Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Sequart Reprints: The Squirrel Mother

This article was originally published at sequart.com in 2006.
Megan Kelso has been a comics mainstay since the early 90's. She was the first woman to receive a Xeric grant, and she used it to publish the first two issues of Girlhero. Her interest in political issues and an artistic style that owed little to other comics made her unusual amongst her artistic peer group. This was a Seattle-based enclave that included Jason Lutes (Berlin), Tom Hart (Hutch Owen), Jon Lewis (True Swamp), David Lasky (Urban Hipster), and Ed Brubaker (then known for Lowlife, now a genre comics writer). Of course, women in comics were still fairly unusual at that time. In the span of a decade, it's remarkable to see the explosion of women writing and drawing comics. It's clear that Kelso has been a big influence on these younger generations.

That achievement has been tempered by the frustration that went along with self-publishing. Kelso's had a history of difficulties with publishing. Putting out eight issues of Girlhero and dealing with the usual glitches associated with printers and distributors made her want to find a way to concentrate on just creating the comics. Those issues generated enough material to collect in a book. The publisher she was working with, Black Eye, dissolved. She then went to Tom Devlin's Highwater Books. In the future, what Highwater did needs to be closely analyzed. Suffice it to say that this publisher nurtured and discovered some of the most interesting avant-garde artists of the comics world, and its influence today is profound. Kelso's collection Queen of the Black Black was one of Highwater's first major releases.

Like many small publishers, Highwater was pretty much a one-man operation and its output slowed until the company folded. This was at a time when Kelso's ambitions grew. She put together an impressive anthology comprised entirely of women artists called Scheherazade, but its publication was severely marred by serious printing errors and a lack of subsequent support by the publisher, Soft Skull. Kelso has since completely disassociated herself from its publication. Kelso's luck with publishers had been nothing but bad, but that changed when she signed with Fantagraphics. Bolstered by all that money rolling in from publishing the collected Peanuts, the company was adding new talent at a furious rate. With the growing success of comics in the bookstore market, Kelso was finally in the right place at the right time.

Kelso has been steadily contributing to various anthologies over the years. Her submission to the hugely influential Non #5 (published by Jordan Crane) was an extended chapter of "Artichoke Tales." Other chapters of this larger story have appeared in anthologies like Rosetta (Alternative) and even Eros-published Dirty Stories. Once completed, this story of love and war with fantasy elements should make a huge splash. The chapters that have been published so far are excellent. The characters are fully-formed, the art is simple yet exquisite, and the fantasy elements allow Kelso to play around with all sorts of ideas and metaphors. What's interesting is how the process of writing this epic is just part of a prolific creative wave for her. In each anthology she's appeared in, her contribution has been one of that book's top standouts. Five years worth of short stories and minicomics allowed her to put together a 150 page collection: The Squirrel Mother.

What makes Kelso one of my favorite artists is her total devotion to the medium and a constant desire to improve. In a Comics Journal interview from 1999, she noted that she had "this feeling...of being right on the brink of doing really brilliant work, but not being quite able to reach it". Everything in The Squirrel Mother came from after this point, and it's clear to me that somewhere along the line, she made that leap to greatness. The stories within, many of them written at the same time she was working on Artichoke Tales came about because she wanted to do something different. Working with a number of different techniques both in form and narrative, she also said that she was able to apply the lessons she learned to her larger work.

What was the key that allowed Kelso to go from being good to great? I would say that it was a simple refinement of her style. She works in the clear-line tradition but like many young artists, didn't always trust in that economy of that line. Some of her earliest work (like the "Bottlecap" stories from Girlhero) is over-rendered, and she relies on extraneous blacks in some other panels. In The Squirrel Mother, those early process difficulties disappear. It helps that a number of the stories utilize color, and that the production values here are extremely high. (In fact, Tom Devlin designed the book.) Certainly, having the opportunity to have her comics look exactly the way she wants in print is important, but that would be meaningless without the level of excellence she's reached as a writer and artist. I've mostly talked about Kelso's art in this article, but it's her visuals combined with her verbal wit that makes a reader not only linger on the page, but return to the stories. I read the collection three times before writing this review, and I found myself getting more out of not just the stories themselves each time, but finding myself impressed by how the stories were sequenced.

