One of the things I have come to admire so much about Canadian publisher Conundrum Press is that they have no easily categorised brand identity. If you sift through our recent Broken Frontier coverage of their output you will see a sequential art publishing list that doesn’t so much embrace eclecticism but redefines it. It’s why they have become one of my favourite North American publishers in recent years, and also why I feel a degree of frustration that their books don’t receive far more acclaim than they do. Sonja Ahlers’ Swan Song is one such example. A non-narrative collection of fragmentary reflections that asks the reader to both infer and project meaning from and on her unique visual language.
The third collection of similar work, Ahlers defines Swan Song as “a memory book for dreams, daydreams, memories and thoughts” which is a definition that feels, simultaneously, fittingly all-encompassing and yet also rather inadequate for what is to come. A compilation of zine-style collages of illustration, photography and text with a distinctly DIY culture feel, Ahlers reflects in these pages on womanhood, artistic practice, online interactions and existential angst, with a presentational style that certainly sits within the broad environs of the ever growing strand of graphic poetry.
Ethereal and almost ephemeral in its meditations, Swan Song is a dreamlike journey through the psyche – classical-style art juxtaposed with Instagram posts about Sex and the City, abundant Victoriana, frequent visitations from forest animals, and period photos of distressed Beatles fans sit next to text that can sometimes feel universally recognisable and sometimes oblique in message. “Learn from how people in the arts react to criticism”; “I can see the good in a maggot”; “A beautifully prepared CV will not get you the job if your art or its documentation is weak”; “Hold on. Pain ends”; and “You were just an idea. I was in love with the idea.” All examples of how creator intent and audience interpretation can converge to create something unique for each individual reader.
Is this comics? That’s a matter for debate and, to a degree, I’m not even sure Swan Song graphic narrative in the strictest sense. But it is visual storytelling, albeit of a sort that asks you to extract your own meaning from its seemingly random procession of text and imagery. Swan Song is a mirror to those splinters of memory which sit within the subconscious, never to coalesce into a greater whole but still symbolising one in their fragmentary shards of being.
Sonja Ahlers (W/A) • Conundrum Press, $20.00
Review by Andy Oliver