Swamp Things and Singing True: a Review of the comic Bayou

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Image from lovelaughterinsanity.com

If you’re going to build a world with words, look at Jeremy Love’s comic book series Bayou for inspiration—you can’t go wrong. What began as a web comic is now printed in two beautiful volumes that you need to read. Southern swamps have never looked so beautiful.

I have to warn you though, Bayou is not what I would call easy reading. It will make you think in ways that might not be familiar in your standard, comic-reading experience.

For one thing, Bayou is building on African-American folklore, such as the stories of Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear, and Tar Baby, among others. Their stories come together in a beautiful and horrifying mix of history and fantasy. The world beyond the swamp is a kind of pre-Abolition wonderland, where the characters of slave folklore live under the Bossman’s thumb and try to get by one way or another.

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Image from vulture.com

It does help to have at least a touch of knowledge about these African-American folk tales when reading Bayou, just as it helps to be acquainted with Greek or Norse mythology when reading other comics.

It also helps to have some knowledge of the Blues. Bayou embraces what I have seen other comics merely touch on: song lyrics included in the comic’s panels. You see, our cast of character includes several rambling musicians and singers. The enchantingly beautiful and somewhat deceitful songstress Tar Baby is the mother of the comic’s protagonist, Lee Wagstaff. Brer Rabbit and Bayou come out of their swamp-side world to sing the blues in a Southern speakeasy, and it all goes to hell when the local levee breaks and a flood takes them all. But come hell or high water, these characters get to speak and sing in their own voices. The past and present overlap in Love’s storytelling, and songs ease the transition between them. Similar to how Disney movies use songs in a montage to mark the passage of time—only Bayou never turns away from real-world darkness.

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Image from webcomicoverlook.wordpress.com

Nearly every character in Bayou speaks in a dialect. This includes the Southern accent, and specifically period-consistent African-American slang. It’s easy to pick up as you go along, and what isn’t totally clear becomes clear with usage (such as when one woman calls another a “heiffer” in a barroom spat). It also includes multiple uses of the N-word, with asterisks for the following letters. It’s a jarring reminder of the history of hate and oppression. You can never forget that slavery is in the characters’ recent past—but why should you? Little Lee may be free, but we first meet her as she swims in the swamp to retrieve the body of a boy her own age. Young Billy Glass lies dead in the bayou because local white men lynched him.

This ain’t Carroll’s kind of wonderland.

Bayou is full of love and hate, cowardice and bravery, sinners and saints. Even the characters that are anthropomorphic animals are beautifully and tragically human. You’ll see the best and the worst of the characters in this comic, but all of them are truly people—even if many of them don’t recognize it.

-Contributed by Miranda Whittaker

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Second Helpings of Second Chances: A Review of Brian Lee O’Malley’s Graphic Novel Seconds

  • Write your mistake
  • Ingest one mushroom
  • Go to sleep
  • Wake anew

This is the note that twenty-nine-year-old chef Katie Clay finds in the old chest of drawers that sits in her little apartment above her restaurant. The accompanying mushroom, which adorably resembles those found in Super Mario games, has the power to turn back time. This comes in handy when Hazel, a shy server, is horribly injured due to her negligence in the kitchen. (Hot oil burns you terribly—castle-defenders used to pour it over their enemies!)

This one changeover is a gateway drug. After all, if she can change one event, why not others? Unfortunately for Katie, however, Lis, the house spirit that inhabits the aged building that has been turned into Seconds, her restaurant, has very different ideas.

“There are rules,” Lis stubbornly repeats like a badly dressed, curmudgeonly broken record. There is power in the mushrooms because they grow under Seconds, which is “very old,” as Lis frequently reminds us. As is so often the case with stories about old magical places, the magic is part of the place itself. Only things that have happened inside the restaurant can be changed— and most of Katie’s life has happened inside Seconds. Her accidents, career choices, restaurant ambitions, and past relationship are all fair game to mushroom away. Or so she thinks.

The story is told through an often-sassy narrator, whom Katie argues with on a regular basis. The result is funny and familiar—who doesn’t argue with themselves inside their heads? Katie’s do-overs are numbered to help readers keep track of the events she’s altered. It also drives home just how flippantly she uses the mushrooms and how brittle the branches of her various timelines get.

The graphic novel is a feast for the eyes, as expected from Brian Lee O’Malley. The characters are adorable, and the food art is gorgeous—make-you-hungry, why-isn’t-it-real gorgeous. Even the colouring of the novel is delicious. Those of you who are familiar with Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series will enjoy seeing two characters from the series eating dinner at Seconds restaurant and the running bread joke. That joke never gets stale.

