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“Wild Man, Chapter 2—A Bavarian Botanist In St. Petersburg, Part One”
posted February 3, 2010
T. Edward Bak
MOME Vol. 17, Fantagraphics, story in a larger anthology, 7 pages, Winter 2010, $14.99
I imagine the seventeenth issue of Fantagraphics' mostly-new-talent anthology MOME
was a rough go for many of its fans. Gone are the splashy guest-star turns that carried the the publication through its initial, minor rough spots, and for whatever reason the more recent mix of edgier talents and alt-comics mainstays fails to cohere this time out. There are solid but avowedly minor contributions from Laura Park, Renee French and Josh Simmons. A conclusion to Paul Hornschemeier's longer story depends on a catharsis based on events hard to remember this long since the story began. Kurt Wolfgang and Ted Stearn provide serial chapters that seem like the pages before something much more interesting happens (Wolfgang's serial in particular seems trapped in molasses), and the respective works from Olivier Schrauwen and the team of Dash Shaw and Tom Kaczynski are equal amounts fascinating and nettlesome, fine comics not exactly suited to play lead.
At first look, T. Edward Bak's almost comically named "Wild Man, Chapter 2 -- A Bavarian Botanist In St. Petersburg, Part One," may not impress, but it's the story to which I kept returning long after the publication entire should have been swapped off of my end table for something less worked over. It's hard for me to remember a first part to Bak's saga, but this installment is seven pages of biography for the 18th Century naturalist Georg Steller, remembered now for his studies of animals in the freezing regions adjacent to Russia all the way across the Bering Strait and into Alaska. Bak uses two presentational styles in this story. The first is a series of single-page efforts stuffed with information both visual and verbal that swings the reader's eye back and forth like one of those wooden toys through which drops a cascade of marbles. The second is three pages of nine-panel grid portraying a conversation between a young Steller and his mother.
The particulars feel foreign yet somehow appropriate. There's something about little Steller that imprints upon us his relative innocence but only as that's measured in a time and a place that doesn't share the modern west's relentless, infantile impulses. Ditto the mother's appreciative acknowledgment of nature from a perspective that's solidly entombed, we are made certain, in an all-encompassing religious outlook. Even the child's expressed reluctance to leave his mother behind despite the fact he'll one day put half the world between himself and home feels right. The single-tableaux pages feature more ornate elements that suggest mood and again a slightly foreign quality during what are essentially scene switchers and elegant information dumps. The towns look like models of towns, some of the outlying elements like the symbols used in map-making. On one page in particular the shapes of the trees suggest the onion, bud and/or pear domes (I don't have an eye for which is which) that provide flourishes to Eastern European architecture. The first six pages of the installment arrive with a single color dominant to match each scene, basically a set of cold cityscapes followed by the warmth of remembered conversation mother to son. On the seventh page the colors clash and mix even into the lettering, suggesting I think the arrival of knowledge and insight as well as the promise of youth on a path to greatness. I've stared at that page for a long while now. They're not shades I'm used to seeing on a comics page, but they're lovely. I hope there's more.