By Kerry Byrne
Conundrum Press, 2008; 80 pp; $15.00
With the entire “graphic novel” versus “comic book” war of semantics showing no signs of getting any less wearying, I’m just going to go ahead and call this a picture book. I’ve never taken any courses in Understanding Comics or read any of the accompanying textbooks, admittedly quite remiss in turning a casual interest into forensic examination, so I certainly wouldn’t want to get out of my depth. I had no idea it was all so complicated and heavy. Luckily, fans and scholars of the picture books have set me straight on that last point.
This picture book tells the story of Lillian Alling, a Russian immigrant dropped into 1920s New York City who, not digging the garment factory worker scene so much, decides to return home—the hard way. Taking a train as far as Alberta, Alling then sets out, shank’s pony style, on an epic stroll, heading west and then following the Telegraph Trail to Dawson City, eventually canoeing it down the Yukon River to the Bering Sea.
Traipsing around Western and Northern Canada like she owns the joint, the intrepid Alling has adventures and meets interesting strangers. She stays in cabins and goes ice fishing. She cavorts with caribou and eats blueberry pie. It all seems like folksy fodder for some cable-knit-sweater-clad, tea-mug-hugging cbc Radio host who can’t stop talking about potbellied stoves and fiddle music. It’s not that it’s overly warm and fuzzy or uninteresting, there’s just something about it that’s oozing the kind of dry, dreamy-smiled Canadiana you either shovel down with a snowshoe or you don’t.
I would have guessed that this was all some kind of Paul Bunyan-esque tall tale. It certainly seems a stretchy saga but while accounts differ in the details and the chronology, it’s all based on fact, with only Alling’s fate a complete mystery. Maybe she made it back to Russia, maybe she was eaten by narwhals — it’s anyone’s guess. Somehow that too seems distinctly Canadian; the story that ends with a shrug.
Executed in a presumably faux naïve style, Kerry Byrne’s drawings are impressive in their detail, but somewhat rough around the edges in terms of draftsmanship — a more rustic cousin to the sort of high-school-notebook-margin-doodle style that’s everywhere these days. The larger, narration-free panels work the best, particularly those that simply and economically convey a sense of Alling’s tiny stature against the epic backdrops of the land. Otherwise, small, possibly experimental stylistic flourishes abound, to varying degrees of effectiveness.
Lillian Alling is practically a cottage industry these days. Besides Kerry Byrne’s entry into the canon there are several books in various stages of completion, a feature film in development, and an opera set to premiere in 2010 with the Vancouver Opera. I’m holding out hope for a Planetarium laser light show.
Also included here is a small collection of short stories based on the author’s odd jobs, travels, and observations. Byrne’s reflection on her brief stint as a nude art model is the best of these and the funniest thing in the whole picture book.From issue #53