The one weakness in the story is Max, Katie’s (not evil) ex-boyfriend. Their relationship is over when the novel begins, but we are shown their romantic history in a brief set of montage panels. A montage can convey a romantic relationship fairly well—consider how teary-eyed everyone gets while watching the first few minutes of Up. But a montage that glosses over important material weakens readers’ understanding of the characters in the piece. I found that if I looked too closely at the parts of Seconds that explore Max and Katie’s relationship, I started wondering why she’d want him back. He refers to himself as a “fake,” ends up in the restaurant business as a fluke, and is clearly not nearly as driven as Katie is when it comes to cooking and serving people. In one timeline he joins Katie in creating a new restaurant, but by letting Max into her plans, Katie ends up compromising on her dream to the point where it is unrecognizable.

That’s the message of Seconds in a nutshell: sometimes you compromise and sometimes you don’t. Would that we all had magical mushrooms to help us figure this all out.

Seconds captures all the chagrin and angst that accompanies hard life decisions and big changes. Those of you staring down the barrel of graduation or starting on new paths will enjoy reading Katie’s story. In fact, you’ll devour it.

-Contributed by Miranda Whittaker

Someday I’ll Be Part of Your (Underwater) World! A Discerning Investigation of Mermaid Swimming

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Image from Torontostar.com

This picture is real. It is not an optical illusion caused by a woman sitting on a rock and holding half a fish, as a certain comedy band  has suggested. These mermaids are real. You can learn to swim like a mermaid.

Mermaid swimming cam be approached as a recreational activity or as a performing art: a kind of underwater dancing. While researching mermaid swimming, I scrutinized the fantastical activity with the lens of my own experiences as a swimmer and as a dancer. Having done so, I feel the need to share my insight.

When I looked at videos of mermaid-style swimming my first thought was: “that looks like the most inefficient way to swim imaginable.”

You see, mermaids don’t really swim like fish. Most fish swim with tail fins that are vertical and swish from left to right. Mermaid tails, however, move horizontally because they are attached to human bodies with hip and knee joints. If anything, mermaids (both real and imaginary) swim more like dolphins. Mermaid swimming is also counter-intuitive compared to most other types of swimming because it relies on the swimmer using only one lower limb: a tail. Bipeds can simulate the feeling of swimming with a tail by wearing a large, single flipper, called a monofin, over their two feet and slipping into a long tail piece. The tail is made of close-clinging fabric, just like most swimsuits.

The undulating motion that mermaid swimmers use is similar to the dolphin kick (remember what I said above?). However, in competitive swimming, the dolphin kick includes a lot of vigorous arm motions to pull the swimmer forward in the water. Mermaid swimming does use arms, but the strokes are milder—they’re more for steering the swimmer while the tail provides most of the forward momentum.

Sounds like work, doesn’t it? When I researched the Weeki Wachee Mermaid performers in Florida (link to this piece: http://hellogiggles.com/town-full-mermaids-glorious/) I was struck both by the beauty of their dancing and by the effort it must take to do such strenuous swimming while appearing graceful and, of course, smiling all the while. Because mermaids are happy and friendly all the time, you see.

(And I thought my job was difficult!)

So, can anyone be a mermaid? Hard to say. The Montreal-based mermaid school, AquaMermaid (AquaSirène in French), has a website that states that their pupils include the young and the old, and people of all genders. However, the majority of the site’s photos, especially the examples of their offered photo shoots, are predominantly white, skinny, young women. There are a few young men (some buff, and some a little heavier), and there are some round-cheeked kids on the kids’ birthday party page. But most of the photos give the impression that only the kind of women who appear on magazine covers can be mermaids.

The same can be said for Weeki Wachee Mermaid performers. Looking alike seems to be part of their performance aesthetic. It would be interesting to see a mermaid show that had more diversity in their cast. Maybe we will if mermaid swimming becomes more popular.

Weeki Wachee’s performers must be not only fit, strong swimmers, but also good at holding their breath; they use a breathing tube rather than any kind of scuba device. The result is that breaths must be fit in alongside their choreography, so timing is vital.

Mermaid performances involve being totally underwater most of the time. Someone who floats naturally (like me) might have a tricky time submerging and staying submerged long enough to use their shimmery tail. However, recreational mermaid swimming allows for surfacing, so there is plenty of air to be had.

When I was on my school’s swim team, I had a hard time holding my breath for any length of time. I also loathed the dolphin kick. But I don’t care. Even if it’s difficult, even if it requires learning to move in new ways and to use muscles that will undoubtedly beg for mercy, I intend to try mermaid swimming. There’s talk about the AquaMermaid school opening a branch in Toronto, and I want in.

Like most children who watched Disney’s The Little Mermaid, I have often wondered what it would be like to swim like a mermaid, and to breathe and live underwater. And while I certainly cannot do the latter, the internet has taught me that I can acquire a tail, just as Ariel acquired legs—and I won’t even have to bargain with a sea witch.

Tails aren’t required for swimming, but wouldn’t you like one? This way we’ll be… be part of that world.

-Contributed by Miranda Whittaker

A Letter from the New Online Editor

Dear readers and contributors,

My name is Shahin, and I am going to be The Spectatorial’s Online Editor for the coming year. It is an honour to inherit Miranda’s legacy, and her mentorship gives me confidence in taking on this role.

This is The Spectatorial’s third year, and we have a lot of new faces and ideas on board. We have planned many exciting additions—but not to worry, they will not replace the beloved literary exploration we’re known for. We are merely broadening our focus to include speculative art, events, and the like in our coverage, and we hope that this helps The Spectatorial to grow into an inclusive, vibrant community of lovers of all things speculative.

We promise to continue our mission of celebrating the mystical, the unreal, and the unboundedness of the human imagination, and I hope that you will ride with us for another incredible year.

All my best,

Shahin Imtiaz.

A Letter from the (Old) Online Editor

Good afternoon,

This is an update on the transitions that are happening at The Spectatorial. We are in the process of changing our staff as many of us graduate from U of T and head off to explore other worlds. This includes the management of the blog and all our online platforms.

As of today, I am retiring as Online Editor. I leave the position and the blog in the capable hands of Shahin Imtiaz. The two of us have spoken at great lengths about what will come next for The Spectatorial’s blog, and I have to say that I’m excited for all of you. Next year will be full of new ideas, enthusiasm, and much speculation.

I hope all of you will keep on reading The Spectatorial, whether it’s the blog or the print journal–or both! It has been a pleasure to read and edit all of our writers’ work. I have been very, very lucky to learn from all of them and to serve as this year’s Online Editor. I wish all of our readers and writers the best.

Thank you one and all.

Sincerely,

Miranda Whittaker

Impractical Immortality: Do You Really Want to Live Forever?

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Image from moviepilot.com

Well, do you? Really?

The idea of immortality, in one form or another, comes up frequently in speculative fiction: elves, Timelords, divine beings, cursed humans, and undying monsters are all easy to find between pages and on screens. Immortality is often a flexible concept, ranging from gods that are all-powerful and cannot die but can—with the right spell, artifact or leverage with another rival god—be subdued, to creatures that can be slain but never fall prey to disease or the ravages of time. The latter includes Tolkien’s eternally beautiful elves and the sometimes benevolent—but usually malicious—Immortals of author Tamara Pierce’s fantasy kingdom Tortal.

Freedom from mortality may sound appealing to some of us, but as a wise wizard once said, “Humans do have a knack for choosing precisely those things which are worst for them.” Immortality is easily one of the worst things that heroes and villains have ever sought after.

For starters—there’s a catch. Always. Immortality comes at a price.

Sometimes the magic that makes you immortal also makes you susceptible to other, unfriendly forms of magic, or you find yourself unable to leave the cloister that the Sangrael is housed in, lest you lose all that you’ve gained. Maybe you get eternal life, but not eternal youth with it. I’m sure the Greek goddess Iris’ lover, who was granted the former but not the latter, would have much to say on the subject.

It is also likely that your immortality is dependent on you having your magic McGuffin on or near your person at all times, meaning that you’re at a disadvantage in life. Your magic ring or medal will be stolen, I promise you. It’s only a matter of time. In this case, the price of immortality is a life of looking over your shoulder, guarding your prize because your eternal life depends on it.

In other cases, the cost of immortality is too hideous to contemplate. Aloysius Crumrin, the aged warlock in the Courtney Crumrin comic series, is offered eternal life by an old flame—in the form of vampirism. He turns immortal life down but does accept her last elixir vitae; the potion lets him live a little longer despite his wasting illness. “Do I want to know what’s in it?” he asks the vampire. “No,” is her firm reply, and seeing as she herself keeps living by draining the life of others, it’s for the best that Aloysius doesn’t question her further.

And of course you’ll be lonely. How could you not be? You’ll outlive everyone you love.

In Ella Enchanted, the fairy godmother, Mandy, tells her goddaughter Ella that the Faeries tend to earn the ire of even their dearest human companions: “We’re immortal. That gets them mad…. [your mother] wouldn’t speak to me for a year when her father died.” The benefit of living to see a whole family line grow is somewhat tempered by knowing that you will have to bury them all.

Similarly, Skysong, the baby dragon who is born in Tortal away from other dragons and is raised by human mages, will outlive her guardian and all the mortal animals who become her friends.

And speaking of being lonely, it must be said that Captain America—who managed to survive a crash landing in the Arctic and being frozen there back during World War II—is starting to look very lonely, having outlived most of his comrades. He is stuck existing in a world that he doesn’t really belong to.

