Eurocomics Spotlight : Disa Wallander’s “Becoming Horses”

It might be fairly stated that Swedish cartoonist Disa Wallander appears to have one over-arching concern running through all her work, but given that said concern is the nature of the creative process itself and its centrality to the phenomenon of identity, it’s at the very least a perhaps-infinitely expansive one that’s more than able to subsume any number of “smaller” ones within it, cast them in a new and more considered light, and then return to taking a more “macro,” all-encompassing view. The remarkable thing, though, is that she’s got, for lack of a more readily-available term, a “knack” for transitioning from one exploration to the next with such fluidity that no matter how complex the conceptual themes she’s tackling may be, it all seems incredibly, well — basic? Simple?

Which sounds like either a polite brush-off or a roundabout compliment, I’ll grant you, but it points to an interesting and tantalizingly un-resolvable conflict that’s always right there on the surface in everything she does, from her Slowly Dying short strips to her Peow! Studio collection, The Nature Of Nature, to her just-published debut full-length “graphic novel” from Drawn+Quarterly, Becoming Horses, namely : when an artist’s work is about said work, how can something so hermetic and self-contained also be universal? Becoming Horses tackles the question in a formally inventive manner, but ultimately errs a bit on the side of caution, although perhaps not in the way one would expect.

Simply put, it doesn’t take the most astute reader to pick up on the fact that Wallander’s always-nameless characters are stand-ins for aspects of both herself and her approach to making art — nor should it, a populist sensibility being key to successfully expressing and exploring these particular themes — but as they float from one loosely-rendered but conceptually-dense scenario to another, the idea that they are, in point of fact, “just” ideas is never far from the surface. And hey —what even qualifies as a “surface” is a pretty open question herein, given that Wallander’s loose, sketchy figures — defined more by dint of their actions, reactions, and expressiveness rather than they are by their barely-physical “beings” — are rendered above, arguably even separate from, the mostly computer-generated (I assume, at any rate) collages they don’t so much enter and exit as simply pass through.

Impermanence, transience, and metamorphosis are the beating heart of both life and art, of course — change being the only true constant and all that — but to her credit, Wallander embraces this and evinces no desire to push back against it in any way, and it’s that attitude, as much as anything of a purely technical nature, that invites comparisons between her work and Jules Feiffer’s Explainers. It would, however, be grossly unfair to say this is anything less than fairly unique stuff — Wallander’s process is her own, after all, as is her surprisingly light-hearted narrative tone, which even manages to cushion the blow when her nominal “protagonists” confront the emptiness of art, communication, and probably even existence itself at the end of this book. But a journey that leads to nothing, that merely asks “what’s the point of it all, anyway?” as its central thesis, is going to be a little bit whiplash-inducing when you’ve taken the need for self-expression as a given from the word go no matter how deftly you “soft sell” it — and with all due respect to Wallander’s notable creative ambition, I think her 180 from “how is art made?” to “why is art even made in the first place?” ultimately results in a work that pulls back after pages and pages of pushing forward.

That being said, my view as both a reader and a critic is that a book that tries to do a bit too much and comes up short is always going to be more interesting — as well as challenging — than one that simply sticks to doing what it can and doing it well, so I wouldn’t want for a moment to suggest that Wallander should reign in the scope of either her concerns or her willingness to experiment. Feeling your way forward in an open space might lead you to bump headlong into an invisible wall, but when she finally manages to either break through that wall, or work her way around it, my best guess is that the results will be rather spectacular. It won’t be easy, true, but given that we’re talking about an artist who’s exploring ideas related to where, how, and ultimately even why ideas take shape and want or need to be expressed, it’s worth pointing out that this invisible wall she’s bumping up against is entirely self-created, and the same will be true of the manner in which she moves beyond it.

Which brings me back to my assertion that Becoming Horses errs on the side of caution, but not necessarily in the manner one would expect : in a book that seeks to balance the personal with the universal and utilize each in a manner that informs the other, it’s the perhaps less-quantifiable universal that is expressed with far more confidence and clarity, while the uniquely personal exploration of why Wallander herself feels compelled to express her ideas, indeed her very idea of herself, though art is one she doesn’t seem entirely comfortable answering, opting instead for a borderline-nihilist “it probably doesn’t matter anyway” rejoinder with a polite “it’s all about the journey, anyway” metaphorical escape hatch. In a work otherwise overflowing with wonder and inquisitiveness, it feels like a defensive reaction, like she’s revealed as much about herself as she’s comfortable with and that’ll be all for now, thank you very much. Hopefully, this intriguing and admirable — but ultimately tentative — step behind her, she’ll forge ahead and go boldly where she hasn’t gone before next time around.

