Thursday, June 29, 2006

THE SQUIRREL MOTHER STORIES

By Megan Kelso

I love Megan Kelso's comics. Queen of the Black Black was the first Highwater Book I ever bought. I bought it because that's one of the greatest book titles ever, and then I discovered a naturally lyrical cartoonist playing with the formal aspects of comics and succeeding in making wonderful little stories more often than not.

It seems like it's been such a long time since we've had some Megan Kelso comics (I didn't pick up the Artichoke Tales books, thinking they'd all be packaged together by now... 2007, it seems. And there was the Scheherazade anthology Kelso edited, but it's hard to go out and buy a book the editor and several contributors have disowned. Eventually, maybe), but this book actually reminds me that it hasn't been that long. It's just been a while since we've had a good amount of them all in one place.

I'd actually read a few of these already in various anthologies like the Comics Journal Seasonal Specials, but here they seem reprinted at a more appropriate size and stripped of the unweildy context of those books rather laborious themes. Here, On the Beautiful Blue Danube isn't a nice little piece amongst 20 different cartoonists' strained attempts at making comics about music, it's just another Megan Kelso comic. And that's what it should be.

While some of the comics here may be familiar to alternative anthology readers, there's material here from magazines (the Arthur Magazine anti-war collaboration with Ron Regé —Fuck the Troops is a treat) and new stories as well. The pieces do go pretty far back, with her story from the wordless Comix 2000 included (Kodachrome).

The book is named after the first story in the collection, a gorgeously depicted piece about... well, it's a bit hard for me to say. It is, without a doubt, the most disturbing piece in the whole book. Scenes from the life of a "squirrel mother," a squirrel who abandons her too-many children in order to pursue the life she dreamed about when young, are interspersed with scenes of a dutiful mother and her daughter. There's ideas here about abandonment in a sense that's different and more complex than the ham-fisted sort of abandonment issues most popular entertainment plays with. This is the abandonment a person feels when the the person they depend on leaves them in an emotional way. It's a little bigger than that moment when you realise the person you love wishes they were somewhere else, it's the moment when a child realises that their parents might sometimes regret not living the life having children prevented them from living. It's not eternal abandonment by someone who has stops loving you, it's temporary abandonment by someone who never will. It's about the struggle to grow up and be independent, to no longer be your mother's child, with the fear of what that might actually mean. None of us want to remain dependent on our parents, but it can be terrifying to realise that you might not be able to, should you ever need to be. It can be just as difficult to let of them as it is for them to let go of you. Kelso also filters these feelings through a child who isn't old enough to process them correctly, so she responds to them the way a child might: she lashes out at her mother by destroying something she worked hard on in a way that will both ensure her mother has to stay at least a bit longer, while fueling her desire to leave.

Kelso also does this in about 8 pages, with just a few panels per page and with a minimal number of words. It's just an amazing piece of cartooning. One of the best short stories I've ever read.

On the Beautiful Blue Danube is just another wonderful story. When I wrote earlier that "it's just another Megan Kelso comic" was my bait before the switch. That's all it is, but her stories tend to be quite a bit better than what you normally encounter. If you pick up the Journal special "Cartoonists on Music" in which this was originally published, you'll find a number of perfectly talented cartoonists write exposition-heavy pieces on a favorite band, a concert where something slightly out of the ordinary happened or how music isn't as good as it was when they weren't old. Kelso did something different.

She had already experimented with ways to depict music in comics in a few of the Black Black stories, and the effect of music on people is a theme she seems interested in exploring. But this story is about the girl who had to pick a dance partner last, in a school dance class without enough boys, and got stuck with the girl who wold be picked last. It's about a mother remembering a time when she waltzed and that moment was perfect. It's about the way kids assert authority over one another. It's about the way kids associate music with the movies they see tem in. And it's about the way you sometimes find something cool about someone who really isn't. It's also about beautiful music, and the way it effects the moment and memory.

Another story that tackles the depiction of music is Nettie's Left-Handed Flute, which is a little more about the actual depiction of music. In it, waves, like pastel locks of hair, tumble and flow from the title flute.

While The Squirrel Mother is the most remarkable story in the book, the most pages are devoted to Alexander Hamilton, of all people. Three stories, Publius, The Duel and Aide de Camp focus on different aspects of the life and our perception of the man on the money who wasn't president (well, one of them). Hamilton is an interesting character, and Kelso makes a loving case for the monarchist, elitist, debt-loving, standing-army-advocating, central-bank-pushing, puritanical abolisionist. The most noble of those attributes was, of course, the one he was least succesful at accomplishing within the lifetime of his peers. I'm not a Hamilton man myself, I'm the Jeffersonian Kelso's character mocks, but it's hard not to love her rouge-stained dandy as he prances about, entertains the hangers on, bolsters Washington's wisdom and makes mincemeat of his rival. It's especially hard not to love the delicate curly qs, Kelso adopts to illustrate these tales. And it's hard not to dream of her version of Hamilton's final duel, although Jefferson would have not had a chance based on dueling skill, not the moral authority she grants Hamilton.

The whole book is beautifully rendered and colored (the stories reprinted in color or black and white as they originally appeared). Tom Devlin does his normal unobtrusive yet perfect design work. If it's not on most of the decent "Best of 2006" lists when they come out, than the second half of this year will have to be mind-blowingly good.

2 Comments:

Blogger Marcos Perez said...

i borrow this kelso one time. but not now. i will finish the monster then give back to you. but it wont be till after i move. and i found the venture brothers discs

4:19 PM  
Blogger Justin J. Fox said...

I imagine we'll find many things soon. Hell, maybe the 5.1 remote will turn up...

No rush on the stuff, we'll be near for longtimes.

The Kelsos is a quick read and a long consider.

4:33 PM  

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