reality is given a very deliberate wink as the dinosaur that pops up in the protagonist's dream reveals itself in "reality" to one of her friends. The protagonist is unable to overcome her grief (and guilt)-induced paralysis and so doesn't return home, despite being told that all is forgiven. This is a journey comic where things get progressively worse and eventually traps the protagonist into hopelessness. In a different comic, the dreamlike signifiers shown in this book would have an obvious story reference to tell the reader what they represent. Instead, it's the signifiers themselves that carry the weight of the book. The reader can guess at the potential underlying emotions (grief, guilt, despair) of those signifiers, but in the end it's all about the journey, not its beginnings. As a result, Vahamaki has created a bold variation on the hoary convention of the dream comic, one that trusts the reader to take each image as it is and react to the feelings we see on panel, not the feelings we guess they represent.