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Amy Unbounded #7-12
posted December 31, 2001
 

Creator: Rachel Hartman
Publishing Info: Pug House Press, 1999-2001
Ordering Numbers: None

Many of the great mini-comics of the last decade are unabashed celebrations of their unique, variable form. Some emphasize a disposability that sneers at the collector's mentality of many who buy standard pamphlet-sized books; others offer production values that can compete with an alternative publisher's most elaborate graphic novels. Yet many mini-comics remain by intention unabashed first runs at a more standard publishing format and potential relationship with a larger publisher. Mini-comics allow a standard of control over the final product that allows an artist to present themselves in the best light their talents can muster, and may also create an outlet for that cartoonist to hone their skills. This is a very common view of mini-comics, perhaps the de facto one: mini-comics as a minor league for more established publishing efforts. And while that may be a blinkered standard to apply while making an honest appraisal of the art found in minis, it's helpful in many cases to recognize this kind of intent.

One of the most talked-about mini-comics of the last five years fits magnificently well into the category of developmental book. Issues #7 to #12 of Amy Unbounded, by Pennsylvanian cartoonist Rachel Hartman, were a single-story showcase for an increasingly popular mini-comic series, the kind of series that had impressive word of mouth, garnered small press awards, and guaranteed its creator consideration for a seat on mini-comics panels for untold conventions to come. But those same issues are also essentially the interior pages of an eventual Xeric-funded graphic novel told in six installments: Amy Unbounded: Belondweg Blossoming, released in mid-April of this year. While extolling the virtues of mini-comics and mini-comics culture in her interviews, Hartman has always been up front about admitting her failure to initially place her project with a mainstream book or comics publisher before its mini-comic inception. And now she's just as honest about packaging that material in graphic novel form for further infiltration into comic shops and mainstream book stores. In a long article in this April's Sequential Tart on-line magazine, Hartman speaks in forthright fashion about one mini-comics limitation: "They have one other drawback -- they limit your audience. Bookstores won't carry them. Most comics shops won't carry them (hooray for the few who do!). Many people will never try them because they are prejudiced against the format. Many more people will never even hear of them because you're working on too small a scale." With the publishing motive so plainly laid out, the question begged by the release of Hartman's first graphic novel is how well a work serialized in mini-comics form makes for a first trade.

Belondweg Blossoming is a six-chapter story of one summer in the life of the series protagonist, Amy of Eddybrook Lodge. Amy lives in the kingdom of Goredd, a nation existing in a pastoral fantasy world light on magic and strong on acerbic cultural detail (skewed gender politics, elaborate economic controls) that seems to suggest a re-imagined medieval Europe. Amy is nine when the story begins and ten when the story ends – her birthday falls on a rural holiday that is the centerpiece of chapter four. Amy comes from a long line of smart but inexperienced child narrators, a fact Hartman acknowledges in interviews. Open-faced and quiet only when she has to be, Amy is convincingly portrayed as the kind of child that spends a great deal of time surrounded by adults. (She seems much younger when in the company of same-age peer Bran Ducanahan.)

Throughout this graphic novel to be, Hartman's Amy displays the typical main strength of the precocious child protagonist. She has access to events of adulthood without fully understanding them. This provides a narrative through-line that any half-interested reader can readily follow, complete with lots of patient exposition from adult characters. In another echo of classic children's literature, the events that Amy witnesses have significant albeit slight resonance within her own life. There is a wedding of a prominent female merchant and friend of the family Pearl Agnes Fortellga to a broadly-portrayed, insufferable fop named Bartolo, Duke of Limongello, that seems to foreshadow both the various cultural and gender constraints that Amy will almost certainly have to deal with in her adult life, and the kind of community of friends she is building that may assist her in mitigating some of those forthcoming inequities. A misguided half-romance between a dragon-in-human form scholar named Lalo and a single woman forced into near-servitude in her brother's home (Niesta, Amy's neighbor and de facto mother figure in the Ducanahan family) gives a slightly darker view of those cultural constraints and emphasizes the strange and bewildering sense of the other that affects Amy when she experiences her first crush on a boy. Harman uses fantasy like she makes use of the mini-comics form, as a way of keeping total control over her narrative; every plot point introduced seems like it's there to make a larger thematic point.

Unlike many word-of-mouth mini-comics featuring extended narratives, stories that seem solely to offer diminishing returns for the genre glutton, there is a great deal to appreciate in what Hartman does. Small narrative details are clever and entertaining. For instance, the individual chapters of the Belondweg Blossoming story are aptly described by each title, but the titles strung together provide a kind of poetic mission statement for the protagonist: "On the Verge of Summer, Among Women and Men, the Flash of Love and Danger in her Eyes." I'm not sure what that means, but it has a ten-year-old's sense of dramatic importance to it. The fantasy and historical touches sprinkled throughout the long narrative also seem well conceived as well as organic. Small glimpses into the mythic poem that Amy and Bran study, and that provides the story with its title, really do read like small glimpses into a larger, existing work, and the dances at the peasant festival are entertainingly described, testaments perhaps to Hartman's academic background and enthusiasm for real-world medieval studies.