There's not a single wasted line or word in this collection. Kelso pared away all that was extraneous, and the result was a group of character studies that provide the essence of each person. "Person" is the key word here-each character is not simply a plot device, but rather someone that comes alive in just a few pages, words and brush strokes. At the same time, Kelso leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Some of her best stories are vague as to character motivations, providing hints but never making it explicit.

Kelso often tries to depict things on the page that are difficult to get across in both words and images: music, emotions, memory. She also used a technique of concurrent narratives in the same story. The two narratives can be read separately but comment on each other. This is part of a larger technique of having the words in a story in tension or conflict with the images. Even in more straightforward stories, Kelso does little things to break up the narrative.

Let's start with the title story. The figures are iconic and the colors are kept to a simple palette of greens, browns, yellows and pinks. This is an example of two narratives commenting on each other. One narrative, running in small panels at the top of each page, tells the tale of a mother squirrel who must take care of her children alone. Eventually, as the captions tell us, she grows frustrated, wants to do other things and abandons her children. The economy with which she tells this part of the story is fantastic. Because this segment was written to resemble a fairy tale of sorts, the mother squirrel has a house and lives like a human. There's one particular panel that's especially heartbreaking: she has decided to leave and is packing up her clothes in a suitcase. She looks out her open window (a slight breeze blowing through) to see the hills and the big city beyond, a look of longing and sadness on her face. The other narrative is about a human mother and her child. She's in the same situation as the mother squirrel--she has to take of a child by herself, and is clearly thinking about what else she could be doing, only she doesn't leave. The story is a subdued one, and the color matches that mood.

The next several stories are dominated by images, with the words (when they're there) mostly there to provide clues and ballast for the drawings. "Kodachrome" shows a family looking at photos from a camping trip, with Kelso providing us with other images of what really happened. "Nettie's Left-Handed Flute" and "On The Beautiful Blue Danube" are poetic little strips depicting the power of music on the page. The former depicts a young girl in awe of an older girl's mastery over the flute and its effect on others. The latter is a beautiful evocation of mother-daughter relationships and the way music brings up different emotions and memories. "Bills" is a twisted little story about the way children internalize and then externalize negative feelings, with a disturbing ending that is presented with great subtlety.

There are three other stories that make use of contrasting narratives. "The Pickle Fork" is another downbeat tale. On the one hand, there's a fairy-tale aspect at work here, as a rich pickle fork marries a poor spoon and brings her into his life, promising to breed a dynasty with her, with their names on placards. They wind up being part of a darker, "real-life" story. A widow whose husband owned a huge, expansive set of silver is being pressured by a museum curator to donate it, promising to have a wing named after them. The widow's maid tries to see the wing in the museum, but the curator lied about it. The sad tale has a hopeful ending, as we see that the maid has taken the original fork and spoon--and the last panel of their arc shows them flying free. Kelso's clear-line approach is at its absolute finest here, expressive and almost whimsical.

The next story in this vein is "Split Rock, Montana". Here, the captions tell a tale of a girl who may or may not be the same girl depicted in the art and dialogue. The story is about desperation, survival and finding ways to empower oneself. "Green River" is the only overtly autobiographical story in the collection. One narrative concerns the Green River Killer in Washington, the places where his victims were found, and Kelso's emotional reaction. The other is a sequence from her teenage years when the murders were occurring and she was working at a fast-food joint. When the murderer was found years later, Kelso says that she was surprised that she wanted to see him hang--but it's not surprising by seeing the fear in her eyes toward the end of the other narrative, perhaps imagining that one of her customers was the killer.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the best stories in the collection are some of the newest. "Meow Face" is an enigmatic tale of a young woman and her aunt, filled with sadness and lost opportunities. There's also a trio of stories concerning founding father Alexander Hamilton; interestingly, each story is told from the narrative viewpoint of a woman and wind up as some of Kelso's most directly political work.