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Kus! Week : “Plant Power” (S! #36)

I’ve never had an overwhelming interest in botany, and certainly don’t have much of a green thumb (to the probable chagrin of my neighbors), so if a plant-based comics anthology (I know, I know — the choice of wording on my part there makes it sound more like a meal, or even an honest-to-goodness diet) is going to win me over, well — it’s going to have to work pretty hard. But while the theme may be of little import to me personally, S! Baltic Comics Magazine always is, and so I was more than willing to put my disinterest aside and give the venerable “digest-sized portable art gallery” series’ latest volume, entitled Plant Power, a go — and whaddya know, talk about proof positive that I need to broaden my horizons!

Lote Vilma Vitina, whose recent entry in the Mini Kus! line also focused on nature and our relationship with/to it, provides the beautifully minimalist cover and carries that over into a sparsely poetic interior strip, but it’s not like there’s an editorial remit demanding uniformity in tone and style at work here — anything but, in fact. S! regular contributor Konig Lu Q. serves up a short and charming satirical story, the sublime Daria Tessler offers a mystical/alchemical look at the plant kingdom that’s rich with lavish detail, Patrick Kyle shows his passion for his subject matter in an uncharacteristically formal piece, Anna Sailamaa takes us on a gorgeous trip into a kind of fairy tale world, Jean de Wet lets the plants do the talking in a post-modern cautionary tale, Marlene Krause steps well outside of what I would consider (or maybe that should be assume, since I’ve seen only a little — too little, in fact — of her work) to be her artistic comfort zone with a crisp, tightly-focused offering — by running the gamut, we get a very comprehensive view of what our green friends not only mean to us, but are, human concerns and uses be damned.

As always, there are a number of names who are new to me in this collection — Ingrida Pikucane, Molly Fairhurst, Peony Gent, Pauls Rietums, Simon H, Vivianna Maria Stanislavska, and Valentine Gallardo have all landed on my radar screen for the first time, but their work herein is so strong that I’m hoping to see more of them very soon, while more established artists (to my mind, at any rate) such as Tor Brandt, Ward Zwart, Amandine Meyer, Disa Wallander, and the aforementioned Vitina all contribute strips that meet or, in many cases, exceed the high standards they’ve previously established for themselves. About the only entry that did well and truly nothing for me was Roman Muradov’s, and his body of work is so consistently eclectic that you honestly never know what you’re going to get from him. When he hits, he really hits, it’s true — but when he misses, he can miss by a country mile. His story here is a best classified as a “near miss” in that it’s easy enough to see what he’s going for, but his choices seem incongruous with achieving his aims. I give him big points for attempting something different — hey, he always does — but this particular strip could have done with a bit of a re-think, at least in this critic’s hopefully-humble opinion.

Visually speaking, everything presented between these covers is interesting — much of it’s even hauntingly beautiful — and evokes emotive and heartfelt responses to the subject matter it’s exploring. Not everything is gorgeous — although damn, so much of it is — but it’s all apropos of the central theme, and when you’re talking about an “art comics” anthology, what more can you really ask for?

And that’s actually a question that’s fair to ask of this collection in general — is there anything you’d like to see in an anthology of comics about plants that this edition of S! doesn’t have? I feel like all the thematic bases are well covered here, although given my own pre-disposition, it may be acurate, I suppose, to say that a real “botany nerd” might find these contents lacking in some way, shape, or form — but it’s hard to see where. Or how. Or why.

Color me green, then — and color me very impressed while you’re at it. I was expecting be far less engaged with this material than I typically am with S! offerings, but by the time I was done with it, I found it to be one of their strongest, most coherent, most powerful volumes yet. This is one you don’t want to miss — and I may even give it another considered look after mowing my lawn.

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Plant Power is available for $13.95 (worldwide shipping is free!) from the publisher at http://www.komikss.lv/

Also, please consider supporting my ongoing work by subscribing to my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. The link for that is https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse