AVAILABLE AT THOUGHT BUBBLE!
No doubt Katriona Chapman’s Follow Me In from Avery Hill Publishing will be broadly classified as a graphic travelogue, part of that burgeoning strand of graphic memoir that has had such a pivotal role in recent years in bringing a wider crossover audience to the medium. While it does indeed fill that role, Chapman’s first full-length offering is a far more layered affair than that. It’s a story of self-discovery, of connecting with our creativity and of knowing when it’s time to let go. It’s beautiful, devastating and hauntingly fragile in equal measure. And it’s going to be on every annual awards and “best of” lists at the end of 2018.
Chapman’s autobiographical account looks back on her post-university years and a momentous, life-changing trip to Mexico she took with her boyfriend Richard. It’s set at a point in her life when she hadn’t been drawing for five years and follows the couple as they travel across the country, immersing themselves in its culture and history. But, despite having given up their jobs to embark on this trip, there are underlying tensions in their relationship. Richard has a clear problem with alcohol, one that will constantly overshadow their travels…
I first reviewed Kat Chapman’s work over six years ago here at Broken Frontier and have watched as her storytelling confidence has grown and developed, from those early self-published comics and anthology contributions to her Broken Frontier Award-winning slice-of-life series Katzine. Follow Me In is the book all that practice has been leading up to. It combines so many of the themes and approaches of her work to date: her love of the natural world and travel, her sometimes painfully honest autobio, and those informative illustrated text pieces that have become such a staple of Katzine.
From the outset we know we are following a relationship that is ultimately doomed. Follow Me In begins some years later with an awkward meeting between Katriona and Richard before flashing back to one key moment from their Mexico trip that will set the scene for much of what is to follow. Visiting a small village to observe the Day of the Dead festivities (and feeling self-conscious about whether that in itself is an intrusion) Katriona realises Richard is missing. When he reappears, clearly inebriated and physically ill, it signals to the reader the dual narratives of the book; at the heart of this gorgeously illustrated personal guide to Mexico there’s a much darker, far more human drama playing out.
Over the next 200-plus pages the audience take on the role of fellow tourists with the couple, encountering everything from the majesty of archaeological sites like the pyramid of Cholula and the Totonac pyramid at Yohualichan to a boat trip through the Sumidero Canyon. We experience not just the splendour of their surroundings though but also some of its harsher realities (including a hospital visit linked to drinking the local tap water and some more spartan choices of accommodation). Throughout, they throw themselves into the customs and rituals of the places they visit, rarely mixing with other travellers but soaking in the local culture. Regular followers of Chapman’s black and white work will find her spectacular use of colour an absolute revelation in these pages as Mexico comes to vibrant, vivid life on the page.
Interspersed are some of the stylistic devices that longer-term Chapman fans will quickly recognise as a trademark element of her work. Text-based, illustrated double=spreads give informative breakdowns of the history and geography of the regions and places they visit and also a look at social conditions and the origins of the local customs. There are also some endearingly indulgent background details – a breakdown of how they packed and carried their sparse belongings over the months or a meditation on drawing on holiday for example. Also dotted throughout are some of Chapman’s original sketches from the trip, adding an extra authenticity to the proceedings.
Forever lurking in the background, though, is the spectre of Richard’s drinking, bubbling up to the surface of Katriona’s thoughts and portrayed via the intermittent visual metaphor of a constrictive green serpent.
Follow Me In is undoubtedly a stunning visual treat but Chapman’s pages, for all their immediate, overwhelming beauty are also indicative of a comics craftsperson with subtler storytelling skills. She knows when to step back from narration and let the magnificence of the surroundings speak for themselves in gorgeous silent panels, and is confident enough to do so. While the on-page Kat’s inner monologue regarding the effects of Richard’s drinking problems is a raw and often distressing one to read, she is also just as expressive in moments of quieter visual characterisation. Her hurt and Richard’s shame are so often eloquently communicated with just a look or with body language that says all that is needed in itself.
Such is the power of Follow Me In that within a couple of pages we can move from experiencing a sense of breathtaking awe at Mexico’s natural wonder to feeling the inescapable sadness of a disintegrating relationship. Portents and visual metaphors are woven in and out of the narrative, as themes and motifs begin to echo and mirror each other; one scene outside a butterfly sanctuary being a particularly poignant example of the symbolism of the impending end of the couple’s time together.
Follow Me In is a book chronicling an undoubted life-changing journey for Katriona Chapman. But that journey is manifested as much in personal, creative and emotional terms as it is in geographical ones. A perfect synthesis of comics, graphic narrative and illustration, Follow Me In is a triumph of graphic memoir and our Broken Frontier debut Graphic Novel of the Festival at this year’s Thought Bubble.
Follow Me In launches at Thought Bubble 2018 on Friday September 21st at Travelling Man. More details here. There’s also a London launch event at Gosh! Comics on Friday September 28th. Full information here.
Review by Andy Oliver