Artichoke Tales

Posted by on August 16th, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Artichoke Tales

Megan Kelso; Fantagraphics, 232 pp.,, $22.99; Color, Hardcover; ISBN: 978-1606993446

There’s been a real surge of interest in the fantasy genre among indy and small press cartoonists these days. To wit (and off the top of my head): Orc Stain by James Stokoe, Powr Mastrs by C.F., Dungeon Quest by Joe Daly, The Mourning Star by Kazimir Strzepek, Daybreak by Brian Ralph — I could go on.

Megan Kelso’s Artichoke Tales is another entry in that list, although to some degree it stands apart from it’s sword-and-sandal brethren, both in terms of content and thematically. It’s not as concerned with conveying thrilling quests and epic tales of fantastic civilizations at war as much as it is with exploring the consequences of such adventures.

Like many fantasy stories before it, Artichoke conjures a land made up of warring neighbors. In the south lie the agrarian, rural folk (no name of the country of place is ever given), who follow the old, traditional ways of their ancestors and engage in rituals that seem like ridiculous superstition to those in the more industrialized, affluent and urban north. Both sides are at peace in the present time the book is set in, and allegedly form a whole nation, following a brutal civil war that occurred generations ago, but each side eyes the other with suspicion and tends to keep to themselves.

The book examines the cultural differences and hostilities between the two sides not via some sort of epic tale of military men and folk heroes, but by examining the intimate relationships between the average citizens and how the war and its aftermath affects their day-to-day lives. The main character — if you can call her that — is Brigitte, a young Southerner who falls for the Northern soldier Adam while he’s touring the land with the rest of his enclave. When not pondering on her possible future with him, her grandmother, Charlotte, a surly sort who runs the local apothecary, tells her about the origins and history of the now centuries-old war. Along the way also learn a bit about Charlotte’s own history including her own marriage to a Northerner and her awkward relationship with her daughter and Brigette’s mother, Ramona.

Kelso’s world is a decidedly matriarchal one. Though most of the depicted soldiers are men, women rule the roost here and take most of the important jobs, from the Earthy Widow Olive, who dispenses wisdom and health in the South, to the haughty and emotionally wounded Queen Telea, who more or less starts the war. Men have little to do here beyond follow their own interests, be they artistic or militaristic. Fathers are often absent, and when they are present they seem more concerned with their own dreams and obsessions than being a parent (Brigitte’s father Dorian is a prime example). Tied into that is an ongoing theme of parental resentment and an offspring’s refusal to follow in their sire’s footsteps that goes from Brigitte all the way back to the tenuous relationship between Queen Telea and Mother Olive.

Despite Kelso’s thin line, delicate line and soft, round forms — with everyone wearing little, cute Artichoke-style hair pieces — this is a very cynical book. By the end any genuine reconciliation between the two sides seems far off, if not outright hopeless. They may have to live together, but it’s doubtful they’ll ever learn to like each other. Even individual relationships suffer to the ages. Each romance that attempts to cross borders, be it between Charlotte and her husband or Brigitte and her soldier seems forever doomed to cultural differences and imagined slights. There is really no happy relationship to be found in Tales — even Ramona and Dorian seem more keep a respectful distance apart from one another. Time and again, the initial first blush of love quickly fades to sorrow and resignation.

As you might imagine with a cast this large and a book containing this many flashbacks and different story strands, Kelso does a lot of juggling here. For the most part she succeeds admirably. I never had a problem sifting between the various narrative threads or figuring out which character was in the spotlight now and why. The fact that she uses a minimum of detail to denote place and person, makes it all the more impressive.

Honestly, I’m still not sure how I ultimately feel about Artichoke Tales. I was put off by the book’s downbeat, resigned demeanor, yet at the same time impressed by Kelso’s ability to handle such a multi-layered story so effectively. Perhaps my feelings toward the book can be best summed up by the same word that one would use to describe both the political and personal relationships found in the book, and the real-life relationships she no doubt hoped to evoke: complicated.

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