Maybe I’m just a masochist, but for whatever reason, comics that utterly defy description are almost always my favorite to read, and without question always my favorite to review. As a reader, they force me outside my comfort zone, and require me to consider what I’m experiencing in a deliberative manner; to question the function of the work certainly, but also, at the best of times, the form. Trying to figure out what’s happening on the page (assuming such a thing can be done), is only half the battle — why what’s happening is being communicated and presented in the way it is, deciphering the reasons for the choices the cartoonist has made, that’s the other half. And it can often be the more richly rewarding part of the equation.
As a critic, all of the above still applies, of course, but I’m also called upon to examine my own reactions to the work, to achieve some level of understanding vis a vis the comic itself as well as my own interpretation(s) of it. And when a critic’s feelings about a work develop, change, even contradict each other over time — well, that’s when you’ve got quite the task ahead of you, and you’re really called upon to “prove your worth,” as it were, as more than a mere arbiter of taste (what the dull and shallow perceive to be our only function to be, it often seems), but also as a source of genuinely authoritative analysis.
All of which brings me to iconoclastic Canadian cartoonist Jonathan Petersen’s 2012-published Domino Books B&W comic ‘zine, Space Basket.
This is my first go-’round with Petersen, most of his comics being self-published numbers getting little to no distribution south of the world’s longest un-walled and un-fenced (for now, don’t give Trump any ideas) border, but I’m certainly hoping against hope that it won’t be the last, because this is a work that’s been burrowing its way from the back of mind toward the front since I read it (for the first of several times) a couple weeks back. It’s circular and elliptical at the same time, drop-dead funny, emotive on any number of different levels, and meticulously rendered with painstaking attention particularly being paid to its tight, precise linework. And that’s about where my ability to pigeon-hole it within the larger framework of the “comics world” begins and ends.
Have no fear, though, if straight-forward narrative is your bag : this book not only has one, but it’s relatively easy to follow, provided you can let go of certain hang-ups, like getting too attached to certain characters and the like. A densely-wooded forest is the main setting for the “action,” but we switch protagonists and points of view fairly quickly throughout, from partying teens to a bizarrely hirsute recluse to birds of prey to other teens to baskets of sentient fruit — all the while a steep and perilous cliff acting as a proverbial magnet that drags things and people back toward it, maybe even off it.
There are other threads of connective tissue to be discovered, as well, some not becoming apparent for what they are until more or less the very end, but the resolution — mysterious yet also unquestionably satisfying — is not what you’re in a book like this for : it’s all about, as the cliche goes, the journey. And that journey is quite unlike any other you’ve been on.
Which isn’t to say that Petersen’s cartooning isn’t without its influences — in fact, they’re pretty apparent. I see hints of Theo Ellsworth here, of Mike Diana there. But the tone Petersen strikes, the structure of his storytelling, his thematic concerns with finding the fluid and intransient in even the most ostensibly banal aspects of life — those things are entirely his own. Nothing is at it seems to be in this comic, even when it seems like nothing else — but on the other side of the coin, everything makes a kind of perfect, logical, symmetrical sense, even when it doesn’t. The end result is a book that circles back in on itself, and compels you to start over again on page one the minute you’re finished. Which means, of course, that you’re never really “finished” with it at all — and with a comic this engrossing, this singular, this utterly and ineffably unique, why the hell would you want to be?
Space Basket is one of the most engagingly un-classifiable things I’ve ever read, and worth a whole hell of a lot more than its quite reasonable $5.00 cover price. Order it directly from the publisher at http://dominobooks.org/spacebasket.html