Monday, May 1, 2017

Uncivilized/Odod: Musnet, volumes 1 & 2

The artist known as Kickliy (their identity a closely-held secret for some reason) has crafted a remarkable series about a mouse who comes to be named Musnet and his love of painting. Indeed, the entire series is a love letter to the art and craft of painting and the possibilities of self-expression, particularly in the way that Impressionism was such a startling change from previous styles of art. This is a sweeping epic that is nonetheless made up of numerous quiet moments, as Kickliy is clearly content to take their time in telling this story. The colors are lush without being distracting or garish, giving the reader something to enjoy looking at as the narrative unfolds. The character designs are simple, straightforward and cute without being cloying. The story of the would-be painter mouse is one where the garden and the house are full of fun & adventure, but death also lurks around every corner. It's charming without being sanitized.

The first volume of Musnet, The Mouse of Monet, focuses on the young mouse coming to be the apprentice of a cranky old squirrel painter, in the shadow of the house of Monet. It slowly establishes his friendship with the girl mouse he meets at the beginning of the book (Mya) and how he is able to talk the old painter (Remi) into being his mentor. It's also a long look at the craft of painting, from how to stretch a canvas, how to mix paint and how to hold a brush. It's marvelously modest, low-key and charming, even when we are introduced to the grieving Monet himself. Kickliy slowly establishes the series' status quo, as Musnet works with Remi and moves into the big house with Mya's family. The mixture of wit, ambition and melancholy makes for an interesting tone for the series. All at once, the reader is being shown something old that's dying out (Remi's style of painting), the future of art in Musnet, the anguish of Monet and the longing for a sense of being part of something greater than himself in Musnet.

With the premise established, Kickliy complicates things in volume 2, Impressions Of The Master. As opposed to the uncertainty that opened the first book, this volume opens with a picnic, symbolic of Musnet's becoming friends with Mya (who is a writer) but also symbolic of his relentless work ethic in trying to please his mentor. Kickliy then turns that bit of reverie and character-building into a life-or-death chase as Musnet manages to outwit a snake and an owl who are looking to turn him into a meal. There's a funny sequence where the mouse enters a maze (a lovely bit of visual storytelling/problem-solving), the introduction of a major new character (a spider named Chiby), threats from landlords, and other concerns. There's another major action sequence where Musnet and his friends rescue Mya's father from the owl.

Its end is gentle,as Musnet has struck out on his own and relishes the company of his friends. Though each volume is just 54 pages, the sheer density of each page and the album size of the book make this a highly satisfying read. The books consistently avoid cliche' and predictability. There are some gentle lessons taught about friendship and being part of something, but it's far from didactic. The books focus on the importance of balancing hard work with spending time with friends, of being honest about feelings and having the courage of one's convictions. Kickliy balances gags & silliness, character moments and exciting action scenes with aplomb, never allowing the book to fall into a pattern. Add to that the simple and expressive beauty of each page as a separate art to appreciate with the fluidity of the storytelling, and you have a book that's both easy to love and admire.

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