Monday, March 6, 2017

Retrotfit: Paloma Dawkins' SummerLand and Karine Bernadou's Canopy

SummerLand, by Paloma Dawkins. Retrofit is certainly casting their net wide as they've truly become the American answer to Latvia's Kus!. Their willingness to publish work by young cartoonists or cartoonists who work in other media as well has created (along with Frontier, of course) has created a limited, serialized anthology that's clearly much easier to publish and distribute than an actual anthology collection. It also obviously allows the spotlight to fall on one cartoonist at a time. In the case of SummerLand, it's much less about story than it is about memory and the perfect aesthetic moment. In the beginning of the story, when cousins Gwen & Santana meet to put on a play, the psychedelic, day-glo colors that shift from page-to-page as the day they spend together goes by aren't simply decorative; they are meant to evoke a sense of the hyper-real, where moment-to-moment living takes slows down and one can see and experience all of the beauty around you as though one was under the influence of psychedelic drugs. In such an instance, color gradations and changes in light in particular are highly noticeable and powerful events, and they provide an imprint that goes along with the actual experiences and interpersonal exchanges that can occur during such events.

The second part of the story takes place years later, when Santana is a lawyer and Gwen is a famous actress/model but is incredibly unhappy. The pages have a more muted quality and a great sense of sameness in terms of color, representing a kind of blandness and stasis in day-to-day living--even for someone who has apparently achieved her dreams. The line drawings, which were simple and elegant as they took a back seat to the use of color, suddenly became grotesque and warped in the second part of the story. The final pages see Santana meeting up with an old friend, who shows her something beautiful as a way of reminding her of what can be and what she is as a person, and the pages dramatically shifted to the same kind of spectacular colors seen earlier in the book. The story and message here are simple, as it's the aesthetics of the comic that take center stage, along with an understanding of how just important aesthetics are with regard to finding meaning in one's life.

Canopy, by Karine Bernadou. This odd comic makes extensive use of blood-red colors in its silent tale of a young girl left in the forest to fend for herself. It is in turns whimsical, erotic, terrifying and mystical, as she learns to survive, thrive and understand the universe she's been born into. The big-eyed, red-skinned girl and her family look like Picasso drawings from his primitivist period (like Les Demoiselles d'Avignon), down to the detail that her father looks like he's wearing a "primitive's" mask. The story is one of her negotiating her environment, and in particular negotiating the many kind of men that came her way. The story is a brutal, hilarious assessment of these men and her honest willingness to engage with them as well as her strength in forcing them out of her life when they prove to be toxic or dangerous.

Her father becomes a sort of idealized figure for her, as she flashes back to childhood with him (in pages that are all red) in pages that seems as much fantasy as they are reverie, doing things like chasing each other around, making each other punch themselves as puppets, surviving a flood, squeezing each other flat and slowly switching ages. These are sweet pages that still have an air of weirdness to them, in the sense that the reader has the idea that the young woman doesn't really know her father and she knows this as well, which colors her memories a bit. The other men in the story range from a brute savior who leaves her and forces her to figure things out on her own, to a vicious "gardener" who harvests female body parts so as to devour them (how's that for a sexual assault metaphor?) that she outwits thanks to some rebellious body parts from the garden, and a giant male flower who begs her to take him with her. Needing water and lacking any in the area, she simply puts the stem of the flower inside herself in one of the most strikingly strange and yet tender images in the book.
There's a musician whom she becomes infatuated with who's drawn to the siren call of mermaids, which she kills and roasts over a fire for dinner. (He wandered off after that.) There was the return of the faceless brute, who just wanted to steal her face. She kills him and gets it back, but she finds herself having to pop little growths that look like him all over her body--a remarkable metaphor for PTSD. She is most certainly not herself after that encounter, one that seemed to bring her a man that was like her father until it was clear that she was dealing with a toxic narcissist. That encounter left her broken, as her flower died and she left, going to sleep and pulling the night sky around her for a blanket that was magically transformed into a dress. For the first time, she had her sense of style and protection as she was able to heal from her trauma enough to take care of herself and even thrive. When she finally encounters what seems to be her father again, he tries to strangle her, but she escapes and is ready to kill him, only to see that he's died and that his blood quickly grows a magical tree, at the top of which is a sexy male fox that she gets drunk with and has sex with. For the first time, however, the woman is empowered in a way she wasn't before, as she puts her dress back on and simply walks away. It's a remarkable journey of discovery, growth and empowerment, as no masculine force ever rescues her. She engages masculine forces until she understands how to protect herself and engage them on her terms. It's a savage, vicious book that doesn't pull its punches, and yet the rite-of-passage quality it possesses is distinctive and strangely sweet. The simple, cartoony line drawings and use of color make it both unpretentiously beautiful to look at and and frequently visually shocking.

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