"Meow Face" is told simply, with about 4 panels a page. The colors are deployed carefully to draw the eye to certain figures--there are plenty of panels where items unimportant to the narrator are in black & white, and more vivid panels that are bursting with color. The story begins with a teen selling a burger to a woman who turns out to be her aunt, known as "Meow Face" to the locals because all she says is "meow". The young girl recounts staying with her aunt, a woman who dressed like a frump in public but who had extraordinary taste in clothing in private. When staying with her aunt and playing dress-up with her, she suggests that they go out. Her aunt freaks out, shutting down emotionally and later locking her out of her apartment. Exactly why she did this is not made explicit, but there was something about her that was incapable of translating her inner self to the world at large. When confronted by her niece so directly, something inside of her snapped. What's interesting to me is the niece and her reaction to the incident. While upset at the time, she looks back on the incident almost with fondness, and speaks warmly of her aunt. In her own way, she's been just as damaged by life as her aunt. We don't know the details, but the emotional clues are there.

The trio of Hamilton stories offer a serious but slightly off-kilter look at our first Secretary of the Treasury. The first story, "Publius" is a witty & slightly naughty story of a modern student smitten with Hamilton who dreams that Hamilton & James Madison were lovers while writing The Federalist Papers. "The Duel" reimagines Hamilton's famous duel with his political archenemy Thomas Jefferson instead of Aaron Burr. What Kelso rightly points out is that the conflict between Hamilton and Jefferson (federal control vs states' rights, urban vs rural, meritocracy vs aristocracy) was the conflict that tore apart America in the 1800's and continues to divide sides even today. But in Kelso's eloquent turn of phrase, "That duel never happened. Instead they remain forever opposed, pistols cocked, aiming for each other's heads and we the people forever suspended between them." Hamilton was undeniably brilliant, but his temper and pride (perhaps fueled by his humble roots) proved to be his constant undoing. "Aide De Camp" focuses on the relationship between Hamilton and George Washington: two proud men who made each other better. Washington needed Hamilton's abilities as thinker, strategist, visionary and speechmaker. Hamilton needed Washington's respect and mentorship, someone who could rein him in while taking him seriously. The fact that the USA wound up more in the image of Hamilton than Jefferson underlines how important the relationship between these two crucial founders truly was, even if Hamilton is no longer a household name. This story is told through the eyes of a woman retiring from her position as head of Daughters of the Federalists, on the eve of Nixon's resignation. The contrast between Washington voluntarily stepping down from power (with Hamilton writing his farewell speech) and Nixon's disgrace is clear, made more poignant with the narrator's own retirement.

It should be apparent to all that The Squirrel Mother is a strong candidate for Book of the Year for 2006. There's not a weak entry in here, and the stories are completely unlike anything else in the world of alternative comics. Kelso eschews autobiography and memoir, though there is certainly much of the author to be found in the stories. The book freely dips its toe into fantasy without ever devolving into genre. The design is flawless, with touches like representative icons heading up each chapter. Kelso is not wildly inventive on a formal basis, though she does use interesting techniques when the story calls for it. Kelso's art is all about the narrative. Every word and every line advances the story; there are no extraneous pyrotechnics. Indeed, Kelso's line is more elegant than spectacular. There's a simplicity in her prose that is rewarded with multiple readings. It feels like a collection of hidden treasures, each more surprising and rewarding than the next. As someone who has sworn to create comics "until she's an old lady", I eagerly await not only the upcoming Artichoke Tales, but what she's capable of during the rest of her career.

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