The craft elements on display improve throughout the telling of the story, which befits its three-year publication schedule. Hartman's dialogue isn't extraordinary, but it's unobtrusive and very, very tight, edited for space in the manner of a stageplay. The art, reminiscent of the cartoon figure-making of Linda Medley's Castle Waiting minus that artist's ability to vary her line, is often plain but carries the story well enough, a big surprise considering how much cultural detail is inherent to the work. Hartman's best pages pay attention to fashion and architecture and how bodies interact with both -- chapter five's wedding hall, or the unfortunately short hemline worn by suitor Bartolo made sport of in chapter two. Hartman describes taking the look of her series from various sources and setting them all in the largely rolling Kentucky countryside of her youth. The resulting look of the series may not be distinctive, but it doesn't draw attention from the narrative, and may improve if Hartman's line continues to develop.

Unfortunately, there is a wide chasm between comics that modestly reward reader investment and comics that capture one's attention. Amy Unbounded remains solidly in the latter camp. While Hartman's work is often charming, she does nothing well enough to recommend Belondweg Blossoming as an enlightening piece of art, or even a thrilling entertainment. The writing, art, story, and character insights are accessible but never compelling. Reading Amy Unbounded is like spending a Sunday afternoon watching an involving but perfectly forgettable public television series, something from another country, perhaps, that draws you in with its strange landscapes and broadly-cast iconic characters. While such shows pass the time agreeably, and may even work through their narratives and themes dutifully, they lack that significant charge or insight that might even be found in coarser, more impassioned work. Nothing in Amy's world or the events of Belondweg Blossoming lingers, let alone demands we stay and watch. There is therefore nothing uniquely enriching about Hartman's work at this stage in her development that calls for its recommendation. This relative emptiness of unique inspiration stands a good chance to be exacerbated by the move from the intimacy of the handheld photocopy bought from the artist herself to the perfect bound graphic novel bought from some guy at the Comic Castle.

So why doesn't this perfectly charming story leave its readers with more? I suspect it's because that while much as the fantasy elements and cultural details seemed worked out, with a life of their own off the page that makes them interesting on, Hartman's dramatic storytelling gives the exact opposite impression. The characters in Belondweg Blossoming give off a heavy patina of love-me agreeableness: Niesta is the unappreciated plain girl with a good heart, Lalo is kind and patient and always interested in what Amy has to say, Amy's mother and father are a loving and too-cute couple of personality opposites. Even the uncomfortable situations the characters encounter seem to mostly wilt under the heat of this cast-wide grin. The potentially disastrous wedding in chapter four is thwarted sitcom-style, while some interesting economic developments with Amy's father and his guild kind of wander idly down a subplot side road. On television, Amy Unbounded would be that family-focused soap opera that draws solid ratings from teenagers looking for a stability fix. Despite a plot development or two that fails to work out in the protagonist's favor, one senses there is little cruel or arbitrary about Amy's world or the vast majority of people who live in it. Nearly all the main and major supporting characters are admirable, and further all of them seem to act out from some sense of their innate decency. This gives Belondweg Blossoming the slightly stale feel of a competent but uninspired adaptation of some sort. The characters and situations read like their grittier details have run victim to multiple photocopies. The end result is a series of predictable plot points. When the dragon Lalo raises his voice to Amy late in the story for asking annoying questions about his non-relationship with Niesta, the smart reader can sense a wry, comforting apology is only a few pages away. Lalo's subsequent reappearance is so unsurprising, one has to suppress the urge to wave at him.

Serialized comic stories are an incredibly complicated way to make use of the complex form of comics. Training herself to draw as well as she does now and to tell a story as clearly as she does in this graphic novel are things to admire about Rachel Hartman's artistic path. It may be that her own childhood was idyllic enough, and passed slowly and comfortably enough, that the incremental changes Amy undergoes in Belondweg Blossoming seem unique and compelling stories to tell. But at the end of Belondweg Blossoming, when the wonderfully-designed destitute squire character Maurizio Vizente Yann-Fanch St. Bazille de Foughfaugh points out to a despondent Amy that all endings can also be beginnings, it's hard not to suppress a groan. Such obviousness may be important to hear when you're ten years old and your best friend is moving away, but it's not a lot of substance for the serious reader of any age to digest. When the emotional resonance of the narrative foreground matches the detail-work one can sense underneath the story's surface, Amy and her fellow Goreddians may live up to the promise of transformation in titles that speak of unbinding or blossoming. For now, there's very little to see, all of it very familiar.

(Belondweg Blossoming was released in April of this year as a graphic novel with the help of a Xeric grant under Hartman's Pug House Press imprint. It costs $16.95 and was offered in the February 2002 edition of Previews. Hartman's minis are available for order at www.amyunbounded.com and www.marsimport.com.)

Originally published in The Comics Journal #244