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Gnomes 30th Anniversary Edition
posted October 6, 2006


Creators: Rien Poortvliet, Wil Huygen
Publishing Information: Harry N Abrams, Hardcover, 212 pages, $24.95, August 2006
Ordering Numbers: 0810954982 (ISBN)

This isn't comics, but it does mix art and text pretty thoroughly, in the overall impression the book leaves if not the formal effect from page to page. Gnomes was a popular almost-coffee table book that came out in the 1970s as part of that decade's fantasy literature mini-boom. It has a clever format. Gnomes claims to be the collected observations of the authors after personally interacting with the gnomes and their related kind. Most of the book is given over to descriptions of how they live, eat, build homes, interrelate; diagrams and illustrations, text writing as opposed to story. The narratives are presented as folk tales important to a sociological and culture understanding of the race rather than being the volume's main point. It's the next step up from the stuffed appendices that JRR Tolkien gave Lord of the Rings; the supplementary material is the main attraction here.

My family had this book when I was a kid, and reading through it now dredges up a lot of memories of how avidly I devoured anything that was fantastic back then, when this kind of thing was strange and squirelly and off the beaten path instead of the Thriving Lifeblood of a Significant Portion of All Entertainment. I have an adult's eye now and through it I picke up a subtext that was totally lost on me back then, a kind of anti-communitarian, wooly version of Tolkien's more layered and elegantly depicted distrust of modern civilization. Poortvliet's world was a hunter's view of the outdoors as a place far from others to be enjoyed, managed and controlled. In Gnomes all that's good in the world is being lost to the margins, as these areas slowly disappear. That feeling was a part of my childhood, too, in a way, as a kid in the suburbs where the wooded cul-de-sacs and weeded areas where we built forts were routinely turned into condos and housing developments -- a series of brutal recalibrations of what was ours in congress with the world and what was somebody else's to do with as they would. It's an odd fantasy that makes the world feel smaller than it actually is.

Rien Poortvliet's art is still fun to pore over; the more directly the pictures capture nature the better. Even though there's a smug quality that surfaces when the fantastic is drafted to endorse the mundane, the book retains a lot of its original charm page to page. The storytelling approach -- something it seems the artist developed as a painter doing a few series of illustrations supported with small bits of text -- could be enlightening to cartoonists and comics writers that haven't seen it before. But is there anyone out there that hasn't seen this book before? Is there anyone out there that will be fascinated enough by Huygen's 2006 text epilogue that continues the conceit to buy this anew? I have no idea.