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Pulpatoon Pilgrimage
posted July 11, 2003

Creators: Joel Priddy
Publishing Info: AdHouse Books In Association With Pulpatoon Press, $12.95
Ordering Numbers: 0972179402 (ISBN)

According to at least one dictionary, "pulpatoon" is defined as a delicate confection made from the pulp of fruit. The word also sounds great, scans well, and used as a story title suggests some a mixture of pulp realism and cartoon whimsy. But the food-related meaning is as pertinent here as any we can surmise on our own. A surprise buzz book and best debut award-winner from new kid on the block AdHouse Books created by illustrator and art educator Joel Priddy, Pulpatoon Pilgrimage reads like a light, sweet-tasting diversion and lingers in memory for as long as sugar lasts on the tongue. As with many a fancy dessert, it makes for a better introduction to the skills of the chef than it does a satisfying course to end a meal.

There is much here that charms. Priddy's book is appealingly small yet solid, a format reminiscent of the Cornelius art books that is attractive on the shelf without drawing undue attention to its flashier visual elements. This is a particularly good choice when the temptation must have existed to showcase Priddy's evocative black and white art in an oversized and ostentatious manner. The look of the book very much suits the story. Broken into several chapters, the main thrust of Priddy's narrative concerns a mystery quest taken on by three walkers in a sedate, fantasy wilderness. The characters are visually well-conceived: a robot with a fishbowl for a cranium named Rowbot, a naked plant-man named Delaware Thistle, and a large man-animal named Bull. The object of their travels is never fully defined, making Priddy's record of the trio's journey more about process and motivation than the end result. This allows the cartoonist to gracefully sidestep into whimsy as when he explore the dream lives of his protagonists, and to examine various past regrets and defining experiences by showing us snatches of dialogue and ruminative silences.

The best moments in Pulpatoon Pilgrimage come from Priddy's assured take on various aspects of formal play. In interviews done in support of the book's release in Fall 2002, Priddy declared his belief in comics as a medium of failure. What comics must do, such as blend words and pictures or show movement through the use of static imagery, it really cannot do. This puts Priddy, much like his characters, in a position to cope the best he can. The cartoonist's use of the medium is more solid than groundbreaking. He makes interesting use of drawings in word balloons to suggest entire conversations, and shows the ability breaks up a single-page image with dialogue and panel border in order to mark the passage of time. Best of all is the use of various fonts, such as the crowded, oversized lettering with which Bull speaks and the banners full of text in the chapter Lost Ties. These are all very understated solutions that add exponentially to the look and feel of Priddy's story. The art itself is generally effective, and in terms of visual splendor falls somewhere between those who tend to simplification and abstraction in the cartoon style like Scott Morse and and the lovely, rich lines used by Craig Thompson in his more rounded early books. The work never comes quite alive as a window to a new universe of eye-catching splendor, but it's functionally attractive. It helps immensely that the art is used in service of an effectively staged comic book story.

Although told with general competence and sometimes outright flair, Priddy's story lacks the confidence of his art. He has a decent if not spectacular ear for dialogue. Rowbot and Delaware Thistle "sound" somewhat alike, which is only disappointing when compared to the loopy and booming affirmations that bubble out of Bull. Priddy also seems happy to let the pictures establish mood and carry the narrative, something that's never a bad choice for a fable-like tale. Yet at times there seems much less to Pulpatoon Pilgrimage than meets the eye. The characters all have background stories that except for the nature of Delaware Thistle's sexual guilt (he's a plant, so it involves a bee) read like stock issuances from the alternative comics bureau of character hang-ups (dead father, broken heart). Additionally, most of the characters visit these areas at least twice without ever breaking new emotional ground -- a couple of flashback sequences near the end read like the blunt capsule summaries from a "last week" bumper in front of a television show. You may scan for new information, but you're not likely to be rewarded.

The story is hampered most from Priddy's choice to tell his tale in a series of vignettes. This gives Pulpatoon Pilgrimage a narrative rhythm that favors short bursts of story over a longer series of slow-building events. Breaking the story down does provide an easy entry point for moments of fantasy and flashbacks -- the memory of how the protagonists met, and the completely deficient and hilarious annoying former partner that's left out as a result of the three characters getting along so well, is a fine set piece. But what gets sacrificed is a deeper immersion into the journey, a true sense of length and time passed and monotony, and the grand payoff that comes by letting the story unfold at its own pace. This may be why at story's end it's so difficult to garner anything more significant from Pulpatoon Pilgrimage than one's reaction to individual scenes and moments. Priddy may have intended this all along, as a commentary on the nature of travel and self-discovery, but the available evidence doesn't swing too strongly in that direction either. Just as one gets the sense that all the characters are going to find is what they brought with them in the first place, Priddy complicates matters with an obtuse celestial event and a "road goes ever on" final note that reads more like a forced, clever twist than a natural outcome or even a thwarting of same.

In its ability to impress more by the confidence of its execution rather than any unique clarity of vision, Pulpatoon Pilgrimage may remind readers of the first-time film hits of the kind that break wide but fade more quickly from memory than more strikingly original yet rougher fare. By paying attention to the kind of material that plays to his strengths -- it would be fascinating to see what Priddy might do with documentary-style narrative or polemical presentation, modes that don't call on his abilities as a writer to carve narratives out of well-worn and extremely broad source material -- Joel Priddy should command attention with the next stage in his artistic journey.