by Derek Royal
A man wakes up in a densely wooded area with a bleeding head and one missing shoe. He can’t remember how he got there, and more disturbingly, he can’t remember exactly who he is. It’s night, it’s raining, and he’s prey to who-knows-what lurking in the dark. He soon discovers a friendly dog who accompanies him through the forest, and then at daylight, they chance upon a clearing where there had once been a dwelling. He rebuilds the shelter in time for nightfall. Just when all seems to be looking up, a giant dragon swoops out of nowhere and demolishes his hut.
Thus begins the first part of Alec Longstreth’s Basewood, a narrative that begins realistically enough, but soon takes on a more fantastic tone. As the story unfolds, you get the sense that you’re reading a modern-day fable complete with all the requisite actants: a hero, a guide or helper figure, a companion, a helpful “goddess” figure, and of course a nemesis. Indeed, the trials of the protagonist in Longstreth’s story, Ben, could easily be read in light of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He undergoes sort of a hero’s journey. Ben experiences a call to adventure (in the form of invention and promises of flight), there is a threshold guardian (arguably his wife, Caren), he meets an older figure who serves as a mentor (Argus, who lives in a treehouse and has a fascinating backstory of his own), he undergoes challenges that he meets with the help of companions (Argus, Argus’s dog, and even Caren), he encounters a nemesis or shadow figure who becomes his biggest threat (the aforementioned dragon), this contributes to his moment of “death” that eventually leads to rebirth and renewal (as well as unexpected births), and there is a meeting with a goddess that becomes transformative (again, his wife, Caren) and eventually contributes to Ben’s return home. Yet, there is a strain of realism that nonetheless runs throughout.
Also contributing to the narrative’s folklorish tone is its lack of any geographic or temporal anchors. Longstreth sets his story in no particular place or historical period, giving Basewood a feeling of timelessness. As a result, and without any extradiegetic markers of time or space, we feel directly embedded in the storyworld that Longstreth has created. The heavily wooded region, called Basewood, the exposed clearing, and the dangerously steep cliffs compose a world we become deeply intimate with as the story progresses. This is the only space in which the current adventures occur — there are other regions, smaller communities, that are introduced, but only in flashback and presented metadiegetically — so it’s the only place we really get to know. And Longstreth presents this world in fine detail, filling his black-and-white panels with tight crosshatching, textured surfaces, and subtle uses of shadow. He’s meticulous in the mise en page, and he also uses border shading to effectively transition to and from analepses. His characters are drawn minimally, yet they display a visual depth that contributes to their three-dimensonality. Casually glimpsing through the book, it might be easy to mistake his art for simplistic, but it’s actually a more refined iconic style, the kind found in the comics of Brian Ralph and Jeffrey Brown.
Basewood originally appeared serially in Longstreth’s self-published Phase 7 comics, issues #5 – #9, and the structure of the narrative, in five chapters, follows its original form. In fact, Longstreth makes available older back issues of his comics free on his website, so readers could go there to get not only a taste of Basewood, but the entire story as well. But doing so would deny you of the full reading experience. Much of the pleasure of Basewood can be found in its single-volume format, a beautiful hardbound 8 1/2 x 11 1/2 book that utilizes the large pages in ways that are missing from the archived digital version. The book is definitely the better way to take in Longstreth’s visuals — not to mention, the better way of financially supporting the artist — and if you want individual issues of Phase 7 comics, you can buy current issues (or buy a four-issue subscription) directly from the author’s website. Indeed, issue #20 of the comic, due out this summer, is described as a companion to the new graphic novel, one that includes outlines, scripts, character sketches, building designs, reference photos, and other material used in the creation of Basewood. Also, the issue comes with an audio CD, titled Songs from the Basewood, containing eighteen tracks and accompanying lyrics. How many comics can say that they have an official soundtrack?
One of the beauties of Basewood is that it’s a journey tale without the usual conventions of “adventure.” There are no grand sword fights, there is no tangible quest, you won’t find many fantastical creatures, the cast of characters is modest, there are no otherworldly or underworldly encounters, and the narrative stage is limited to a tightly confined geography. In fact, with Longstreth’s emphasis on relationships, grief, and longing, readers can easily see Ben’s dilemma as an approximation of their own. Except in this particular story, there’s a fire-breathing dragon and a way-cool treehouse.
Pick up Alec Longstreth’s works as well as those of other creators mentioned in this review: