Rebecca Rosen’s Flem is a deliberately challenging comic on a number of levels. It’s a book which asks the reader to interpret and find meaning in its protagonist Julia Maarten’s plight and her interplay with her environment, and it’s one that employs immersive and often overwhelming colour schemes to signify both mood and the chaos of its central character’s being. We don’t as much read about Julia’s life as absorb it; interacting with the page almost instinctively as well as observationally.
When we first meet Julia Maarten her world is gradually falling apart. She’s failing at art school, having had to repeat her final year and running out of finances very quickly. She’s also haunted by the ghost of her dead mother; a difficult relationship that has shaped her and one that is elaborated on as the book progresses. And she has a lingering nasal infection that seems to be linked to a never abandoned childhood nervous habit of picking at her nose. Falling in with a group of perfomance art political activists she begins again in a Brussels squat. But, while Julia looks for a sense of identity and belonging in her new life, her existence is about to spiral out of control…
The fascinating contradiction at the heart of Flem is that in seeking to define her sense of self and purpose, Julia loses sight of herself in the process. Rosen’s use of colour is almost hallucinogenic in its intensity but it reflects its protagonist’s declining grasp on her own situation and her ever shifting moods. Dark flights of fancy impinge on reality as, incrementally, we begin to understand the childhood influences that have shaped Julia’s adult interactions. Providing further clues are the interspersed linocut illustrations from her student art show that emphasise how haunted she remains by her mother’s illness and the circumstances of her death. Even lettering is used to add to the sense of discombobulation and fragility of Julia’s world.
A fever dream of a comic, Flem is both a technically accomplished use of the mechanics of the form to embed theme in presentation and a compelling character study of a damaged woman in crisis, desperately looking to find identity and purpose in activism and camaraderie.
Rebecca Rosen (W/A) • Conundrum Press, $20.00
Review by Andy Oliver