Something I’ve noticed as a recent trend in comics is a style that somewhat trades in primitivism or outsider art on the surface, but in reality is a sophisticated integration of word and text. The plastic qualities of text are not something separate to be read in the comic, but instead are meant to be looked at as much as the other images on the page. As a result, the way each page is composed and meant to be read is dramatically different from what Westerners are used to in comics. The artists I’m thinking of working this particular corner include Austin English, Juliacks and most recently Olga Volozova. She passed by Dylan Williams’ Sparkplug booth at a show, found herself drawn to what was on the table, and then asked if she could submit something to him for publication. Her comics fit neatly into the Sparkplug aesthetic: idiosyncratic, personal and with a touch of the fantastic.
The Airy Tales is a series of short stories with deliberately open endings: fairy tales with morals or instructive qualities. Roughly the first half of the book is in full color (watercolors, if I’m not mistaken) and the back half contains line drawings with a single tone. It takes a moment for the reader to adjust to the way she composes a page. In some of the stories, the text dances around a center image, twisting around it in unusual ways. In other stories, the text is incorporated directly into the image, like part of leaves on a tree or falling raindrops. The small commitment it takes as a reader to engage Volozova’s work is rewarded by the fully realized worlds she creates.
This is especially true starting with the second story in the collection, “Mukamuka Lives In The Rain”. It’s about a man whose house is made of raindrops, an elusive figure who is able to touch other lives in strange ways. His telling a crying boy to embrace his crying causes his tears to magically produce what he wants. He briefly turned the passengers on a bus into crystal goblets because he wanted to hear the sound of ringing, an experience that brought them closer together. He gave a woman a magic bird that eventually lifted her burdens. This is a perfect example of the range of Volozova’s imagination, exploring a character and idea and taking it as far as it would reveal itself to her.
Even more open-ended is “The Tree People”, a story about people who lived in a tree that was like a house, or a house that was like a tree (depending on one’s perspective). There’s a progression in this story as each family or individual on each leaf grew, but was distracted by a man in a yellow sweater who had—and seemed to desire—nothing; and his leaf drifted ever higher every time the wind blew. This is a story about the inevitability of transformation butting up against the foundations we try to root ourselves in. Like every other story here, it’s open-ended but it’s strongly implied that this transformation is not to be feared, and clinging to it is illusory.
“The Rooster” is a story about art and spectacle, and whether or not there’s a difference between the two. It’s the most conventionally drawn piece in the book, with its bright colors giving it a bit more weight than some of the other stories. “The Moon Birds” is a very matter-of-fact description of the birds who live on the moon and control humanity with threads that they manipulate, tying into the first story of the book, “The Golden Thread” by giving a backstory to the phenomemon of a man discovering that everyone is being manipulated from above by strings. “The Moon Birds” is almost like a nature documentary in the way it describes the different kinds of birds, how they interact with human souls, etc. There’s not really a standard plot here, but it doesn’t matter because once again Volozova thrusts us into the world of her imagination and the reader feels compelled to take a look around.
The last set of vignettes, “The Street Walkers”, has an almost Ben Katchor-esque quality. She introduces us to a man made of ice cream who is in danger of being licked to death, a crow and a street pole who meet cute, a man with an artificial smile who has it worn away, a snow hat that no one dared to wear, and a man who lost everything—including his head. Each of these little vignettes is a sheer delight, documenting the lives of people in a city whom the reader really gets to know in a short span of time. Volozova finishes the book with her most direct integration of word and image, “The Shelltales”. They’re about a scholar who discovers that crying and laughter come from the tip of one’s nose, and a country where everyone only begins everything and another where everyone ends everything. Here, Volozova blurs the difference between text and image, with words morphing into illustrations and illustrations acting as part of a sentence. Like any good fairy tale, this is a book aimed at adults that children should be able to enjoy as well. Volozova is already quite ambitious, and I’ll be quite interested in seeing how she evolves as a creator as she refines her talent.