Thursday, 13 January 2011

Review: Baba Yaga and the Wolf, Tin Can Forest

Tin Can Forest | Koyama Press, 2010 | 28 pages, 23x30cm, full colour | $15 | ISBN 978-0-9784810-5-6

Although the arcane forest of Baba Yaga and the Wolf couldn’t be further from the prosaic streets of American Splendor, I couldn’t help but think of the late, great Harvey Pekar’s iconic defence of comic books whilst reading it: “you can do anything with words and pictures”. Tin Can Forest—the Toronto-based team of artists Marek Colek and Pat Shewchuk—obviously share the same conviction, embedding this classic Slavic folk-tale with new magic via their inspired use of graphic narrative.

Ostensibly a follow-up to Coleck and Shewchuk's 2008 collection, Pohádky (“folk tales” in Czetch), readers are presented with a world where the natural and supernatural coexist freely, and deals with the devil are part of the status quo. The story itself focuses on Katarina, a woman desperately seeking help in order to cure her fatally-ill husband, Ivan. Ivan, as it turns out, is a lycanthrope, a condition he contracted as a result of an occult body-switching fratricide he committed as a younger man. When things are this weird, who better to call than a witch? In this case, the best known witch of Eastern-European folklore, the Baba Yaga.

The subject of countless reiterations over time, Baba Yaga has been portrayed as everything from a maniacal, child-eating hag to a deistic guardian of nature. With a clear reverence of their source material, Colek and Shewchuk embrace the plurality of the character, depicting her both as a benevolent shamanic healer and an omnipotent harbinger of death. This dichotomy is best illustrated by the “remedy” that she provides Katarina, stuffing Ivan full of chamomile and wormwood and burying him in the garden. Taking holistic medicine to the extreme, if the plants within him survive through the summer, he will return home, cured. 


A nod to the oral traditions that inform the story, the events that befall Ivan and Katarina are delivered retrospectively from the perspective of Katarina’s youngest sister. Now an elderly woman passing down the story to her great-grandchild, the veracity of the story is unclear. Time and space fold into one another as her words float across the richly-detailed images of the forest, sometimes hovering above the action, sometimes emanating from within, via speech-bubbles from the characters’ mouths. 

Tin Can Forest subvert—or at the very least play with—the traditional conventions of comic books to match the poetic nature of the story. Characters move between panels with dream-like fluidity and panel borders barely exist. I found myself reminded of cinematic auteurs like Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro, and even Luis Buñuel, in the way Tin Can Forest disassemble and rebuild their chosen format to create something breathtaking and unique. 


Ethereal and perplexing, Baba Yaga and the Wolf continues publisher Koyama Press’ reputation of being on the forefront of exciting, progressive comic and graphic novel work. As much of a celebration of folk narrative as it is the potentials of the humble comic book, it is a real triumph for its creative team and deserves to be read by a wider audience. Above all else, it is proof that with enough creativity and understanding of the form, you can do anything with words and pictures.



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