Sympathy and Ambivalence: Artichoke Tales

Posted by on December 16th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

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

All images in this story ©2010 Megan Kelso. Click through to view larger images.

Megan Kelso’s short stories carry a certain unspoken tension, making frequent use of the disconnect between spoken language and body language as conveyed through images.  That tension frequently plays out in terms of what the reader is supposed to make of the putative protagonists of her stories, because Kelso rarely spells out whether someone is a “hero” or “villain.”  Indeed, in her stories, those terms are fairly meaningless.  There are only people and conflicts, and the people are all somewhat sympathetic and also more or less deeply flawed.  Even in stories where certain characters act as expressions of naked greed or selfishness, Kelso seems reluctant to drop the hammer on the reader as to how they should think or feel about these characters.  In part, it may be because Kelso herself isn’t willing to make such an easy characterization and certainly won’t let the reader do so either.

Her first full-length graphic novel, Artichoke Tales, raises the stakes seen in her short stories and makes the relationships between three generations of characters one of simultaneous longing and resentment.  The reserved nature of her characters masks seething and churning emotions that emerge in ways that aren’t necessarily healthy or rational.  The reserve of her present-day characters is juxtaposed against the outsized behavior of historical figures whose story is told as a way of explaining present-day circumstances.  This story is entirely about relationships, both familial and romantic.  At the same time, it’s also about one’s relationship to one’s country, one’s religion, and one’s ethnicity, and the ways in which resorting to war to solve conflicts changes all of these relationships irrevocably.  Make no mistake: this is not a book with an explicit anti-war message.  Rather, it’s one that asks the reader to think about what war does to its participants, not the least of which are its soldiers.

I read the first chapter of Artichoke Tales nearly a decade ago, in the legendary fifth issue of Jordan Crane’s anthology Non.  It’s the story that sold me on Kelso’s work, leading me to read her older Girlhero series and story collection Queen Of The Black Black.  The first two chapters were later released as minicomics, which won her two Ignatz awards.  Portions of the story also appeared online at the old Highwater Books website, as well as the third volume of Eric Reynolds’ Dirty Stories anthology.  Megan once told me that she was a little nervous about producing a book with so many fantasy elements for the alt-comics market, which is funny when one considers, five years later, that there’s almost a glut of such material.  It’s ironic that one of the things that slowed the completion of the book, the birth of Kelso’s child, is such a counterpoint to the selfishness of the mothers depicted in this book, who frequently ignore their responsibilities in favor of their careers and passions.

The structure of this book is like a thread pulled out of a blanket that slowly unravels it.  Teenaged Brigitte meets young Adam, a soldier from the North momentarily stopping in the South to effect repairs on his cannon.  They are immediately smitten with each other, but the complex political relationship between North and South creates an immediate wedge between them after a single romantic encounter.  Brigitte, the granddaughter of a North man, spends the rest of the book unraveling the thread of the history of the North-South conflict, the nature of her grandmother’s animus toward the North, and the ways in which her own parents came to drift apart from her and each other.  Brigitte is the one character in the book who is constantly advancing, both in terms of maturity and geography.  Everyone else either stays in exactly the same place (in both respects) or has retreated after initially advancing.  Even when Brigitte catches up to Adam, he can’t help but retreat into the same sort of excuses as everyone else as he walks away from her.

What makes this book work is that Kelso is neither entirely sympathetic nor ambivalent toward any of her characters.  She makes it clear as to why each character behaves the way they do without letting them off the hook. Brigitte’s grandmother Charlotte strong-arms her botanist husband Jimmy into moving back down south, then resents him when he doesn’t fit in.  However, she’s surrounded by dreamers without much common sense and provides stability for Brigitte, who is essentially abandoned by her parents.  Jimmy is entirely passive-aggressive in asserting his needs, even as Charlotte moves the target of what she expects of him.  When Jimmy leaves his wife and daughter behind forever it is as inevitable as it is unforgivable.  Charlotte’s daughter Ramona grows up chafing under her mother’s thumb, leaving behind the science of her apothecary shop for the mysticism of tending to a religious shrine.  Like her father, she shirks the duty of parenthood to pursue her passion—which happens to be the way she could hurt her mother most.

The father of Ramona’s child, Dorian, is a bombastic blowhard in many respects but has a degree of devotion that redeems him somewhat.  A Southern militant, his martial poetry about the North-South struggle suffuses the book, adding a strained lyricism to the proceedings.  Kelso is careful to let the reader know that his poems are reasonably well-known (they act as an important plot device later in the book) without endorsing their one-sidedness.  He’s an irresponsible father who is clearly relieved when that duty is lifted from him, but it’s not out of malice or even purposeful neglect, but rather due to his head constantly being in the clouds.  He’s too busy advancing in his rhetorical attacks to notice how his life has retreated in every other aspect, but when the time comes to take care of a dying Charlotte, his empathy shows.

These smaller human dramas play out against the book’s larger conflict, that of the North vs. the South.  Or rather, they play out against conflicting character narratives about that conflict.  It’s a tale of a young girl whose unusual physical features decreed that she would be Queen of the then-unified country.   It’s about how the slights she received from resentful country people fueled her own pride and brattiness, and how that pride would wind up being her undoing.    It’s a classic story of urban vs. agrarian, technology vs. tradition, and science vs. folklore.  Each culture is inextricably bound to its environment and builds that into its own mythology and sense of self-importance.  Once again, Kelso is careful not to pick sides, but instead shows the ways in which an ethnic group picks and chooses versions of the truth that are most convenient for its own propaganda purposes.  This is revealed when Brigitte meets a Northerner who saves her from an icy death and hears the North’s version of the grisly tale of the queen’s death and the nature of the civil war.  There’s a grim postmortem to the story involving the birth of another queen a few years later in the South and how the baby was murdered so as to possibly prevent the same thing from happening again. That story made it crystal-clear to Brigitte that concepts like ethnicity and country meant more to people than the value of simple human life, even if she didn’t want to admit that her own people were capable of such savagery.

Kelso’s attitude toward war in this book is interesting.  She’s obviously sympathetic to the day-to-day struggle of the soldier but doesn’t seem to have much patience for militarism, or at least, the glorification of militarism.  That’s true both on the part of the Queen bleeding her people dry to fund her army (partly out of vanity) and the rabble-rousing on the part of the rebels.  War winds up as simply a way to grind up young men while keeping their bellies full of food—as several soldiers note, it’s a job and they’re happy to have one.

As a storyteller, Kelso is all about creating tension with simplicity and restraint.  Her figures are simply rendered, with cute artichoke heads.  This helps evoke a fantasy world where one’s understanding of reality is just a bit different than our world.  Kelso uses the simplicity of her line to create many idyllic moments that linger on a mountain, a glen or an ocean in an attempt to get the reader to understand how the characters see their world and why their environment is such a crucial influence.  Being that this is also about youth and the ways in which it is wasted (and not in a bad way), the book features scenes of romantic interplay and stolen moments.  Those are the moments most worth living, even if they are fleeting and difficult to repeat.  The cuteness of her figures clashes with the frequent grimness of reality that make the instances of violence all the more shocking, just as the moments of present-day stillness clash with the violence of the past.  The book can be seen as a metaphor for any ethnic clash, but it’s one done with eyes wide open with regard to the ways in which opposing sides always wind up with blood on their hands, neither one capable of truly claiming a moral high ground.  Atrocities can never be undone, and the lives of the characters in Artichoke Tales reveal that the scars that wars leave never truly heal.

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