Passage by Tessa Brunton
$6.50 (buy it here –> http://tessab.net/store/ )
Comics, as far as I am concerned, are a visual art. Yes, it is storytelling, and yes you need good writing, good dialogue, and a sense of verbal narrative and characterization, but it is a visual medium at heart. So, when I look for a comic to buy, I look. And it has to be visually engaging to me. I do not stand in the corner of a comic shop and read the whole comic to see if I like the writing. I might read a panel or a paragraph, but it has to speak to me visually and artistically. So, when I saw Passage by Tessa Brunton, I wanted to buy it immediately. I think Brunton’s strongest artwork is when she goes head-first into cross-hatching and heavy use of ink. Her color cover, while interesting enough for me to pick up the book, seems flattened in comparison to her interior art. I was drawn to the the wallpaper of all things, in part, because I myself draw repeating pattern wallpaper in my comics and illustration. It is something I picked up from Edward Gorey, and although there can be some comparisons to Gorey in Brunton’s art, it also reminds me of the art style of Richard Sala (her depiction of creepy masks also leads me in the Sala direction), and her illustration of the “fertility parade” sends my visual memory directly to Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Just as Brunton’s art style has its own influences and antecedents, the subject matter of Passage is inherited as well–the tried-and-true genre of reflecting on a “coming of age” moment. It is the story of two quirky kids in a quirky household and how their parents choose to celebrate their arrival into adulthood.
What I loved about this comic: I really loved the detailing of the artwork and how there are cultural references and character clues to find throughout the book. It’s not like a Where’s Waldo book, rather, it is more like an I Spy book. I found myself looking to see what was written on each character’s shirt. I scoured the back cover illustration of a bookshelf. I was happy to see the I Ching, and a copy of The Hobbit. There is also a bookshelf shown inside, and I made sure to see what books were there. Because Brunton has a fairly dense line style, things like book titles on shelves and names or logos on shirts do not stand out, and yet I think they are very telling and develop characterization. So, these little details are important and yet subtle. To get the full effect of this story, you have to look at each panel carefully, let it sink in, and keep looking.
The centerfold illustration is just gorgeous (it’s not actually the centerfold, but I will refer to it as such). I still pick up books about the Middle Ages and other eras that have cut-away illustrations of buildings (like castles), and I love maps, and this double-page spread just sends me reeling. I am going to ostracize myself here by saying that I am not a fan of Chris Ware’s art. It reminds me too much of Ikea furniture assembly instructions. It does not look like it was made by a human. It looks like it could be done on a CAD program. There, I said it. I love seeing old maps that have ink splotches and tiny little imperfections. I like to see where a nib separated and the ink ran out or the mark of a stray bristle of a sable brush. When I see an illustration where I know that each line was laid down by hand, I can see its productive value. So, that centerfold illustration is just intoxicating to me. Love the use of dotted lines and arrows. Love the cut-away of the walls and roof.
What I did not so much love about this comic: This seems like an episode in a larger narrative. I might also say that after reading it, I almost felt like it may have worked better as a short illustrated book, keeping the artwork just as it is, but having the art on opposing pages of much expanded text. And as much as I enjoyed this book, it seems like I can easily place it into the artist’s “formative early works.” I think comics creators ask themselves, “Hmm, what kind of comic should I make?” and it is all too easy to answer, “I will write about a formative event of my youth.” The genre of the Bildungsroman is kind of like an outgrowth of a writing class exercise. I loved reading the novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, so as a natural progression I then read his other works, namely The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, his first novel. And guess what? It reads like a “first novel.” It reads like a novel written by someone just out of grad school, because he was. It is miles behind his other books in terms of style and accomplishment. So, I think this comic could have been and should have been more ambitious. Of course, this is a kind of a back-handed compliment to Brunton, because I really liked this book, and I want to read more of her stuff. And for the record, I am not reading this comic as straight-up autobiography, and do not want to suggest that it is. When reading comics or any writing, we have to be careful not to read the character depicted as a direct analogue of the author.
Overall: Any comic that can make me laugh out loud, have me instantly fall in love with a page of art (the double-page cutaway diagram of the house), and keep me looking for more and more details in the art is a really good comic. The multi-panel depiction of the xenomorph from Alien was hilarious and enviable (I kind of want to make that page into a poster). And the brief reference to a more serious matter (a possible rape or other sexual abuse) later in the book added depth to the story. I thought it was well done, because it hints at more story to come, but it does not seem thrown in. It really makes me want to know more of what happens to her. In the end, I already know that this book will hold up to several re-readings, which is another sign of quality in my book. This book is a delight for the eyes, and the characters, it seem, call for and deserve more story. It is a shame it took me this long to find this book.