Vagabond Wonderland: Freewheel

Posted by on April 24th, 2010 at 5:41 AM

Rob reviews the first volume of Liz Baillie’s new project, FREEWHEEL.

Liz Baillie’s new project FREEWHEEL is a radical departure from her earlier work in a number of ways.  Her MY BRAIN HURTS was about an ugly time and ugly feelings, and the scratchy art was a perfect complement for its gritty world of Manhattanite queer youth.  With FREEWHEEL, Baillie explores a number of familiar fantasy story tropes: the quest, a particular kind of world building, and quirkily distinctive characters the heroine encounters on the way.  There’s a commitment to the world she’s created that breathes life into this story on every page, as a young orphan girl named Jamie seeks to find her older brother.  Running away from foster care, she stumbles upon the hidden world of vagabonds who have created a society of their own in the forests.  She meets a number of people willing to help her–for a price.

There are three things in particular that stand out in FREEWHEEL.  First, Baillie’s character design and character voices are top-notch.  From rough-and-tumble Serenity to the cat-quilted Contessa, Baillie’s increasingly-bizarre set of characters keep one foot in reality and one foot in another, darker world.  Second, Baillie’s fondness for this world she’s created is so profound that she takes the time to go into great detail about the
backstories of certain characters, like poor, doomed Old George.  Exploring his story doesn’t particularly move the plot forward, but it’s a fascinating digression that’s nonetheless rewarding for the reader as a way of fleshing out this world.

Third, Baillie is more than up to the challenge of visually presenting this world in an exciting way.  Whereas her page and panel design for MY BRAIN HURTS pretty much stuck to a standard grid format, Baillie’s much more experimental in FREEWHEEL.  There’s a looseness and sense of airiness on some of these pages that is sympathetic to the nature of the story itself.  While Baillie’s drawings of forests and the vagabond community are frequently quite lush, the thinner line she employs gives FREEWHEEL a sharp sense of clarity.  Given the grittiness of MY BRAIN HURTS, it was a pleasant surprise to see just how crisp FREEWHEEL has turned out so far.

The clever page layouts aren’t simply an opportunity for Baillie to show off.  Instead, they play into the fantasy elements of the story, dovetailing into almost a children’s illustrated fairy tale.  Even the opening of the series, with Jamie escaping from a wicked foster-mother, is a classic fairy tale trope.  The details of this vagabond world give the fairy-tale plot a new freshness.  It’s a fantasy world, but one grounded in our own understanding of the world.  Stepping between the familiar and the strange keeps the reader (and protagonist) off-balance and opens up the possibility of surprise.  With FREEWHEEL, Baillie has demonstrated that she’s mastered an entirely new dialect of the language of comics.  Clicking the link above will take you to the webcomics version of this book, but it looks much better in print to my eyes.

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