By Ben Kooyman
Pictures and word balloons go together like bacon and eggs. But sometimes it’s nice to hold the pork and go full egg, and likewise there’s a certain pleasure to be derived from a well-executed, purely visual story like Louie Joyce’s Footsteps (our review) or Jen Breach and Douglas Holgate’s Maralinga (our review). This week’s double review looks at two texts which rely predominantly on their visuals (or entirely in the latter’s case) for storytelling: Fly the Colour Fantastica and Vowels.
Anthony has already shown some love to Fly the Colour Fantastica elsewhere on Australian Comics Journal, promoting it in a Radio Adelaide appearance (listen here) and interviewing contributor/Women in Aus Comics founder Alisha Jade (read here). But somewhat selfishly, I’m glad the book winged my way for review. Edited by Vikki Ong and Eri Kashima, the book is an anthology featuring twelve short vignettes from twelve Australian (mainly Melbourne and Sydney-based) women comics creators. A labour of love crowdfunded into a polished hardcover product, each section deals with a different theme and is rendered with a corresponding, limited palette of core colours. The tales themselves are all fantastical episodes, populated by Miyazaki-esque heroines and modernised Disney Princess characters who experience both mundane and extraordinary encounters, who are whisked from the mundane into the extraordinary, and whose everyday mundanity is our own extraordinary, and in the process they confirm or consolidate their self-possession.
While the collection has been characterised as a celebration of colour and a showcase for Australian women comics creators, it’s also a striking testament to the ability of visuals sans dialogue and narration to carry the storytelling load and convey story, plot, character, and theme. In fact, the section that feels most disconnected, Sam Jacobin’s ‘Clarity’, is chock-full of conversation. Whilst it’s by no means a weak story, its reliance on dialogue makes it feel anomalous in the collection and somewhat crowded with speech balloons, particularly in the volume’s A5 format. Otherwise, most stories are largely, if not entirely, unencumbered with text.
Highlights of the collection include a pair of sweet, thoughtful tales which open the volume, Natasha Sim’s ‘Serendipity‘—about the dry land friendship between a mermaid and delivery boy—and Sheree Chiang’s ‘Permanence’, another account of unconventional friendship; Viet-My Bui’s ‘Belonging’, with its eye popping design and colour; and Sai Nitivoranant’s ‘Unity’ and Nadia’s Attlee’s ‘Acceptance’, artistically disparate stories that both utilise parallel narratives. While colour, women protagonists, and a certain manga influence are recurring characteristics, each story charts its own artistic course and uses its core colours differently, be it the faded tones of ‘Permanence’ befitting it’s autumnal temperament or the stronger, more potent tints of ‘Belonging’. While clarity of storytelling isn’t 100% in some of the stories, those works are generally striving for and accomplish a certain baroque or elemental effect, explicitly making panel to panel continuity a secondary priority. Overall, there’s much that’s potent and beautiful betwixt Fly the Colour Fantastica‘s sturdy covers.
Where text lingers in Fly the Colour Fantastica, Vowels jettisons text entirely. Or more precisely, it jettisons all the consonants, leaving only five vowels in their wake. Written and illustrated by Skye Ogden and first published in 2007, Vowels scored a Gold Ledger in 2008. Like Fly the Colour Fantastica, the work is organised into themed sections with their own vignettes, each built around a different time period and a different vowel – A, E, I, O, U – with Ogden leaving the reader to interpret how the titular vowel figures into the story. For instance, ‘A’ depicts the pursuit of a frog-like biped by a sparring Neanderthal couple, and the titular A could stand for animal, or aggression, or amorous (the Neanderthals enjoy some post-chase action), or something completely different, or simply be a marker of the era, i.e. the year A. The Neanderthals appear in subsequent segments, yet the focus shifts to other bug-eyes biped critters and their adventures in this strange land, which could be a heavily embellished prehistoric past or an alternate reality or de-evolved future. Ultimately, the specifics don’t matter too much: the pleasure lies in the panache of Ogden’s visual storytelling, and the broader theme of survival in a topsy turvy, consistently cruel world speaks loud and clear where the characters don’t.