When you’re talking about a book that runs to 366 pages and covers over 30 years, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Fortunately for me— and anyone else who reviews it — Canadian cartoonist Fiona Smyth arrived on the scene in the mid-1980s more or less “fully formed,” as the old expression goes, with a clear idea of both what she wanted to say and, crucially, how she wanted to say it, and has spent the succeeding decades refining and honing her style and messaging, but never veering too terribly far from the inherently feminist concerns that have been her stock in trade from the outset. And here’s the thing — her work isn’t merely “as relevant” as ever, it’s probably even moreso.
I first encountered Smyth, if memory serves me correctly, in the pages of her Vortex (remember them?) series Nocturnal Emissions (remember that?), and was immediately equal parts shocked, enthralled, perplexed, challenged, and charmed by her densely-packed strips that seemed to offer a rumination on some kind of resolution between dream and conscious reality for the purposes of liberating sexual desire. Her stuff was then — and is now — quite unlike anything else around, and so Koyama Press’ just-released comprehensive retrospective of her work, Somnambulance, is more than a simple omnibus collection, it’s an important piece of comics history that, one hopes, will introduce its author/subject to a wider audience than she has ever enjoyed in the past.
For those new to Smyth, it may take a few dozen pages to get with the flow of her absolutely singular vision, but once they do, I predict they’ll have a hard time putting the book down. Her thick line is extremely clean and intense, and the same is true of the visions she transcribes onto paper — the “intense” part, at any rate. And yet, despite the entirely unsubtle and (I say this with all due respect) unconventional libidinal urges delineated throughout, I’m not inclined to say Smyth’s subject matter isn’t “clean,” as well. Her characters, which to her credit come in all shapes and sizes, may spew fire from their vaginas and contort themselves into impossibly bizarre positions that defy logic and common sense, but no matter how raw and explicit the “events” depicted, unlike any number of other underground, or underground-influenced, cartoonists, there’s no self-loathing or even uneasiness on offer here — in fact, most of the time, Smyth’s work is downright celebratory, a packed-to-the-gills festival of the most basic-yet-mystifying of human biological urges, a kind of visual treatise on the value of embracing and revealing the depths of one’s id without a hint of shame. You want what you want so go for it — you are who you are, so be it. Simple, sure, but also as revolutionary as it gets.
A steady stream of semi-frequent recurring characters gives this mostly-chronological collection some semblance of narrative progression, and while her female protagonists all feel like they must be (and probably are) expressions of specific aspects of herself, the same seems true of her men, as well, largely existing for purposes of facilitating various acts of becoming for the women. One way or another there’s not so much a sense that Smyth is having a conversation with herself, rather she’s either playing parts of her whole off against each other, or conjoining them in new and interesting ways, in order to more fully demonstrate and express the power of her own (sorry to use a done-to-death term, but) agency.
It’s not all a party, of course — demonic spirits attain, and enjoy the pleasures of, flesh on a number of occasions, and less-than-oblique references to a typically guilt-ridden Catholic upbringing make their presence felt throughout, but these are temporary obstacles, never entirely escaped from but lacking the power to put a damper on things for any extended period of time, compartmentalized expressions of internal angst that the cartoonist herself isn’t so much afraid of as seeking to strip of their power by dint of exposing their existence to both herself and her audience. There’s a wholeness and generosity of vision here — from Smyth’s earliest mini-comics work through to her contemporary-era paintings and large-panel illustrations — that somehow reveals all the complexity and nuance of someone not just comfortable with, but appreciative of, the fact that she is able to engage in deep and thorough self-examination in a public forum. I wouldn’t have the guts to do it myself — much less have fun with it — but Smyth is infinitely more interesting, imaginative, and confident than most, and that results in comics that are endlessly interesting and inventive even as they mostly tread the same thematic ground.
The human psyche is a stew of contradictory ingredients, and many cartoonists excel at making the creative end-product of theirs palatable in spite of their repugnance or toxicity. Somnambulance, however, proves that Fiona Smyth has always done, and continues to do, something entirely different — she gives us a privileged look into the deepest recesses of her conscious an unconscious mind, as “warts and all” an experience as it gets, and, with apologies to Lucky Charms cereal, makes it magically delicious.