Co-published by 2D Cloud and Uncivilized Books, Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories compiles nearly 400 pages of MariNaomi’s autobiographical comic strips, for the main part originally published online on The Rumpus. The 29 short stories in this volume consist of a collection of acutely observed vignettes from the artist’s life beginning with the titular tale, and range from her childhood days, to rebellious teenage years through to the tumultuous ups, downs and more downs of adulthood.
Over the years I’ve reviewed many comics in the slice-of-life/diary/autobio strand in ‘Small Pressganged’ and it hardly needs mentioning that personal anecdotal storytelling is particularly well represented in the small press and micropublishing community this column seeks to promote. What’s so distinctive about Dragon’s Breath amongst its many peers, though, is the way in which so many of the stories herein beg you after reading them to just put the book down for a few minutes and reflect on the emotional truths at their core.
In the opening story ‘Dragon’s Breath’, the short that the project takes its title from, the duality of identity – of our subjective perception of character and the “objective” actuality of it – is beautifully underlined. Here, MariNaomi juxtaposes her younger memories of the loving grandfather who always had time for her with the violent, racist alcoholic that others remember. This compact but profound tale is more than merely a commentary on how we can never entirely stop seeing aspects of our personal realities through childhood eyes, it’s also almost a statement of intent for the next few hundred pages. Because these are comics that embrace the uncomfortable realities of the human experience; work that is unafraid to ask awkward questions but also brave enough to leave them hanging there unanswered.
The fleeting nature of the here and now, and retrospective thoughts on lives that either significantly or tangentially touched our own, are constant themes. In ‘Mr. Vanoni’, a forgotten teacher is finally memorialised with understated grace while in ‘The Quits’ a much-loved aunt’s vibrant, assured younger years are contrasted with her painful final days. Similarly, ‘When You’re Young’ is a moving attempt to claw back a fondly remembered period of time – a friendship that was deeply valued yet also painfully ephemeral – underlining again the transitory nature of so many of those relationships we build our lives around.
The stylistic approaches on show here fluctuate noticeably from what are essentially densely packed illustrated stories rather than comics – a pensive essay on the hoped-for redemption of an old boyfriend in ‘Gone’ for example – through to the Simon Moreton-esque level of minimalism in ‘Happy Place’ wherein an entire community’s feelings of comfort and security are intruded upon by a violent crime. It’s those entries where events are stripped back to more or less an image a page where the creator most noticeably finds her own unique voice, however. ‘What’s New, Pussycat?’ (see trailer above) is a particularly powerful example of this. An account of a socially clumsy acquaintance leading up to his eventual suicide, MariNaomi’s use here of expanses of white space around one single illustration forces the audience to dwell much longer on each page, slowing down the reading experience, and accentuating the desperate poignancy of the piece.
As one would expect in a collection of this type, romantic entanglements are given substantial time. Interestingly, the most effective strip on this theme is ‘Whole’ in which no partner actually appears; its use of visual metaphor, and its focus on repercussion rather than exposition, successfully communicating inner turmoil with a subtle potency. There are changes of pace here and there that break up the more contemplative material. ‘Sleep Deprived’ is a bleakly comedic recounting of bedbug infestation, for example, but Dragon’s Breath is at its best when it’s either challenging our perceptions of what we think we know about people – the lonely but slightly creepy old lady with hidden depths in ‘Coalinga’ or the reformed bully in ‘Kick-Ass Boots’ – or examining the associated persistent hold that individual memories retain.
The potential of lost moments, temporal echoes reverberating into our present lives, the influence of seemingly smaller moments as they combine to shape us into the people we become… this is the stuff of Dragon’s Breath. MariNaomi brings us so firmly into her world that for those few transitory pages of each strip we feel like an intrinsic part of it. If you read just one autobiographical comics collection this year then you should probably make sure it’s this one.
For more on the work of MariNaomi visit her site here. You can order Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories here priced $24.95. For those in London in the UK Dragon’s Breath is currently available in Gosh! Comics.
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