Even if you do your best to fit in the world you find yourself in, you won’t. Yuta, the protagonist of a manga series called Mermaid Saga, tries to live like a normal man after gaining immortality. But his wife can hardly fail to notice that, though she grows old over the years, he remains the young man she married. “I’m afraid of you,” she tells him. And who could blame her?

Finally, just what are you going to do with all that time?

Bowerick Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged devotes himself to insulting everyone, forever. If that sounds lame, consider that living forever will leave you running out of hobbies soon enough. You will run out of places to see and things to do because you will simply have too much time on your hands. If you have no plan, you’re doomed.

All that can truly occupy the immortal is watching history being made. This is a dubious prospect; ask the elves of Middle Earth. They never fail to seem jaded about the decisions made over the years, or the doings of the mortals around them. Elvenkind has simply seen too much to fully trust any other race; they remember too much.

Watching eras pass is bad enough, but living through them is much worse. Yuta lives through feudal wars, famine, the bombings of World War II, and murderous multigenerational feuds among those he befriends. Madame Xanadu loses her young lover in the witch-burning fervour of the Spanish Inquisition. And Wolverine seems to do nothing but get caught up in somebody’s war. For every triumph of humanity there are a dozen failures. History is a harsh place to live.

Take the Fame lyric “I’m gonna  live forever” literally and what you have is masochistic madness.

In the genres that ask “what if…?” any exploration of immortality yields fascinating answers. The concept of immortality and the presence of immortal characters in fiction forces us to take a long look at the way we live our lives. An immortal traveler who has seen far too much once said that “A longer life isn’t always a better one.”

What happens if you do away with mortality, a fundamental part of our humanity ? Nothing that we would ever really want.

-contributed by Miranda Whittaker

From Panel to Festival: The Toronto Comic Arts Festival is Coming Super Soon!

Frequent readers of this blog are no doubt aware that we at The Spectatorial love comics. And while not all comics are speculative—just as not all comics are about super heroes—some of the finest spec fic out there does indeed exist in the panels of comic books and graphic novels. And many of the best comic books and graphic novels can be found at TCAF, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival.

TCAF is an annual public literary festival that takes place in the Toronto Reference Library. The atrium of the library, a massive space, is transformed into an exhibiting space for comics: big publishers, small presses, and comic book stores. There are also readings, presentations, gallery shows, and much, much more.

Many artists are launching their books at this year’s festival, including Dakota McFadzean, who is releasing a collection of his Dailies helpfully entitled Don’t Get Eaten by Anything. Chip Zdarszy, co-creator of the sci-fi comic Sex Criminals, will also be there, and if you haven’t picked up a copy of that comic yet, now’s an excellent time.

Then there is SuperMutant Magic Academy, by Jillian Tamaki who c0-created the graphic novel Skim with Mariko Tamaki. Personally, I cannot wait to get my hands on this book! We all know that teenage angst is best portrayed in a school for the mutated and magical. And we all agree that high school would’ve been much more fun if we had had paranormal powers while we were there.

Both traditional print and webcomics are exhibited at TCAF, existing peacefully side-by-side. Webcomic artists bring glorious print editions of the stories that so many people read online. Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona is a favourite of mine (super heroes combined with swords and sorcery charm me every time). I have had the pleasure to meet the creators of many webcomics that I adore—and I have been embarrassingly star-struck every time. Go say hello to Aaron Diaz, of Dresden Codak fame; I promise you will not be half as awkward as I am every year!

But you don’t have to dash off to join the signing lines of famous artists or only talk to the creators whose work you know. Browse around to discover something new! One of the greatest joys of TCAF is the chance to discover a new comic series or graphic novel by simply going over to a display that catches your eye. Artists are generally perfectly happy to tell you anything you want to know about their work, and there’s nothing quite like the spark that lights up in their eyes when you ask: “What’s your comic about?” This moment is unique. Even the most magical bookstore in town (and we have a few) can’t show you the author’s joy at your interest in their book.

Then there’s the people-watching. Comic book nerds tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves—and T-shirts and hats and letter bags and hoodies. You will see a beautiful variety of people: parents with toddlers on their back and comics in hand, art students, bookish types who look like librarians, actual librarians, folks giving a nod to cosplay with a pair of fake ears (usually cat ears), and older folks who probably read the first Sandman comic when it came out in 1989. Everybody you can imagine reads comics. Gaze around you, take in the crowd—and the next time somebody tries to tell you that comics are for kids, you tell them what you saw in that library atrium.

So now that your pulse is racing at the thought of attending TCAF, get thee to the Toronto Reference Library! TCAF is a free public event and only happens once a year. No matter if you can only make it out for one day or both (May 9 and 10), you will find that the wide world of comics will welcome you with open arms.

For more info about TCAF, and the events leading up to the festival weekend, check out their beautiful website.

-contributed by Miranda Whittaker