Grim and Gritty: Freewheel, Volume 2

Posted by on March 5th, 2011 at 6:01 AM

Rob reviews the second collection of Liz Baillie’s webcomic, Freewheel.

Liz Baillie’s ongoing webcomic Freewheel can best be described as a slice-of-life fantasy.  Volume 1 of the series (collecting the first five chapters) introduces us to Jamie, the young girl who runs away from a foster home in order to find her brother.  Baillie slowly reveals a world of hobo encampments, secret cants and signs and an invisible culture.  As the reader adjusts to this new information, Baillie eases the reader into the real fantasy elements of the series.  This culture is intimately wrapped up with the magical, the mysterious the unexplained and the quite hazardous.  Ballie uses the classic fantasy story tradition of leaving the protagonist completely in the dark as both reader and heroine try to decipher this world.

Baillie is a cartoonist whose previous book, My Brain Hurts, was a slice-of-life/coming-of-age queer youth story set in 1990s New York.  There weren’t plot threads so much as there were occasionally overlapping character threads.  In the first volume of Freewheel, the plot was mostly an excuse to find ways to introduce and explore a variety of interesting characters.  Baillie was in no hurry to get the reader from point A to point B and instead invited readers to get lost in moments of chitchat and story-spinning with her characters.

That said, there was still an easily-discernible plot thread to pick up in the first book, and that continues here.  The second volume very much feels like the second act of a three-act work.  With characters established, Baillie deepens mysteries, introduces new threats, derails Jamie’s plans and finally points her back in the right direction to set up the climax of the story.  As such, there’s a little less of the ambling charm of the first book to be found here, given that Baillie is spending a lot of time hinting to the reader that the mysteries of the book go far deeper than one would initially suspect.

Some of the fantasy elements of the story remind me of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.  That’s the story of a man accidentally exposed to the secret culture that lives underneath London, a scavenger society with the same sort of rules & regulations regarding contact & business that Baillie slowly unravels in Freewheel.  Both books are quite clever in how they take urban or national legends and weave them together in unexpected ways.  In both stories, knowledge is one’s most valuable weapon, because its lack is quite hazardous.  A significant difference is that Gaiman’s characters feel more clever than truly heartfelt; one always understands that they are characters, not people.  In Baillie’s story, she has a way of endowing even the most trivial of characters with a sense of humanity, even warmth.  Even the most eccentric characters get just enough backstory for the reader to understand why they’re lunatics.  That said, the “darkness” introduced as the primary antagonist feels awfully generic and cliched at the moment.  We’ll see what Baillie ultimately does in setting the series’ ultimate conflict on its ear so as to avoid easy “light vs dark” cliches.

Throughout the course of illustrating the frequently challenging layouts, Baillie has become quite an assured storyteller.  The complexity of her pages, the intuitive and almost poetic full-page word/image mash-ups, and the way she depicts gesture & interpersonal contact make this a beautiful strip to simply look at.  About the only aspect of her art that I find lacking is the way she depicts motion.  It’s herky-jerky and static at times, lacking a sense of panel-to-panel flow.  Baillie mostly avoids having to do straight chase or fight scenes, so the impact of this is minimal if still noticeable at times.  Honestly, Baillie could turn this weakness into a strength if she played up the static nature of her drawings in an exaggerated fashion during action sequences.

What is most interesting about this chapter of Freewheel is the way in which it becomes quite clear that this is a girl’s story in a society were women have every bit as much clout as a men.  Jamie’s “minder” is a girl, the minder’s mentor is a woman, Jamie’s spiritual advisor is a female cat-creature called the Contessa, etc.  It’s all very matter-of-fact and subtle but still serves as an interesting corrective for the thousands of entries in the “boys’ adventures” genre.  Baillie plans to wrap up the story in the third book and then start a sequel using the same set of characters.  It’s a world that clearly appeals to Baillie’s punk rock sensibilities, a gritty world that nonetheless has a lot of room for warm-heartedness and friendship.



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